Rooting Compassion

IMG_2310When I was little, but big enough to know that owning a pony of my own was out of the question, I was promised a pet when we got a bigger place. The house was on the market, in the hope it would be sold before I started school. Ten years later, having moved house, our family got a puppy. A golden retriever puppy, because temperament. And he went to puppy training and came near top of his class, and was socialised properly, and generally domesticated.

Apart from, my mother’s world outside the new house was becoming scary. So, taking the puppy in the car was a faff, and having people to the house was suddenly difficult, because the dog might attack them. As her world got smaller, so did the puppy’s. And he became territorial and aggressive around other dogs on the walks he did go on, and my parents couldn’t possibly leave him in the house for more than a few hours, nor could they take him out far. I came to detest that dog, for narrowing my parents’ world, as mine was narrowed in turn. When he died, prematurely, of an illness, I was working abroad, and felt nothing around his loss. My parents and brother did. I was alien.

I did not seem to.emotionally connect to animals – or people. My jobs have each lasted a couple of years at a time – the longest for five years – and in them, I have gotten along as best I can with colleagues, and attributed any benevolence on their part to collegiality and the duty of the job, and felt deserving of the malevolence and doormatting I otherwise experienced, because I am not a likeable person, and people liked my work, not me, anyway.

By the same token, I understood intellectually, at some level, that God loved me. But at the same time, I convinced myself, God hated me for what I was, and was angry with me for feeling as I did, let alone my behaviour towards others. I could not tolerate sitting with the knowledge – feeling the knowledge that God loved me. It was too painful to comprehend.

Amidst some more nasty malevolence, a group of friends at one university supported me, and accompanied me to Taizé for the first time, and ran to meet me when I returned their way months later. Years later, all those remaining there, plus some I didn’t know were still there came out to meet me for a drink whilst I was on a flying trip, with less than 24 hours’ notice. My belief that I am unlikeable has been challenged by them, time and again.

It is scary to believe that others might like me, and genuinely want me around, rather than simply be tolerating my presence for the sake of what I can do for them. As I continue in the therapeutic community, I am coming to feel the loss of other members more, as they move on. I am now the most senior member there. I don’t want to leave not just because the future is uncertain and frightening, but because I don’t want to lose the support of people I have come to know and trust deeply these last months. I am aware of my connections to others, no longer numb to the warmth I feel towards them.

I am feeling that particularly acutely this week. My cat is ill. The cat that holds bad memories of time with my ex-partner, whom I am left looking after thanks to his behaviour, until he is out of prison, is unwell. Previously, these defences, reasons I shouldn’t care emotionally for the cat would have kept me distanced from her. I take her to the vet, and she has to have tests, and she might be seriously unwell. And I am moved and sad and I want to hug her tight. She has spent months snuggled into the crook of my arm, or kneading my lap whilst I wept and wept. I don’t want her (or any animal) to suffer. But more than that, I don’t want to lose her. Loving others is deep joy. And deep pain.

 

 

 

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Square One

Spin the clock back a few years. I am spending a morning in Fenwick’s (erstwhile, delightful department store in West London) with my mother. We go to their cafe. I have orange juice. I want orange juice in a carton. My mother buys it for me, in a glass. I am told it is exactly the same orange juice as was in the carton. It’s just in a glass. I meltdown completely. I wanted orange juice in a carton. 

I have no memory of this event. Neither my mother nor I have any idea why I objected so strongly to orange juice in a glass. Or why I wanted orange juice in a carton. All I know is what I am told: that my two-year-old mind could not handle the situation. I ruined the coffee break. Was left screaming in the buggy. I am frequently and often reminded of this, and of several other meltdowns. I don’t know what to say to my mother to stop her repeating the story. What she wants me to say to her. I cannot remember what happened.  I was an impossibly difficult daughter to parent.

This week, I feel I am back in that department store cafe. As much as I cannot  remember why I was so aggrieved aged two years, this time, no one in the room understands why I am angry. I am angry at the ablist language being used in a psychological model.  Attempts are made to explain why I should not be angry about that: why this language is okay. It is not. It is discriminatory and negative and diminishing to use it in this context. I cannot explain why this language is not OK; why I am so angry, why I am so triggered. I recall that I was triggered before when this model  presented itself, nine months ago. That I said as much then, and was dismissed. Nothing in the way the model is presented has changed. No acknowledgement is made of the use of ablist language in it. Everyone is annoyed at me for being so angry. I dissolve. I am left alone, angry and ashamed.

And I am back at square one. When I entered the therapeutic community, one of my key goals was to be able to turn down the dial on my anger, to feel it less intensely, and to be able to express it more calmly. This week has shown that I can do none of these things. I am frightened of how angry I am. I want to hurt people; really hurt them. I need to hurt myself, to stop that from happening; to contain the anger. No one can contain my anger; it is too strong.

It is too strong, and I am despairing because it feels like I have not changed at all. When push comes to shove, and something really gets to me, I get lost in anger.  I am still angry as angry, days later. I cannot make them understand. I am trying upon trying not to cut. I have not yet cut. Cutting would take me back to the start line.  God, please quell this anger, before it consumes me. 

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Inside out

The first time I went away from home, I was eleven. Eleven years-old is far too old to go away overnight for the first time. I wasn’t just going away overnight. I was going away for four nights, over a hundred miles from home, on a PGL adventure.

I did not cope well. I struggled to look after myself; to shower without getting my towel or clothes wet; to get into a shower and changed again in time – because there weren’t enough showers and my classmates had gotten into them ahead of me. To carry all of my things. To get in and out of a sleeping bag, one-handed. To work out what clothes I needed for which activities and when. To keep up. Basic, everyday self-care was exhausting and I was hardly sleeping. On Wednesday, we went canoeing and I scraped my finger. I barely stopped crying for the rest of the week. I was struggling with being away, and I wanted desperately to go home, to be cared for.

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At PGL, aged eleven years

Memories of that holiday, and several experience since, leave me scared of strong emotion. Once I had started crying, for the most benign of reasons, I was overwhelmed with the pain of being away and missing home. When strong  emotion threatens now, I suppress it. Push it down. I am scared, with that strength of feeling, that if I started crying, I would not be able to stop. I distract and try to forget. Zip myself tight shut.

I did that extensively last week after something had upset me. Each time a fresh wave f emotion hit, I breathed and let it roil over me. Better that than give in to it. But it got stronger. And stronger. And then someone told me why I was hurting, and acknowledged the hurt and the pain and I broke. And cried with them for a long while. But they also helped me to ground and to gather myself in, and to breathe again.

They say that I am more resilient now than I was. I don’t feel different inside. The hurt still hurts as intensely as ever it did, and I still try to ignore it and the  voices that tell me I feel this way because I am no good, “rotten, rotten, rotten,” as much as possible. But when I can voice the pain, the tears don’t last for an eternity. I can calm down again. The distress is manifest (I am told) to a lesser extreme. The external is different. Maybe, it follows from that, that my internal world can change, too. It seems I am changing from the outside-in.

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The scars remain

pexels-photo-813269.jpeg“the trees are the same through all the sorrowful people who have passed under them, that the stars remain”

Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

[CONTENT WARNING: SELF HARM]

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t bite or scratch or pick at my skin; hangnails and the like. I’d peel the skin off, carefully, often leaving the area raw and bleeding. Sometimes, it wasn’t hangnails; I would scratch and scratch at my body, leaving fresh tears, opening up new wounds.

One day, at university, and alone in the flat, that wasn’t enough anymore. I took a knife from the kitchen to my arm. The self-harming was addictive. As compelling as picking at my skin had been, so cutting became. It went from a random act, to a weekly, then a daily thing. As a means to control the guilt and hurt that threatened to overwhelm me, it worked. The physical pain focused my mind, left me calm. Atoned.

Apart from, as coping mechanisms go, it wasn’t effective. It calmed my mind, for sure, but the mistakes and fall-outs and relationship breakdowns that left me feeling I wanted to harm, weren’t resolved by the cutting. Since entering the Therapeutic Community, I have battled and battled with urges towards self-harm; towards feeling rubbish and worthless. Not self-harming is a boundary around being a member of a Therapeutic Community.

The last time I cut was eleven months ago. The urges had waned. Another part of being in the community is letting go of harm. Last week, with the help of other members, I packed up my blades, and handed them in. I had those blades for twelve years. I look at my arms and see the scars, and strong emotion, hurt and pain, bays at my door. And I want to cut, and I want to cut, and I want to cut. The urge is stronger because I know that I cannot. I feel the loss of those blades: I want them back.

I am frightened to trust the community to hold the sheer strength of emotion that the blades contained for me. I need to cut. I am scared of trusting in the care and validation. It was safer to isolate myself, hurt only myself.

The care is real. I do not understand it. All I can do at the moment is, in spite of the scars, cling to the fact that people hear the negative emotion, the depth of the horrid, and they still want to care. God is care. God is community.

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Acknowledgement

Well, that’s annoying, isn’t it?

I understand that.

My brother, on the ‘phone to his partner this weekend. It was her who was running late; him unafraid to express how that made him feel; her validating that. Validation is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past couple of years. Simply put, and as I understand it, it is holding, and accepting as real, communication of another person’s thoughts and feelings, without judgement.

It’s something I’ve had to get to grips with, because it was not something I experienced as a child. The most frequent line I heard at home was, “you have no reason to be [insert feeling of choice]”. Whatever I was feeling was wrong and inaccurate, if not  impossible to feel, in light of the situation, be it cold, hungry, sad or anxious. Being angry was out of the question. As a young adult, the message changed slightly. It was not that my feelings were impossible, so much as unhelpful. Rather than “you can’t be feeling ….”, the line was, “don’t feel …., you should feel ….. instead”. That left me feeling even more wrong than before. I wasn’t feeling what I should be feeling. I was alien.

I have been working on the premise that my family can’t actually do validation, because my parents never learnt how to do it themselves. But this weekend was a stark indication that this is not true. There were multiple examples of validation. Of honest communication, “that’s embarrassing…. that’s frustrating….that music is too loud” and accepting responses. “I get that… I understand”.With one exception. Buoyed by recent work on assertiveness, I also made requests; stated how I felt. But in contrast to the validating responses of others, I was met with laughter and was told I was being silly. Or simply ignored completely. The childhood pattern repeats. It is my emotions that are wrong, wrong, wrong. That stung.

fawn

In the therapeutic community, these last two weeks, I have not been OK. I have felt stressed and exhausted and hurt in various ways. Cut off from the tears, I have simply stated that I am not OK. But rather than being told that I look OK, don’t appear to be distressed, I am met with concern and heard. And remembered and returned to. And I feel broken anew by the care and connection in that.And I can cry and I am calm. I am seen. Acknowledgement is power and hope.

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Comfy Slippers

One of my housemates has a (shall we say) older pair of slippers with a hole in the toe. The lining is coming away in places. They look rather  battered and sorry for themselves. And yet, they are (or so I am told) comfortable. I don’t believe that an attempt to replace them would be welcome.

slippers

I’m not really one for slippers. I feel more comfortable – more at home – when I am shoe-less. But I have been reflecting on old, comfy slippers because these are what my going to a Two:23 network meeting was compared with this week. Old, comfy places.

But a place where, this time, I was decidedly uncomfortable. I’ve written about being in that place before. Of how hard it is to fight the memories of my past there. But the comfy slippers familiarity is, I think, more about the psychological space. These network meetings are a place where I feel challenged to own who I am. Where I am acutely aware of my singlehood, and dishonesty, and failure. And of the voices that decry my sexuality. Remind me I am an abomination unto the Lord. Forecasting a future in Hell, for being who I am. This time, on top of memories of the distant past, these voices were given an (albeit, indirect) platform. They have been validated in a recent book, offering several, apparently valid, points of view. I struggle with those voices. Their validation feels unsafe.

So, the Therapeutic Community asks, why do I continue to go to a place where I am challenged like this?  Why not chuck away the slippers and stop going? And I don’t know, and I don’t know, and I don’t know. I know there is comfort and reassurance in the abject refutation: of the alternative theologies. That seeking that is calming, in spite of the turbulence of being faced with tacit, and open homophobia. I know that, sometimes, worshipping with same-sex couples feels empowering and hopeful.

Bottom line: I am not sure what I could replace this kind of support with. I am shaken and bruised by the slightest suggestion that I am wrong with God. I don’t feel sure enough of my own understanding, to lean upon it, without others’ support. And I know that, ultimately, this isn’t about leaning on my own understanding. It is about leaning on God’s understanding, and trusting myself to that Love. Trusting that only God can judge. The slippers serve a purpose: they support my feet, because I do not feel I can stand on them alone. For all the discomfort of their flaws, I don’t feel able to face the world barefoot.

 

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Rocking fragility

Each week in the Therapeutic Community, we have half an hour when we all fall silent. Not for personal reflection and prayer (although I struggle to resist a temptation to this) but to allow for creativity of some form. One of the very first pieces I did was words weaved around lines on a page, drawing a cockle shell. The words spoke of my terror of being open; of a rough, tough exterior, and of people (other TC members) not knowing, and not realising, what they were asking to engage with, in asking me to be more open with them around my emotional life. I was rotten to the core.

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Above, an image of one of the shells I picked up on the beach  at Rockcliffe (my Lyonnesse) on a recent trip to see a friend. It reminded me of that writing. Of how closed and scared and coiled up I was a year ago when I entered the Therapeutic Community. I have a gorgeous time away with human and canine company, enjoying the Scottish landscapes and seascapes. And it feels more precious because I am able to acknowledge my fragility, bruised self-confidence, taut fear of alternative Biblical voices on sexuality. I know that I can feel truly horrid inside. But that that does not mean that I am rotten at the core. I feel loved here.

Dating has shaken me more than I thought it could when I embarked on it. I am nervous again in the Therapeutic Community, and with friends; seek their reassurance more often. I am less sure of myself; that what I want is OK. That it is OK to voice it. I am fragile and I want to harm myself again. Atone for the shame and disapproval that I feel around pursuing what I want. For the anger that I feel at my parents. For being rotten, rotten, rotten, and trying to believe anything different.

The TC voices offer reassurance and encouragement, note the relative fragility.  Remind me that I am not rotten because I feel rotten. I am able to express myself creatively, authentically. The voices and the silence feel sacred, of God. I may be fragile. I may also be me.

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