My father was eleven years older than my mother. His own parents were both dead by the time he was three or four. He doesn’t remember them, and I’ve always felt that hole where loving grandparents should have been. The couple who adopted him, who I knew as my Nana and Grandpa, were not kind parents and they were not warm and loving grandparents. I hardly knew them, though I saw them often enough. They shared nothing of their lives or themselves with me and there was no bond there, only a regret, when they died, that they did not care enough to love me or to love my father.
My mother was raised by loving parents, though my grandmother, even in the early days of their marriage, wore the pants in the family. My grandfather was a true nurturer. My grandmother was more than proficient in everything she did, but she was not the warm and cuddly type, though I knew she loved me very much. Somehow, despite her emotional distance, she conveyed that to me quite clearly. She had lost two children of her own, three if you count the still born she gave birth to in a workplace bathroom, and that heartache never left her. It was like a pall that rested over the entire family. My mother’s sister left behind three young children when she died a year before I was born. One of these, my cousins, is one of my dearest friends. Another haunts my worst nightmares. Without a shadow of a doubt I know my mother believed she was delivering me to safety when she took me to my grandparents house. Of all the men in my life, I can count on one hand those who have truly loved me. My grandfather was one, and though he died many years ago, the loss of him still hangs heavy on my heart. My father was so injured a child that he grew to be an injured adult. I know he loved me, but it was a cold, protected, removed sort of love. My grandfather had no such reserves. He was warm and kind and generous with his time. He made us candy on our holidays and we rented movies together and watched them for hours. Once a year, twice if they were lucky, they would manage to wrest my cousins from their controlling stepmother and we would have lovely holidays together. Sometimes we would go camping, but the best times were when we stayed close to home and ate and watched tv together and roamed the acres of wooded land, whereon was a turn-of-the century garbage dump, complete with a model t-ford and antique bottles, bits of china, and rare and curious rocks and seashells. On those special evenings together my grandfather would bring out the old slides and movie reels and we would see rare and precious pictures of our deceased aunt, and we would wallow in the pain of her loss, seeing it through the eyes and hearts of her parents and children. We, my sister and I, were on the sidelines of that pain, not having experienced it first hand, but we felt the tragedy of it all the same. Without those evenings, those motherless children might never have known anything at all of their mother. Their stepmother would rather she had never existed, that with her death all traces of her life had disappeared. My grandfather refused it to be so.
I don’t know what happened to my cousins during their childhood. I know they suffered greatly for the loss of their mother, but there must have been some greater trauma still. I know that the eldest has grown to be a good and honorable and respectable man, whom I admire greatly. The youngest has ever been one of my best friends, and with her I have grown especially close during my recent difficulties, and during my stay with my father we spent a lot of time together. I love her dearly and I hope she knows what an amazing woman she is and how essential a role she played in my life.
The other brother, however… If my time with my grandparents and cousins was idyllic in every other way, it was hellish in one. He could not, would not keep his hands off of me. He had no use for me, no time for me unless it was to fulfill some perverted, self-fulfilling agenda. It was he who taught me to distrust men, to be cynical of sex, and to see all people as potential threats. Perhaps if my father had not been so broken, if he had been able to love me better, I would not have tolerated the attention of my cousin. My sister, whose relationship with my father was very different, was, for the most part, able to resist my cousin’s advances. I had no such self-esteem or sense of a right to assert myself for my own self-protection. For eight, perhaps ten, years of my childhood I tolerated it.
It was my best friend who saved me. She and her family. When, in my early teens, my parents’ marriage fell apart, her family took me in. I didn’t quite live there, but they certainly made me feel as one of the family. They brought me into their hearts, taught me their faith, and gave me the love I had been missing. And with that strength, I finally found the courage to say ‘no’ to the abuse. A one word sentence that requires no further explanation or justification. Simply…”no.” And it was done.
In amazing book The Language of Emotions, author and empathic counselor Karla McLaren refers to the words of mythologist, author and storyteller, Michael Meade who refers to sexual abuse as a sort of initiation “done at the wrong time, in the wrong way, by the wrong person, with the wrong intent-but nevertheless, it is an initiation; it’s a separation from the regular world, and a wounding that changes the initiate forever.”
This is rather a profound way of looking at it, but I cannot resist doing so, nor exploring the idea further as it relates to all traumatic experience, as Ms. McLaren (citing, once again, Michael Meade’s assertions) does in her life-altering book.
“Tribal initiations are performed as a way to guide tribe members through life’s transitions. Rituals and ceremonies guide tribe members from conception through birth, from birth into childhood, from adolescence into adulthood, from marriage and mating into elderhood, and from elderhood into death and ancestral status. Many tribal societies create a container and a foundation from which all growth and transition can be understood and overseen.”
Typically, explains Meade, an initiation ceremony consists of three stages:
- Isolation or separation from ones normal understanding of the world and the society in which we have been nurtured and indoctrinated.
- The experience of some great ordeal from which we have overcome great danger, perhaps even a brush with death.
- Recognition and welcome back into our social sphere as an initiate.
McLaren from here explains that traumatic injury, particularly that which we experience in childhood, is a kind of initiation ceremony since the movements within it represent the first two stages of initiation. With some key differences (besides the spiritual and ceremonial.)
“In tribal initiation, stage one is a organized, expected removal from the parents and the everyday patterns of the tribe. Tribal children are brought up to expect initiation; they and their families prepare for it and are fully aware of its presence in their lives. In trauma, however, there is no preparation. Traumatic stage one is a disorganized removal from the known world–a sudden, shocking and wholly unexpected end to normalcy.”
“Tribal stage two is an organized ordeal… The walkabouts…occur on tribal lands where trackers abound; the scarring and ornamentations are usually performed by adults who have a certain expertise at what they do; and the ordeal has a definite end-point, which the initiates are aware of on some level. In trauma, there is no organization to the ordeal and no promise of an end. Traumatic stage two is the out-of-control moment of the assault-the beating, the yelling, the unwelcome touch that separates spirit from body…”
Traumatic injury has no third stage. There is no celebration, no welcome party to safely enfold the initiate back into the warm embrace of the community. There is no one to prepare the initiate for the new reality that is their life to come.
Even in tribal cultures, without the third stage, the initiate has not completed their transformation. The initiate must, therefore, repeat stages one and two again and again until all three stages are complete. It is the same for the human psyche. We relive our traumas again and again because we have not completed our initiation, we don’t know what to do with or how to use our pain. Society teaches us from an early age that anger and sorrow and fear are bad emotions and we must avoid them at all costs. But what if those emotions–unpleasant though they may be–were exactly the shamans that led us back to healing?
Our emotions, each of them, have a purpose, and a purpose we cannot and should not ignore. Anger allows us to establish and maintain boundaries. Sorrow allows our emotions to flow, it helps us let go of what isn’t working in our lives and to rejuvenate our psyches. Fear makes us aware of the dangers around us and prepares to receive the “heart-knowing” wisdom intuition brings. The wonderful thing about emotions is they know what we need, and one of their primary functions is to communicate that to us. Only we are rarely prepared to listen. But avoiding our emotions doesn’t keep them at bay, rather, like water behind a dam, they build up and come rushing at us, overwhelming us in unexpected moments. To prevent this, we often become dissociated, living half-lives where we feel nothing, not the good or the “bad”, because emotions don’t make themselves available to pick and choose from like food at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You welcome them, all of them, or you learn to shut them down…all of them. And that simply isn’t healthy. What it forces us to do is live and relive our traumas over and over and over again, repeating the brutality, either upon ourselves (internally) or (externally) upon others. Such dissociating behaviors make it difficult for us to function effectively in our lives. We learn, instead, to embrace “neuroses”, those paralytic, self-destructive behaviors that stunt our personal growth, shielding us under the protective umbrella of “I can’t”.
One of the problems we have in traditional therapeutic psychiatry is that trauma is approached from a perspective of individual tragedy, rather than a societal or cultural (even multi-cultural) phenomenon. How many others do you suppose are out there, suffering, as you are? Do you know that the statistic for reported sexual assaults is one in three women? That’s the number of reported assaults! And that’s only for one type of traumatic experience. Certainly we have all been traumatized in some way. The problem is that not enough of us are embracing our emotions. We alienate the inconvenient and unpopular parts of our psyches in favor of what the collective majority considers acceptable–the tangible and the logical.
A well balanced psyche, McLaren explains, consists of the physical, the spiritual, the emotional and the logical. But, in our society, logic is favored over emotion, and physical over spiritual, even though only about two thirds to three quarters of any given population uses sensing (physical) and rational (logic) as their chief cognitive functions. What about the idealists among us, those who use the fiery, visionary parts of our minds to make decisions, or those, like me, who rely on their emotions to guide them safely through life? That’s a lot of people we are discounting. It’s a large part of ourselves we are discounting, too, since no one can function in a balanced and fully-resourced way when we are shunning half of our psyches in favor of a more “acceptable” self.
I’ll discuss more about balancing later, but for this post I simply want to leave you with the idea that you are not alien in your trauma (there are too many of us for that). You are not alone and you are not broken. What you are is unhealed, and healing comes when we stop demonizing our emotions and embrace them as the harbingers of wholeness and recovery. While our traumas have caused us much pain and anguish, have disrupted the flow of our lives, we must also consider that they have brought us great learning and wisdom, and by embracing this, and by embracing the full village of emotions we contain within us, we pass from stages one and two into stage three of initiation. It is a beautiful process which brings clarity, understanding, and self-acceptance. But it is not an easy process. It is full of its own kind of chaos. This understanding alone,that the tumult within me was part of the healing, has made the journey to wholeness and recovery so much easier to bear.
Quoting McLaren once again: “With full-bodied understanding of the situation,…” (using the physical psyche through work, the logical through study, the emotional through acceptance of our emotions, the visionary through trust in our intuition and connection with the divine) “…we won’t attempt to erase those disruptive responses; instead, we’ll follow their tracks to the heart of the trouble. When we can do that, the symptoms will decrease naturally, because they will have been heard and attended to in a fully resourced way. We’ll be able to break the trance-like cycling between stages one and two and move decidedly and triumphantly to stage three. No matter how the trauma began, the end will be beautiful.
“This beautiful movement is not any kind of avoidance technique. It is also not an antiseptic or dainty process; it’s an oceanic (emotions=water), fiery (visionary=fire), muddy (physical=earth), windblown (logic=air) process that creates not mere survivors, but fully initiated soul warriors. This is why it is so unusual in our culture; it doesn’t look or sound like what we call healing. It isn’t peaceful, anesthetized, or predictable. This movement to stage three is a vibrant and utterly singular process which is why our access to the full village inside us is so vital to the outcome. When the psyche is moving out of the fist two sages of dissociation and trauma it shakes and jerks and kicks…just as animals do when they come back from dissociative trauma.”
“The first emotions that usually arise when people begin healing…are the various mood states of anger and fear. …When fear arises in any of its mood stages–as fear, worry, anxiety, confusion, panic or terror–it signals that new instincts are flowing into the psyche. The channeling task for fear is to make conscious movements that restore a sense of focus, resiliency, resourcefulness, and intuition.”
It’s easier said than done, I know. I’ve been inside that struggle a multitude of times. But that space, that frightening, disorienting, soul-crushing place where you are reliving your trauma, where you are abasing yourself for the tumult of emotions that are bearing down upon you and which you cannot control and you feel you are only regressing, locked into your own emotional and psychological tail-spinning of self-loathing and doubt and you cannot see a way out of it, know this: your psyche is healing itself if you’ll only let it. Your anger is setting boundaries, your fear is scanning the scenery for new paths to take in place of the unhealthy patterns you are doing away with, your sorrow is letting go of that which doesn’t work for you, and when, at long last the process is over, (and it will end!) you will come away a full initiate, a soul-warrior, of the walkabout that the Universe chose as yours, but never yours alone.
Carl Jung’s words helped me a lot during a time when I felt locked into my own uncertainty and confusion. “When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.”
The end will be beautiful. It will be messy, and chaotic, and excruciating at times… but it will be beautiful. So love your emotions. Welcome them as favored and honored guests, as necessary sentinels guiding you towards wholeness. Because that is what they are. I welcome you, initiate, to finish the journey already begun. It’s scary, but just think, everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. It’s true. I know. I’ve been there. I am there still. And I am sharing my journey with you, my tribesmen.