The therapist stares into a space a little beyond my ear as she asks me if I indulge in self-destructive behavior.
I focus my attention on figuring out the etiology of her crossed eyes. She never faces the window, so she could be photosensitive, but she likes the light – the curtains are always drawn.
“Yes,” I state, matter-of-factly.
She scoffs, snickers. I assume the joke is a plane rattling right above my head.
My scars itch. She scribbles in her notebook. I zone out again but keep up appearances. I doubt she can see anything I want her to see.
Sessions later, after helping me understand why I felt the need to end my life around my birthday every year, she callously called my propensities “the most cowardly thing a person could do.” I came back home feeling like a gutted fish still acclimatizing to the atmosphere.
When I first reached out to a friend for help, they met me with, “It’s all in your head.” I remember the rage I felt when the therapist said we would be working on how I react to my circumstances in a healthier manner. After being taken under the broken wings of various forms of abuse, being conditioned and groomed to cater to very specific needs for nearly twenty-one years, I was devastated that I still had more change to grow through.
That’s when the feeling of helplessness regarding my situation hit me. It was hard enough seeking professional help in a society which functions and prides itself on its mental health taboos. Now, I was at the therapist’s office, sweating frustration on a couch only to recondition myself, and my abusers would still squint at the sun, not paying for the ways they rewired my brain.
In neuroscience, a postulation for the mechanics of memory suggests that a specific pattern of neuronal pathways get activated when you recall something enough times. The more times you are put in a situation to recall a fact or event, the quicker you are able to recall it without going through every motion necessary to do so. It is a bit like that with trauma as well; once you have experienced a similar horrible situation enough times, you needn’t go through all the motions to remember and register the incident to experience a complete, potent sympathetic response.
Some days, I can trace the cortisol erosion in my brain substance. It shows in the littlest of ways — staying in bed to avoid responsibility as long as my attendance in school doesn’t suffer too much, keeping quiet and zoning out when my friends get tied up in conversation, listening to my music to have an excuse to space out during day-to-day activities.
The more time I spent with myself in dissociation, the more realizations I had about myself. Most of them were debilitating, particularly one where I began seeing all of the emotionally-stunted parts of me as a five-year-old version of myself. The most traumatic experiences occurred as a child, so the parts of me that still responded to criticism and threats like a child needed something I never quite received: love and patience.
I had repressed so much of my trauma — hid it where no one could lay a finger on it — so anytime failure would hit me, I could pry the traumatized five-year-old from underneath the rug and do unto it what had been done unto me. For example, I frequently held my breath when I was a child, every time things were tough at home. When things began taking a turn for the worse, my attempts became more violent, emotionally and physically. For the longest time, shame was all I felt.
One of the strongest realizations I had was in noticing how much of my self-worth depended on the ways that others perceived my intelligence. This explained my lack of motivation when mentors assumed I was dumb or not worth their time. This part of me only gave its best where it was appreciated – a skill that I now try to extend everywhere else in my life.
In only a few weeks of therapy, I was able to significantly counter a lifetime of trauma because of this emotional resilience. This actually proved to be detrimental to me. In my particular case, my functionality made everyone around me take my resilience for granted. To others, I only lived to serve the purpose of a fallen-angel-in-need-of-saving narrative, or to never move from my pedestal where I inspired them from. The metaphoric and literal bruises on my body looked like skin now; there was no plain reason to complain – supposedly, I functioned better than anyone around me.
Anytime I faltered, cried, or showed any semblance of humanness, people often responded with, “But look at how much you’ve accomplished. Look at what you have made of your life after all of this.”
In response to this, I often found myself asking, “Why should I have had to?”
Healing is in no way a one-size-fits-all scenario; it is a deeply personal, life-long journey – one that requires more patience than I was conditioned to have. My entire self-worth used to depend on what I could do with my intelligence and how fast I could do it. Cultivating a mindfulness practice helped me slow down, and changed the way I saw my dissociation.
For the longest time, my methods of hurting myself included unconsciously allowing myself into situations of abuse similar to the kind I experienced earlier on. Those circumstances were the only thing my warped idea of love could convince itself to deserve. While stress definitely destroys your body in horrible ways, it always starts out meaning well – as catecholamines release in your bloodstream, your body prepares for battle with primed muscles and a strong, beating heart while your rising oxytocin levels help you reach out to your loved ones for help, all to help you survive and thrive in a stressful situation – but when this becomes excessive and without proper check, people start getting hurt, similar to the tactics of many misguided covert childhood abusers.
My dissociation had always been self-protective, but at some point, it became detrimental to my mind and body. So much of the time, when we aren’t mindful, we are the most hurtful people to ourselves, abusing ourselves in the same ways we once were treated. Now, when I find myself retreating, I ask myself, “What about this situation is making me return to this safe space? What does this remind my body of?”
There are weeks when I feel more like a victim than a survivor. I have a love-hate relationship with my resilience; surviving has made me live with a weight I am sure I cannot carry most days. But surviving also allowed me to retell this story the way it was meant to be: with my voice. My words. My autonomy.
There are days when all the strength I can muster barely gets me out the door, only to slam my way back in. But amidst all of this, there are moments when my mind is quieter than it has been for the longest time, taking in each stimulus without over-analyzing it out of existence. Moments when everything around me is not a threat – when my muscles needn’t stay stern and primed, where my toes uncurl and my chest expands fully; and in those moments, I can swear that it lasts longer than the times before it.
In her third year of medical school, Orooj-e-Zafar is a storyteller/spoken word poet based in Islamabad, Pakistan currently working on the editorial board of The Missing Slate. Orooj has been featured on TEDxPIEAS, the 5th Islamabad Literature Festival, and schools across Islamabad, performing, speaking, and training young poets. She was most recently published at Crab Fat Magazine, DERANGED - An Anthology by Picaroon Poetry, and won the 2nd Judith Khan Memorial Poetry Prize. Orooj hopes to unravel emotionally and grow her mental skin with a patience she is learning to cultivate. You can keep up with her work on her Facebook, and follow her on Instagram @oroojezafarwrites.
By Richelle Kota.
At first my knees bruised and then they calloused. Prayer on bended knee was tricky for me when I was young. I never understood humbling myself in front of a god that was supposed to love me unconditionally, but I arched my back in silence just like everyone else and waited for the love of jesus christ to fill me.
We went to church if we were well to ask god to continue to bless us with good health, and we went when we were sick so god could heal us. As it was, Sunday mornings meant regrets that turned into repentance, communion grape juice stains I would not bother to clean, and unwritten rules I could not challenge. Initially, religion terrified me, but I held fast to it when I was young — a time when I was so full of honesty and fear.
Once, my mother asked me if I wanted to be saved during our daily bible study. In our family, being saved meant accepting jesus into my heart so he could change me, fill me with love, and somehow make me better. But I already liked the way I was.
I remember etching memorized verses on the headboard of my bed at age ten.
“Not today,” I remember saying.
I remember going to Christian camp and how the separation of boys and girls sexualized us before we even knew what sex was. But my parents told me it would make me a better person. It would make me a better Christian. It would make god love me more. I still didn’t know why god was dissatisfied with me, and I was still confused about how love worked.
My mother sat across from me and softly placed her hand on my leg. I tried to look away, but she found my eyes. She spoke softly, but with fervor: “If you don’t get saved, you are going to go to hell for eternity.”
The fear of the fiery pits of hell kept me awake that night. The thought consumed me. My heart was already full of love for my family and friends, but the next day I squeezed jesus in there, too. Just to be safe. I was four years old.
There was so much, and then all of a sudden, there was nothing. There was nothing for me but hurt I didn’t have enough hands to hold, and etched verses I was ashamed to scratch out. I could not unsee this upbringing even though I tied a blindfold on the past.
A couple of years ago, I heard a cover Sufjan Stevens did of an old gospel song, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and I found myself singing along to every word. They did not mean anything more to me than old rituals I was still wading in, but it touched some small part of me that wasn’t still drowning. It was like a phantom pain and sorrow of sleepless nights I spent wondering if I died, where I would go.
Now, as an adult, I am still searching for the mystical and trying to reconcile the relationship I have with the universe, but the guilt of my childhood never seems to fade. For me, there is seldom shade in the shadow of the cross. The sun of religion has always and will always scorch me. I have sunburns that have never healed and I have scars that will never go away. When a Christian hymn begins, there is no doubt I will murmur along to the chorus, feeling parts of me that I thought had long disappeared. But then I hear the voices of those who condemn me and I feel shame, because, like a long lost parent, religion will always hold me and remind me that it was there to watch me grow up, even if I do not want it to.
Richelle Kota is a writer, nature enthusiast, and a student living in Philadelphia. Earlier this year she released her first self-published work, Where There Were Roses: A Memoir Through Poems. She aspires to live a very simple life on a farm with many pigs, goats, and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tiniestdad.
the scar on my back.
Back when my hair was blonde
and green with chlorine,
it served as a reminder
of the boy who broke my bones
before anyone broke my heart,
so you claimed it as a tag
complete with washing instructions:
Now you paste it
on straight spines
while you count their notches and search
for the sleepy lavender potion
that makes them crooked.
the scar on my back.
It doesn't belong
to you anymore.
It’s been a slow and private journey — the learning to walk again after years of my neck and back and legs bound in knots and scraped raw. There were too many rocks to swim, but I said yes every time. I always cringed when he touched my weak hips, but I dragged my unfamiliar body away from his, crawling all shoeless and scrawny.
I remembered how I used to feel — like there was something mystical and wonderful hanging in the air above the corner desk in the library. Like there was some truth in holding hands with girls and in standing barefoot in the mud and in silence. Like there was some truth in me. I remembered healing before I ever needed to heal and I wondered where those feelings went — how something so strong and true and sturdy could be ripped from me. Was it torn from my weak hips? I knew I wasn’t eating well and the scar on my back pulsed with the hungry and the pain of standing, of sitting, of being.
As I sat in the doctor’s office, I remembered being 5 years old — crying out, knowing not trauma, but knowing pain. I remembered being 13 years old — knowing both. I wondered if the boy who broke my spine for the second time knows he’ll cause me pain well into my 20's, my 30's, my old age.
People say I’m too young for the knots in my back, but I feel ancient. As I grew with my injury, others claimed it as their own. My scar a paper tag that others could pick at, like one on a winter coat or an old mattress. My scar against my mattress. I could never sleep, but my body became too weak to stay awake.
Losing touch with my body — which once oozed with tar-like trauma, both physical and emotional — gave me the sacred opportunity to reconnect with myself the way a child would. I learned which foods made me feel good and which didn’t. I learned how I liked to be touched. I learned how to touch myself — with softness and love rather than the pinching and scraping and rawness. I learned to be gentle with myself and with others. I found streams with smooth rocks and I swam. I learned to stretch out the knots in my back when they came. They still come. But I love the “machine washable” tag that peaks out from under my jeans.
I am not loud when it comes to my body, but I am learning to be proud. Standing up straighter, stretching a little taller. Taking up more space in the world. Healing physically and emotionally and spiritually. I remember the mysticism of the library and I feel it in my own bedroom. I remember the truth in holding hands and I feel it as I massage my own spine.
It’s been a slow and private journey, but a journey just the same.
hands to my throat,
(my tired hands and
dirty fingernails to my
raw, pink throat)
so my throat coughed
awake my lungs and my lungs
blew awake my heart and
my heart shook awake my
legs and my legs -- sun-
burnt and speckled -- helped
feet find the floor
and carried my hands outside
to the garden, to dirty
themselves with something
other than the oils
in your hair.
Erin Moran is a writer and student based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Unbroken Journal, Flux, and Five 2 One Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @ernmrn and on Twitter @ernmrntweets.