“The maiden is on her way again, wandering toward a great woods in all great faith that something will come from that great hall of trees, something soul-making.” — Clarissa Estes Pinkola, Women Who Run With the Wolves
I have been in deep contemplation, practicing stillness and deep listening over the past month. As I come upon the 15 year anniversary of my life being turned upside down, I reflect on all the challenges I have faced, the opportunities for growth I have been gifted, and the resilience I somehow mustered in each and every case.
What I have learned is this– All I know is that I don’t know. And somehow, with each passing day, I become more at ease with this unknowing. The unpredictability of life is what makes it most exciting. Even when it feels uncomfortable, there is a part of us that feels butterflies, a sense of beguilement at the unknown. I have always gravitated towards people and situations that awaken this in me, the wildest parts of me that long to live in the real, outside of my dreams and fantasies.
As women, we live in a world that forces this part of us into the deepest recesses of our beings, until we almost forget she exists; many alters all existing simultaneously, ready to take the stage as needed, when needed. I have danced many rhythms, against numerous backdrops, hung from the cliff by one hand, graved uneven terrains, moved against powerful winds, swam against currents meant to drown me. Every time I emerge stronger, wiser, braver– ready for the next wave of life to come crashing my way.
I let the waves crash, engulf me, wash me anew, steal my breaths when needed, fill my lungs with the salt of life that will carry me home. I do so fearlessly, with faith each new moment is written for me. For destiny is written. Whatever has happened is my destiny.
With all this knowing and understanding, I still struggle. I am still human, still vulnerable to the forces that have swept through my life, sometimes unearthing my very soul; others restoring me, reminding me of my divine greatness. I suffer from severe PTSD, and as a result of unresolved complex traumatic stress, am on the extreme end of being introverted.
What does this mean for my day to day interaction with the world around me? It means I struggle with connection to other humans. It means some days I wake up and I cannot be available to the world, to simple phone calls or conversations. It means I check out frequently in order to recharge and find a sense of peace within.
It means I am so sensitive to the energies around me, that I am like velcro soaking it all up, both “good” and “bad” energies, and all the ones in between. It means I am easily overwhelmed in groups, faring much better within one on one interactions. It means I have a heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others, and must always be careful not to take them on as my own. It means I often cancel plans at the last minute because another aspect of me made them on another day.
Being a person who will live with PTSD the rest of her life, it means being aware that all days will look different for me, hence consistency in behavior will always be fleeting. It means committing to others in close interpersonal ways will always be an added effort for me. Allowing people into my intimate space will always require me stepping WAY outside of my comfort zone, trusting they will not betray my sacred trust. It means spending more time in my head than I would like, over-analyzing, then checking myself at the door many times over.
Living with myself, as myself, I see with different eyes, feel with different feelings, and experience my environment from a place of the observer, the cautionary watcher. It means appearing a little socially awkward, and feeling all the more like a social outcast, alone in the world, in her thoughts, in her experiences. It means, grasping for my voice, and stumbling over words. It means having a heightened sense of awareness at all times, like that of an instinctual animal –sometimes to your benefit and others more taxing. It means survival is always your bottom line, learning and understanding your triggers, and how to respond to them in the least reactive ways. It means retreating when you need to react, to avoid causing more harm to yourself or others.
Struggling with PTSD will look like what psychiatrists may label “bipolar” or “manic” since the side effects vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. It means dealing with intrusive thoughts, memories, and feelings that cannot be erased, only managed, and if you’re lucky, maybe transformed. It means doing extensive spiritual, emotional, and body work to move maleficent energies that have been stored in your body out.
It means having to constantly explain your aloofness to those who cannot understand and/or perceive your “insanity”, your “insensitivities”, your aversion to commitments, your being overwhelmed in general, your non-attachment to people, your distrust of those people, your preference for animals over people (who have more times than not contributed to your current status as a PTSD survivor). It means avoiding close relationships just to avoid all the explaining, because dealing with yourself is exhaustive, in and of itself, on any given day.
It means living knowing they will not understand, and accepting they do not have to. It means walking alone in the world to discover all there is to see and know beyond fear, because in fact fear left you a long time ago. It means standing in the flood knowing you will not die, because you have survived so much worse. It means having a gun pointed to your head and not shuddering, because your nervous system is well adept at protective mechanisms that allow you to emotionally check out. It means living, having died multiple deaths in one lifetime.
It means some days sitting on the couch and looking out the window, or laying on the floor staring at the ceiling for hours, because you are in a “flight mode” and are literally paralyzed. It means staring at your laptop when you need to be doing research as if somewhere in the deep dark abyss what you need will jump out at you. It means sitting down to write and feeling no impulse to get it out of your head onto paper, even though you really want to. It means wanting to hold your thoughts sacred and private, because you trust not the world to receive them in love, nor yourself to convey them with precision and clarity, because in fact most of the time there is no sense to be made of them.
It means I have made questionable, if not what others would damn as immoral choices and decisions. It means I have kept the company of people who could/would never commit to me, because in fact I have been unable to commit to anyone myself. It means I have often gravitated towards and loved most, what would never be fully available to me, what would never do more than bring me fleeting moments of happiness and/or pleasure. It means in order to not feel so alone, I have shared my sacred space with those who would do me more harm than good, simply to feel some sort of connection.
It means spending a lifetime trying to justify, explain, makes some sense of, clarify, align, excuse and apologize for, all the many women I am. All the many women I am–the many I have rejected myself, because they weren’t all in alignment, instead of knowing they actually all existed in harmony to carry me through the valley of life, when and as needed. Parallel lives, all meant to lead me on my way, when at times, all I wanted to do was stop, just stop all of it.
It means every accomplishment I have attained has come at one hell of an effort on my part, because this is what I deal with every single day. Living with complex traumatic stress has been challenging, more so when I did not yet understand it, or myself. I struggled most when I failed to reconcile all the parts of me, to recognize the beauty in each and every part, to understand each one’s role in the divine whole that encompasses my entire being.
I lived being shamed most of my life for the parts of me that didn’t quite “fit” into what others deemed normal. I spent most of my academic career focusing certain fields of study to help me make sense of my own stuff, to help me understand the world, human motivation, and why things happen in the way they do. Every major project I have been tasked to undertake has been an attempt at me telling my story without me actually having to speak from my “I” voice.
In less than three weeks, I will return to India for a five week sabbatical to do both spiritual work in an ashram, and field research for yet another academic project. My departure date marks the 15 year anniversary of me landing myself in a jail cell for six months, and living as a felon in the U.S. since, in all the ways you are boxed in.
This upcoming academic year I will write a thesis using my “I” voice to expand on the repercussions of sexual violence, trauma, and the failures of the justice system regarding women specifically. I do not yet know for certain what turns and shapes this project will take. I do know it will be cathartic, as I am an ongoing process of recovery and discovery that will likely be lifelong.
What I pray for more than anything is the ongoing strength and resiliency to face my wounds head on, and the similar wounds of others, looking fear in the eye with the heart of a lioness, knowing this is my destiny. It was always mine.
Yesterday, I sat at Whole Foods eating a meal alone, as is often the case. I overheard two young girls having a conversation about one of their sisters. The girl was sharing how her sister was “bipolar” and how hard it had been on the family. She had dropped out of high school, moved out and lived with some guy who beat her, “held a gun to her head”, how she had been to jail, had numerous phone numbers and hardly ever reachable, lived “all over the place”, and how she (the girl telling the story) was by no means “better than her sister”, but “had made better choices” so far, because at least she was in college. She was sad though, because she did not have much of a relationship with her sister, and it was hard on the family knowing her sister “just couldn’t help it.”
I imagined my family, my two sisters specifically, having similar conversations about me 15 years ago. Any, all, and more of those same things I have experienced and lived through (although I have never actually been beaten). What I have lived through was still a war on my body, on my psyche. And I win every day I get up and start anew.
It was in that moment of over-hearing the conversation between those girls, I realized all the things I once thought were travesties of my life, had been divine gifts. I looked back at how far I had come and I wanted to walk over to them and interrupt.
I wanted to tell them girls like me, girls like your sister– we are the brave ones. We are the change-makers, but first we make noise. We are the ones who will come to know ourselves the best. We are the ones who will live and see the world. We are the ones who find out who we are, on purpose (in the words of Dolly). We are the ones who will make messes, sit in the muck of it all in order to learn what must be learned, and pick ourselves up to do it all over again. We are graduate students in our late thirties, worldy wise and academically trained, with passions that spur our genius.
We make it, so please don’t be sad. Don’t feel sorry for us and please don’t underestimate us. Try loving us. Try embracing us as we are, because in fact it is the world trying to make us something we aren’t that awakens our wild child. Try supporting us, even when we appear crazy. Try asking us what hurts our hearts. Try not counting us out, just before we win. Because we do and we will, every time.
This is for all the beautiful humans struggling with PTSD, for all the women who have lived through being labeled with this or that disorder, with little to no account for the very things that brought us to our knees in the first place. Do not be afraid to share your greatness with the world. This is for all the people who have persevered against all odds, and came out shining. Shine on beautiful shine on. This is for you.