“first you go under
then coming up gives you the bends
and when you break the surface
all you can see is your friends
so you grab your purple crayon
and flesh out the picture behind
and finally the whole world is made of
one unbroken line
one unbroken line”
-ani difranco red letter year
i went under about 10 years ago this coming fall. i have alluded to that period of time in my life before, but i don’t think i have come right out and said what happened to me. it’s not a time i like to dwell on, but throughout my healing process, i have had a growing realization of how important that time was, and how important it is to my integrity for me to own it, to include it as part of my ongoing personal narrative, to acknowledge that it got that bad, to remember why i committed to never again sacrificing my integrity for anyone else. part of why i blog is to help me curate my personal narrative, to keep track of myself in an ongoing unbroken line that is my story, my understanding of who i am. at first it was a research endeavor, an archaeology dig back into my journals and emails to figure out how the pieces all fit, and i will admit to actually entering key life events into a spreadsheet that i could perform data sorts upon. (card carrying nerd. you can laugh. i do.) now the ongoing note-taking it has evolved into is essentially a maintenance strategy to keep my story intact and refuse to let it fragment as it once did.
in 2005, i was so broken down by emotional abuse that i was starting to dissociate from myself. you have to leave yourself briefly when you lash out in ways that aren’t true to who you are. i was awful to friends, because i was forced to prove my loyalty to my relationship by adopting someone else’s opinions and inflicting them on people who had been good to me. i became increasingly isolated and debilitated, and had trouble with basic tasks, to say nothing of the way i was floundering in my master’s degree program. i started to lash out at the abuser, becoming abusive myself out of sheer desperation. i blocked out seemingly unforgettable moments, such as him lighting my mattress on fire while i was lying on it, and only retrieved those memories years later from journal entries i had shared with no one. he cut phone cords while i talked to the very few remnants of support i had left, he cut my houseplants. my daily experience had so eroded away at me that i began to scratch and kick, and even brandish knives back at the other participant in the suffering.
unable to bear myself anymore, i pondered dying, i wished to die, i craved a way out as concise as death. i wanted it to be all over. i contemplated whether i could pull it off. i despaired that i might not be able to. i was tortured by sleep deprivation and the emotional abuse hit new plateaus of awfulness. i couldn’t bear who i had become, what was “happening to me” (because i did not believe or perceive at the time that i bore any responsibility for the circumstances i was in, nor that i had any choice in exiting the scenario) until one day i walked out the door with a bottle of pills in my hand.
he called the police. they drove up to me and asked if i was carrying pills. i said yes. they asked if i planned to use them and i said i didn’t know.
my answers did not inspire enough confidence in them to let me keep walking, so they put handcuffs on me and drove me to the county mental health inpatient facility.
i spent the night in a chair in the intake area at the county facility. as soon as i was there i was begging to leave. not a pretty place. out of the frying pan and into the fire.
i was transferred to where the other overwhelmed grad students go to have inpatient mental health care, and 48 hours after i was cuffed and stuffed, i was home sweet home. but a home in which i couldn’t rest my weary bones. a home in which i lived in constant survival mode. a home in which i found myself longing for home.
i had committed to a treatment plan in order to be discharged. i had committed to weekly counseling. i think my 48 hours as an inpatient shook me awake.
i followed through on the plan. my counselor was great. she helped me make a self care plan. she listened to me say “he… he… he….” then reminded me, “think about youuuuuu!!!” she got me into a psychiatrist who wrote me a prescription that really helped me balance out my chemistry. she encouraged me to go to al-anon meetings. i went faithfully. i went from one yoga class per week to four or five. i was planting seeds in pots, making cups of tea, eating fresh fruits and veggies, taking baths, remembering other little things i had forgotten i liked to do for myself, and little by little, those self care actions turned into actually caring about myself again. new neural pathways opened up, and i followed them more and more. i moved out of the apartment.
over time, i realized those police officers and inpatient personnel did not do anything to me, though at the time i felt very wronged. over time, i realized that i had been unable to recognize my actions as a loud and clear call for help, and i was fortunate my call was heard and responded to by people just doing their jobs.
as time passed, i learned a lot about what was going on in my brain at the time. speaking scientifically, there were neural pathways i was over-utilizing and they held me in a downward spiral. speaking spiritually, i learned how impoverished i had allowed my soul to become. i have read books like trauma and recovery, by judith herman, which helped me to understand the mechanisms by which trauma triggers a brain to fragment, and how fragmentation is essential, at first, to survival in the face of real threat, but also allows distortion to become the chief way a traumatized individual handles information, even in situations where one is not threatened. i learned how it was possible to overcome this non-adaptive strategy (non-adaptive once one has emerged from survival mode), and i learned why i wanted to: distortion is lying, to oneself, and to others, whereas i had always thought of myself as an honest person. i slowly came to be able to articulate that by committing to “never going back there” i meant “to always maintain my integrity.” i read books like the four agreements, and lots of others, that helped me put my finger on what integrity even meant to me. be impeccable with your word; don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; always do your best.
omitting definitions related to calculus and desegregation, here is how webster defines integrity:
integrity 1. the quality or state of being complete; unbroken condition; wholeness; entirety 2. the quality or state of being unimpaired; perfect condition; soundness 3. the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.
integrate 1. to make whole or complete by adding or bringing together parts 2. to put or bring (parts) together into a whole; unify 3. to give or indicate the whole, sum, or total of 6. Psychol. to cause to undergo integration; to become integrated.
integration 1. an integrating or being integrated 3. Psychol. the organization of various traits, feelings, attitudes, etc., into one harmonious personality.
as i delved into my research on myself, i strove to leave no stone unturned. i found that judging my choices and being hard on myself didn’t help. it turned out, i needed to be gentle with myself. when i was able to extend myself some compassion, i had an easier time remaining present, instead of dissociating any time the going got tough. yet, i found that i needed to know what had happened, so there could be no further denial. just the facts, without judgment. i waded through old journals and emails, and inserted the fragments of my life story into their places, until the thread was once again whole and continuous, integrated. integrated, integrity.
i let go of the relationship that kept me poised having to choose between it and my integrity. more ani: “i looked up to see integrity finally won over desire.” this did not happen overnight, oh no. domestic abuse, to paraphrase something a friend recently said, is so ongoing you start to not notice your new normal is so bad. it takes time to undo all of that and make a new good normal for yourself. i kept showing up for myself, stayed honest with myself, got more counseling even after several moves and having a baby had made life more complicated. i chose interpretations of my circumstances that felt empowering, that celebrated my strength and resilience in the face of adversity, over interpretations that dwelled on negatives or encouraged self-pity.
there was retaliation in the aftermath. it didn’t go along with someone else’e plan that i was getting so healthy. the aftermath subsided. my integrity held.
year eleven came along, and all the “beyond your wildest dreams” stuff they used to talk about at al-anon? turns out it’s really real.
now i have a man who validates and supports my whole being and loves all of me, containing my feelings by refusing to allow my self-loathing neural pathways to open back up. this is truer to the core of how i see myself (a person of integrity) than any desire to have my self-loathing “validated” in the ways an abusive partner would “validate” it, by encouraging that self-loathing and feeding that monster.
“darling, you will not find
in the well into which you fall
what i keep for you on the heights:
a bouquet of dewy jasmines,
a kiss deeper than your abyss.”
-pablo neruda, except from his poem the well, from the captain’s verses
new lessons have come my way. new opportunities to use what i have learned, or to try to share my experience with friends whose circumstances remind me of mine 10 years ago when i was hospitalized, or 9 years ago when i gave it one more try “for the baby”, or 8 years ago when i was hiding the atm card underneath said sleeping baby to try to keep some money in the account for bills instead of just beer, or 7 years ago when i got hit and walked out with my one year old, or a little over 3 years ago, when i stopped paying my ex’s rent, or whenever ago. i have new appreciation for what i struggled through, because it gives me street cred with people who might otherwise have no use for my suggestions. because it’s true, if you haven’t been through it, it is probably impossible to understand why someone would (and probably will, for a long time) stay. my past connects me not only to myself, to who i was, who i am, and how i got from point a to point b, but also connects me to others in a web that just continues to enhance my life as it expands outward.
new opportunities where i have to choose how to best maintain my integrity come along. i have less and less trouble identifying how it all fits into the one unbroken line of my narrative. i see more and more signs that say “yes” to me, that reinforce the positive choices i make, that affirm life and love and abundance. i recognize them sooner, sometimes even in the moment when i am looking at them, like the morning when an eagle flew along beside our car for about a quarter of a mile, in one unbroken line, as we drove into town. i have more and more success following my intuition, which is better and better calibrated to keeping my path unbroken, unfragmented, connected, intact, whole.