The Authentic Me

Today I’m thankful for my poetry. How carefully I choose my words. I’m thankful for readers who hear the sound of my voice and recognize the authentic me.

I’m thankful that whatever happens going forward I’ll be OK. In the context of my recovery from childhood abuse, OK means I’m safe from harm. Trauma has a way of making the whole world feel unsafe, and relief from anxiety feel impossible. But something’s changed recently. Something powerful. I feel comfortable in my own skin. After years of practicing mindfulness, I know how to soothe myself. In stressful situations I remember to slow down and catch my breath. Today I’m free to move through the world at my own pace, open to hope and creativity.

As for my abuser, fuck him. Has he published four books? What does he know about poetry?

We Now Love Differently

People across the globe are suffering the collective trauma known as COVID-19. Life is far from normal. At some point, though, we’ll be free to leave our homes, greet our neighbors, and hug our friends and family members. We’ll all be trauma survivors.

I’m always in the mood for philosophical discussions, but today I’m especially interested in thinking about the meaning of life. I found a quote from Keith Ansell Pearson’s How to Read Nietzsche particularly helpful right now.

Describing Nietzsche’s approach to life after trauma, Pearson writes, “It is certain that our trust in life is gone, and gone forever, simply because life has become a problem for us. Nietzsche counsels us, however, that we should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes us gloomy. Love of life is still possible, but we now love differently” (38). According to Nietzsche, rather than giving up or succumbing to despair, we must remember to appreciate the gift of being alive, no matter what life brings us.

Stuck inside, we already love each other and ourselves differently. As long as we’re here, let’s be thankful for our suffering as much as we’re thankful for our joy.

Embracing Resistance

In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).

As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.

I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.

Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.

But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.

When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.

I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.

Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.

No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.

If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.

A Work In Progress

I said goodbye recently to my therapist before she left for her new job. I know she’ll continue transforming lives, including her own. I’m taking a break from therapy now to clear my mind. I can resume treatment with someone else whenever I like.

Childhood trauma, I’ve learned in therapy, has altered my relationship to time. It’s been hard as an adult to maintain a coherent personal narrative, an uninterrupted story of my life. As a creative writer, however, I’m free to fill in the blanks and disconnect the “not’s”—those self-defeating thoughts telling me I’m broken, useless, and lost.

My imagination is a powerful tool of persistence. Showing myself compassion in reverse, I write a story, in present tense, about consoling my past self as he struggles to survive. In the same story, I write about consoling my future self as he continues his recovery, thanking him in advance for being gentle with me now and encouraging me to stay alive.

Whether I’m prewriting, writing, or rewriting, my life story remains a work in progress.

My Life Goes On Without Me

At some point I lost my life but didn’t die. My life walked out on me in the middle of the night.

If there were a term for my condition, it would be a combination of the phrases here and there and neither here nor there. In the end, I’m left without my life, yet “alive” enough to watch my life go on without me.

At some point either my life will fall back to me or I will catch up to my life. At some point I will question my life. Is my life happier without me? Who’s in charge of my life?

This infernal monologue, this self-inflicted doom: this is depression. This is me.

Trauma And Creation

In Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, Anne Dufourmantelle tells depressed people looking for a quick fix that “medication only patches up the desire to live, or the heartache, or the professional failure, or the feeling of inadequacy; for nothing can sew up such a wound. Nothing except creation, what reopens the wound elsewhere and differently, but on less shifting ground” (86).

Three months ago, I published my third book, once again creating and re-creating myself through words. In the introduction I recall the pain of childhood traumas, (re)opening—in the pages of my book—old wounds that refuse to close for good.

Confessional writing is cathartic, but sharing my story reminds me how vulnerable I am, how lonely I still feel. I crave connection but worry that people outside my family won’t understand my depression. After years of living in protect mode, letting my guard down takes time.

Aware that trauma survivors—especially those abused as children—deal with trust issues, Dufourmantelle offers encouragement and hope. “When we are seized,” she writes, “by the feeling that nobody will ever come to us, that this solitude will not loosen its grip on us, ever, we must still find the strength to extend our arms, to kiss, to love” (98).

People live with pain in different ways. Some become artists. I am one of them. My books are an extension of me, a reaching out, a kiss. My writing is an expression of loneliness that challenges but never defeats loneliness.

Numb Poetry

As a kid I wondered what would be here if the world were not here—if God, in the Beginning, had nothing to live for.

Traumatized in high school, I wrote numb poetry, without irony, already finding ways to reverse my birth through verse.

I was a missing person in my own backyard. An absent student with perfect attendance. No one, except God perhaps, noticed I wasn’t (all) there.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.

Throwing Judo Moves

Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.

Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.

Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.

Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.

Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.

Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.

Compassionate Anti-Violence

While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.

An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.

There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.

This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.

Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.

An Existential Burden

I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.

When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.

There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.

Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.

Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.

A Radical Metamorphosis Of Identity

In her groundbreaking 2012 book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Catherine Malabou assumes different roles. She’s part psychoanalyst, part neurobiologist, part philosopher.

Malabou writes extensively about the plastic nature of the human brain. By “plastic” Malabou means the brain’s capacity to develop itself as we use it—as we create ourselves and live out our individual histories. Genes set the tone but humans are not genetically predetermined; plasticity ensures that we can actively change how our brains work, which in turn affects who we are, and how we see ourselves.

This is all well and good, but in The New Wounded Malabou alerts us to the brain’s capacity for destructive plasticity. Here the threat of the accident appears.

The accident is a material event. It emerges out of nowhere. Its effects are devastating. An obvious example is a blow to the head that causes brain lesions, but a host of tragic events can activate destructive plasticity.

Malabou cites “the globalized form of trauma,” such as those occurring “in the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, and all types of oppression or slavery” (213). These events are often understood in the context of posttraumatic stress disorder, but Malabou goes beyond PTSD.

What happens after the accident is frightening in itself. The brains of the new wounded undergo dramatic changes—to the point where many victims become someone else entirely. They are no longer themselves; a shattered, post-accident self takes hold.

All of us are susceptible to this terrifying reality. As Malabou describes it:

The destructive event that—whether it is of biological or sociopolitical origin—causes irreversible transformations of the emotional brain, and thus of a radical metamorphosis of identity, emerges as a constant existential possibility that threatens each of us at every moment. (213)

Malabou is no pessimist, however. She aims to develop therapeutic models that venture beyond psychoanalysis or neurobiology, into political and philosophical realms: “Our inquiry revolves around the identification of evil. Defining the characteristics of today’s traumas—characteristics that turn out to be geopolitical—is indeed the prolegomenon [starting point] to any therapeutic enterprise” (213).

In dealing with a new wounded patient’s “deserted, emotionally disaffected, indifferent psyche,” the therapist must “become subject to the other’s suffering, especially when this other is unable to feel anything” (214).

Malabou, in arguing for the power of compassion, speaks not just to therapists but all mankind. She transcends psychoanalysis, neurobiology and even philosophy. For a thinker concerned with material events, Malabou reveals a spiritual calling: she’s interested in building a foundation for the soul.