The Unfolding of Forgiveness

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“The Prodigal Son,” Max Slevogt

The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.

My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.

I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic  supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.

One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.

It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.

In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.

I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.

Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”

She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.

My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.

She laughed. I smiled.

Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.

I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.

It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.

My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.

It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.

But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.

 

Mending Memories

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I know why I keep watching them. The handful of episodes from this one cartoon. Of all things. But I know: I know what it reminds me of, and I know that what I remember hooks its way through my brain and pulls – and then that broken part of me wakes up and steps automatically into the shadows. Tasting it, I turn around, reset the pulleys, and deliberately draw myself to the dark. Again and again. This is how torn memories live on; this is how we try to stitch them back together.

This kid, this young woman – Korra – has been captured. She’s important, this character named Korra, because she is something special and powerful called the “Avatar.” It matters to the plot, although not really to my memories. She’s a child, barely the age of my own students. This matters. She’s restrained, held in the air Christ-like in chains. This matters too.

The fantasy reminds me just enough and not too much. A threatening ghost. I do have specific memories of trauma, though most are confused and fragmentary. Still, some crinkle in my hands like something wrapped up and brand new. I remember being held down at my wrists and ankles. More than once, though there’s one time in particular that refuses to fade. To see something like it on the screen is to somehow to experience it without experiencing it.

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So I watch as the bad guys poison the child. I never know if it’s the poison sinking into her skin or the way she jolts in pain, limbs taut, unable to fold in on herself. Whatever it is, I jolt, too, and I never seem able to look away. Watching attentively, remembering… Something. Many things. They’re never clear to me, the rush of memories, but the feeling is exquisite: hurting badly while stretched out, fighting not to flinch.  Ex-quaerere – exquisite – comes from a word that means “to seek,” refers to the perfectly sought and found. Exquisite pain. Instantly, I know the feeling again. That strangely thin terror, frail and tremulous, unable to comprehend surviving. The feeling is the memory.

But here is where Korra changes and I do not.

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The young woman awakens in her most powerful form and breaks free, snapping the links of titanium chains. She fights, furious, wielding devastated revenge. It is not quite enough, and that not quite is something I know. She still almost dies. The poison eats away at her, and her enemy literally tries to steal her breath away. That flickers like something in the back of my brain – I don’t know what. The heroes capture the bad guy, and poor Korra is freed of the poison (mostly).

I don’t know what it would have been to escape. I watch her fight and lose and win, and this is to experience it somehow. To somehow dream of what it might be like to live outside a tragedy. She fights, and I see in her reckless anger my own. She colors in the details, and so do I: to have wanted so badly to claw free, the rage that kind of feeling requires, the rage that still sits there deep in my chest. Hot anger that conceals trembling fear.

She lives, but she’s still hurt – she’s not the same – and that’s a feeling I know too. Or rather, I know what it feels like to be broken until feeling itself seems to have gone away. It matters that she doesn’t make it out whole. It makes a difference, draws me close. I watch it again, that past and that sorrow living on in me and on the moving screen. I’ve done things like this before. Gotten caught in a mimetic loop. It’s something that the traumatized do. I sit almost helpless, obsessed, aching to watch again and again – and again. Trying somehow to safely touch the memories, searching for a way to escape them.

Mourning what did happen through something that didn’t.

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A professor in therapy.

Eingang zum Palais de Roure

Sometimes I love the contradiction of my being: capable yet broken. Other times it’s just painful. I know, for example, that travel saps more strength from me than it does others. That’s part of what it means to have an anxiety disorder. At least for now. But that will take time if it ever arrives. Recovery and coping look different on everyone.

I know for a fact that, as able as my mind is, I cannot do all the things I am able to do. This is when I am most frustrated with myself. I can see what I could do – I could translate that, or respond to this article, or whatever – but I cannot. My body is too exhausted after a long day on full alert, or a flashback rattled my heart loose in its cage. I only have so much of myself to give, and much of me is already given to learning to cope with being myself. Whatever myth taught me that I can do anything as long as my mind is willing is a complete lie. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and the spirit is too.

Sometimes I rage in frustration. I don’t handle anger well. I’m much too conditioned to direct it at myself. So even being angry as I mourn all that I cannot do – even that is very hard.

That’s a whole set of reasons I’m in therapy. I don’t “believe” in therapy because I think that belief only has one proper object: God. But I do think that therapy is helpful and effective, and I think that it is so for academics especially. We’re already stuck in our heads. May as well invite someone in there to help understand what it means to be where we are. We all know that just being somewhere doesn’t mean understanding that place.

Hell, being highly intellectualized means that we’re extremely unlikely to be aware of other very important things: feelings, tired bodies, people.

I’d be in therapy even if I weren’t an academic with a fucked up childhood and adolescence and a fun history of mental illness. I could be a completely normal academic – whatever that is – and I’d still want someone to help me think about what it means to be thinking all the time, how to grapple with my inherent remove from popular society, ways to manage the stress of the job. The benefit of slashing my own throat just means I actually got myself to therapy and have a visceral awareness of my need for it. Therapy doesn’t actually require a bloody story to go and need it.

We don’t wait until we have a heart attack to exercise. Hopefully.

My hope for my own therapy is that it helps me do the things I want to do – including wanting anything at all – and successfully mourn the things that will never arrive to me. I can’t undo abuse. It has taken me a long time to be okay with that, and it’s still hard. I’ll probably never be able to work myself like some scholars do, especially if my workload remains what it is, and I’m not okay with that yet. I know I could be. I could really be okay knowing that I have more stressors than others, more because they affect me more. Okay knowing that will always be a part of me. I’m not yet.

My friend says there’s probably some benefit to the negatives of anxiety. I scowled at her and wondered what the hell that might be. She pointed out that I notice more, and more quickly. I scowled at her, still displeased. I’m not there yet. Someone else go notice things. I’m so tired of watching body language like a hawk.

I’ll just blissfully not know you’re upset.

Therapy lays to bare exactly those kinds of dynamics. Those internal conflicts. In good therapy, I get to determine my own goals. If I have a particular perspective on a problem, okay. A therapist will respect that. A good one will, anyway. My current therapist is very respectful of and open to my religious sensibilities, to the ways Catholicism directs my life. I once had a therapist ask my what “my God” would think of something I’d done. I crossed my arms and glared at her. I didn’t appreciate what I interpreted as a game of pretend. Religious people can be touchy about God. I didn’t have to go to her again, and I didn’t.

Some therapists are awful, and that’s important to know because therapy can make us so vulnerable. Many therapists are really, really good. They’re there for you when you are so very vulnerable. There for you when even the other people in your life aren’t there, or don’t know how to be there, or can’t be.

It’s not at all like confession. As a Catholic, I’ve been asked that a lot. Confession is for the things I know I did wrong, for healing breaks in my relationship to Christ and the Church, for grace to help me heal. The sacrament is medicine applied directly to specific wounds. Therapy is about working through the patterns of feelings that surround the sacrament, that keep me from it or lead me to rely on it in ways it’s never been intended for. We could say that therapy addresses the rush and flow of emotions that accompany me everywhere, including to the sacraments. It’s not about feeling God. It’s about being whole enough to offer myself to God. Baptism and confession address this in fundamental ways. So does therapy. We don’t have to pretend they do the same work.

For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me. Fact.” Regardless of what the sacrament objectively offers – ex opere operato – I have to do the careful work of learning how to subjectively partake in the offering – ex opere operantis. For the saints, this has always meant confidence that seeking God has a way of untying our inward knots. I agree. Therapy is a profound and helpful way to seek God, to try and open up enough to let Him untie me.

Christians also sometimes worry that therapy supplants religion or spirituality. It can, and it has. As with every instrument, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. A hammer can kill someone, but I don’t have to use it that way. I truly appreciate my therapist for being willing to acknowledge a presence greater than either of us can describe, a presence in the room. It is important to me, and important that he is willing to grant it.

He’s not Christian. I love that he isn’t. He has no particular expectations for what a Christian or Catholic “looks” like. That can be confusing for us sometimes, but mostly it’s a relief. Many of my knots center upon failing to look like a “good” Catholic, after all. Other people want a therapist who shares their faith. That’s fine too.

Also, he’s a man. I don’t trust women, not particularly. So that’s fine by me. Others want someone of the same gender. Whatever is comfortable. And it should be about what is comfortable at a basic level. That room won’t always be comfortable, not at all, so elemental forms of trust need to be in place. If that means talking to a man who gets what it’s like, by all means.

Something hard for me is talking about work, and since work is theology, talking about God has the risk of becoming a chance for me to conceal my actual feelings by talking theory. That is my favorite way to not really talk to people wherever I am. “We’ll talk Catholic and I’ll be safe in this corner right here.” So I’ve learned to use simple, simple words. Words a child might use. Other people need to be given a way of talking about that stuff at all.

What I’m indicating is this: because therapy is interpersonal, it is very flexible. This can lead to bad practice, but also to good practice.

I don’t know that everyone should go to therapy. I think it’s good for people, but I’m uncomfortable offering a universal dictum. Unless that dictum has to do with who God is. That one is actually far simpler than diagnosing what ails human beings. The good is more knowable than evil (which is unknowable in itself).

So, yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to have the difficulties that I do. Still, I don’t think that the extremes in my particular life make therapy utterly strange. Sure, I need it “more” than others. That doesn’t mean only people like me need it. Everyone needs to do the work of learning how to be open to the world. It’s not about you understanding yourself so much as it’s about you understanding how to offer yourself to the world in healthy ways. In ways that God wants. Because every offering to God is meant to give life rather than take it.

How much more wonderful that is after braving the depths of the self.

A word on triggers.

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Not my hands and arms. I wanted the image to be striking, and this is definitely.

I have triggers. Real and serious experiences of situations and things that send me backward into something terrible. Triggers aren’t funny to me. They’re not inconsequential fictions of modern psychology that conceal a refusal to confront the difficulty of life. They’re very, very real.

Just last week, I walked into my new office – I had moved down the hall – and our secretary had arranged some chairs and a coffee table in the corner of the room for students. Simple enough. I knew this already as I walked through my door. Then I saw the chairs and stopped dead. Fear, intense fear, slithered up my spine. My heart pounded in my ears. The white walls, the floral patterned cushions, the coffee table: they looked just like a doctor’s waiting room. I’ve been in those hundreds and hundreds of times. I hate doctors; I hate waiting rooms. More importantly, I hate what the image of those chairs and that blank wall reminded me of: painful, miserable abuse. Or rather, waiting for it and knowing it was coming.

Triggered. The chairs triggered me. For God’s sake.

I didn’t have a flashback. (I’ve had those.) Nothing in particular came to mind. I knew where and when I was. But I was on full alert, adrenaline racing through my bloodstream as the mess of feelings I once had in those situations surfaced and played through me again. Physically, emotionally, it was like waiting in that quiet room when I was small.

“These are chairs,” I thought, angry and jumpy. “Just chairs.” So I sat at my desk to see if I could endure them, even tried to make fun of them in a picture, wanted to find some way to live with them. They’re just chairs, after all. But they were right across from my desk, haunting my line of sight. I felt sick, scared. I got up and moved them around. Nothing helped. Finally, I gave up dragged the two chairs into the hallway. Took them out and just left them there. I walked back into my office and nervously took a look at the coffee table. Without the chairs, it didn’t bother me. I sat down at my desk and felt as if a sliver of iron had been pulled out of my chest. I could breathe again.

It took me a long time to calm down.

Our poor secretary was so confused. I didn’t explain much, didn’t know how to explain. Professors are strange and fussy anyway, so I tried to think of it like that. Another random quirk in the ivory tower.

I felt angry and helpless, you know. They’re just chairs. It’s just a wall. A stupid coffee table. But they aren’t just that to anyone, let alone me: they mean what they resemble in our minds. In my case, the similarity is wired up to ugly experiences and painful feelings.

It sucks.

I’m by no means a psychologist, but I have been taught a few things about myself. I’ll try to explain.

Triggers come from something hardwired into our brains. A common analogy is baseball: if you get hit by a pitch, you might flinch at the ball the next time you’re up to bat. Your brain remembers the danger and hurt from last time, instantly recognizes the shape of it, responds using reflexes meant to protect you.

Our brains love patterns. Sometimes I think of the brain, especially the parts always sort of “on” in the background, as this complex and active copyist constantly trying to organize itself. Our brains want to create patterns so that we can recognize similar things more quickly. This can be hurtful (stereotypes, racism, rigid categories, etc.), but mostly it’s helpful (interacting with people, reacting to danger, etc.). So the thing with the baseball is a “copy” in your head of the thing that hurt you. If something like the copy comes up again, you and your brain react accordingly. You flinch. If the copy stops working, your brain drops it. (You’re not afraid of the ball after a while.) If it keeps working, the copy is reinforced. (You swear off baseball.)

We do this with food: if people get sick with food poisoning, sometimes they can never make themselves eat that food again. It just looks disgusting, horrible. Your brain says: I’ve been here before, and no way am I returning. The food is gross now. Which is great, actually, because being poisoned is not in your best interest.

Trauma and triggers are formed out of this instinctual neurological process. Sometimes – not all the time, or perhaps not even most of the time, I’m not sure of the numbers – something bad happens to your brain when something bad happens to you. Sometimes when something really bad happens, the brain doesn’t know what to do with it. One of the DSM-V manual’s requirements for trauma is that the person has to experience a fundamental threat to their safety, especially to their identity or the identity of someone they love. Sometimes people don’t have strong social networks or good environments that help them cope, and the likelihood of our brains being hurt increases. Those sorts of conditions make an experience “too much” to be interpreted.

Interesting how important it is for someone to be cared for even long before they’re ever hurt.

Once a therapist of mine explained trauma as a moment the brain hasn’t make sense of, and reminders of that moment gets the brain repeating through the memory again and again, trying and failing to making meaning of it. And I hate this analogy, but: it’s sort of like a computer that keeps restarting, can’t finish running through the code, and it keeps starting over and trying again and again. As long as the code is the same, it won’t work. It continually not-works.

Lots of people go to war, are sexually assaulted, injured, and so on and do not develop PTSD. The people who do lack one or several of the conditions that would’ve helped them interpret and integrate the experience. In fact, the experience can be objectively less violent – if we want to go there – and still leave a person traumatized if they lack support, affection, and safety.

I have many, many traumatic experiences. These are from when I was very young and stretch sporadically in intensity until young adulthood. Most of the experiences revolve around doctors, coercion, submission, sexual violence. Things like that.

So then.

To be reminded of the pattern awakens the response. These are triggers. They’re somewhat specific, but they’re also an especially heightened version of instincts we all have. Triggers are complex, vary in intensity, and encompass a whole range of possible similitudes.

I couldn’t have predicted the chair thing. (Yeah, I’m pretty miffed over the chair incident.) I see chairs all the time. It still happened, caught me sideways and unprepared. I hate when I can’t predict it. I know, for example, that this specific beep claws my ears to pieces and makes me profoundly agitated. (They remind me of monitors and such.) Since our campus is perpetually under construction/repair with those freaking machines that beep so no one runs into them, I bring headphones. Listen to music. Try to avoid the sound.

Today beeping gnawed on me as i tried to help a student with a schedule. I struggled to focus, felt very distracted, worked to maintain a soothing voice. Had I no filter or control, I’d have reacted to everything with the agitation I felt.

It’s complicated. I can’t control the universe, so I can’t control all triggers. I don’t attend the student information session on assault and dating violence because that’s an easy one to predict.

The thing with the chairs wasn’t so much about chairs as it was the whole gathered visual experience, the Gestalt (form) of the corner of the room is what caught my heart by a metal hook. Sometimes the emotional situation will remind me profoundly of an experience. If I think you’re trying to force me to do something I think would hurt me – even if you’re not and I’m just seeing a false copy – I instantly become angry and afraid. I won’t show you that I’m scared. I learned not to do that, and I definitely don’t want you to see another “weakness.” I’ll survive the situation, probably by agreeing to whatever so you go away, and then freak the hell out. Cry, or rage, or what have you. The feelings are intense, very difficult to understand and soothe. Mostly I feel like I’m drowning and it won’t be over ’til the flooding stops.

I knew I wasn’t in a doctor’s office. Sure seemed like one. Sure kept looking like one. Just knowing isn’t enough. The pattern is still there. I’m slowly learning how to find new patterns, and deal with my feelings when something does happen.

Triggers are real and they are serious, and I have offered a relatively mild one in this space. No, I don’t like that people use the word “trigger” all the damn time for tiny things and “trigger warning” for everything. I also think they’re trying to describe something real. “Trigger” is the best word they know, and really it’s not at all the best. Maybe they want a single word for “this might hurt.” (As if life could always have such signs.) Still, I do want to be allowed to use the word “trigger” and I want it to be considered perfectly legitimate. I want to be able to say that I hate those chairs that were in my office, the chairs that reminded me of waiting rooms, and that my responding fear and anger were real. No, it wasn’t really a waiting room, but the reminder is as real as my bones. It’s my damn brain, and I was reminded. That’s real. The reminder is real. I don’t want to be called afraid of chairs or weak or something. How is it weak to be afraid of a thing so horrible it never quite goes away?

Back off. Given all that, I’m brave to wander around the world at all.

So then, it’s true: right now the words “trauma,” “trigger,” even “abuse” are prevalent, and there is an understandable reaction against this usage. Either way, I have written this because I’m concerned that the debate itself encourages us to lose sight of a few things that are very, very real.