Sunday, April 10, 2011

On "Surviving" and Silence

There are so many complications to it: surviving. "Survivor."

I think of all the ways I've been surviving lately, breathing underwater in a stubborn refusal of reality: can't drop out of anything I've gotten into. Suffocating - surviving? I think of surviving - how I haven't updated this blog in what should be considered an absurdly long time for a writer (although I suppose there's been longer). I think of how many times I've come to a blank page with "nothing to say" - how writing my grad school packets becomes torture. I don't want to reveal to you what I know -

"The real question is about love:" Carol Gillian* asserts, "if I love you, will you leave me? It is a child's question: if you leave me, how will I survive?"

And when I say, I don't want to reveal to you what I know, I begin to really mean, I don't want to tell you of this great pivotal source of pain in my life that pushes so many people away, yet happens to have created so much of who I am. I tell myself, knowingly, recognizing it as fair: not everyone wants to know your story - sometimes, it's just too much for them. It doesn't make it better, but everyone has their limits of what they can handle, and that should be respected.

I work anywhere between 30-50 hours a week, dealing with variously traumatized or otherwise injured populations (mental health services, brain injury services, etc.) - and I spend this time attempting to micromanage chaos and crisis, trying to inspire motivation and healing amongst the mundane, the fights, the stubborn refusal to do anything other than watch television. And in this world, I try to pretend my own struggles don't exist - as I feel, professionally, they can't exist. And in interpersonal relationships at work, I make only vague illusions to "struggle" or "dealing with my own stuff" - I grow too afraid to unravel my history before them, watch people ricochet away from me, say things like "she belongs in our services, she's not fit for the job, she can't handle it on top of her own personal history - how can she help other people?"

I smile, oversimplify: "You know - I go to work all day and deal with trauma... and then go home... and study trauma.... It's hard."

I leave out, "and then there's my own trauma to deal with..."

I survive. I go through the day repeatedly catching my chest constricting, remind: breathe. Take in a gulp of air. I survive. And I spend a lot of time involved in my own silence.

It seeps out in dreams of death, of repeated panic attacks in the middle of sleep - dissociating. It leaks out when all I can find is this barring cloud of silence every time I try to write: frustration. It laughs at me as my paranoia escalates over the most casual of conversations, repeatedly reanalyzing the words I did say as if they were so much more worthy and caustic just because they were said. My relationships tremble before me as I wonder how long they'll last, if they'll last when the person becomes closer to me.

I begin living a life precariously on the edge. I begin splitting off from reality, dangerously. Fantasies kick in again and again, illicit if only for the content. Dangerous for their increasing frequency. They suggest another world - one where I ramble, and people listen. One where I confront others and this confrontation is respected. A world where my love is welcomed and reciprocated. I imagine conversations where I detail the ramifications of all I've been through, the consequences of having had my family and my situations - how my present is a conglomerate of the "if I must..." decisions. In these fantasies, people stagger with the weight of living which I am living - in my fantasies, I have witnesses and willing advocates for the traumas I've been through. In my fantasies, I am living in a world where I am laughing, where people realize when you're overstressed and willingly take the extra burdens off your plate without making you feel guilty about it.

I split off into these fantasies, where I am smiling (for once) at the triumphant conversation or the relationship that does not actually exist, leaving the world that's grounding me for the pleasant alternate scenario where hope actually exists and my voice is vibrant and alive. Where the only consequences of my voice are loving relationships, conversations over coffee, late night rendezvous. In this world, there is no awkward stigmatization and distancing, very little of people leaving - and there is generally an increasing acceptance that we're all flawed. It's a particularly unique form of dissociation and coping.

But I always ground myself again: pruning my thoughts and words, reprimanding myself on time wasted. I try to place myself back in reality, reading my homework or attending to an assignment. I concoct to-do lists that I can only hope I'll fully attend to. I remember to be elusive around people, protect stories. I try to control my focus, which tends to wane over the unrealistic for hours. I try to live in the silence which, in an almost disturbing sense, becomes my safe and realistic option. My silence becomes, what feels like, my essential survival tool.

Despite the consistent fatigue, the hyper-vigilance, the restraint, my body clutches silence in fear that it would all be much worse if I were not silent: trying to save up what little resources it has. It is an action that routinely begs many questions:

Is silence healthy or unhealthy?
As an advocate for sexual assault survivors, what example do I set by silencing myself?
Am I regressing back into my trauma or am I recognizing and incorporating my trauma into reality?
What are the limits of (hearing, engaging with) trauma in our relationships and working place?
How frequently do we stigmatize and isolate those who've been traumatized?

And, if silence is required to keep one's community from collapsing, how does one interpret the meaning of survival?
*excerpt from "The Birth of Pleasure" by Carol Gilligan