I can still almost feel the heat of the sun on my bare stomach from one of the days when my cousin and I were sitting in the low beach chairs next to an old bauxite mine filled with brilliant blue water turned that color from the minerals used to make aluminum in the dirt below it. We munched on Golden Flake BBQ potato chips and sipped Pepsi-Cola from a can. It was one of those days I wished would never end.
My mind has drifted back to this memory several times over the course of my life. It was a good day when I felt safe, accepted and with few cares in the world.
Sometimes I forget that I am still that same girl who was able to enjoy the present moment and soak up the sun. Sometimes I forget that it is OK to give myself permission just to be present.
I think this moment stands out so profoundly in my mind, because throughout my childhood there were many moments I did not feel it was safe to be present for. The pain was just too much.
It is not uncommon for survivors of childhood abuse to cope with the pain of abuse by dissociating from the present.
Teresa Pasquale defines dissociation in her book Sacred Wounds.
The primary coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma and couldn’t physically leave their circumstances may have been to numb out. This can mean shutting down feelings, but it can also involve completely removing oneself from the situation. When mind and spirit exit an experience entirely, it is called dissociation. Dissociation can be the floating above yourself and seeing what is happening experience, often experienced by those who have survived sexual trauma or extensive physical abuse.
I learned in counseling a few years ago that I am someone who has been dissociating as a way to cope for most of my life. Many of my childhood memories are foggy bits and pieces of traumatic events mixed in with a deep sense of shame that somehow these bad things were my fault. Today, as an adult it is still difficult for me to remain in the present moment especially the difficult ones. I recognize it is because my brain learned a long time ago it was safer to escape.
A big part of my healing journey has been learning how to practice self-compassion. I acknowledge that dissociation was the only resource I had as a child when bad things happened. On the worst nights with my adopted father, my vivid imagination gave me the ability to be somewhere else. On his bedroom wall there was a newspaper copy in a frame of the Footprints poem. I loved the beach. The thought of the waves rocking me back and forth like a mother would her baby soothed my soul. When the darkness came, I learned how to imagine the beach. It was so real, I could almost feel my body rocking back and forth on calm ocean waters. Dissociation felt like a gift from God then.
However, as an adult dissociation has not served me well. When we cope by escaping, we miss the things that are bringing us harm without even knowing it. When I was abused as an adult by a religious leader, dissociation kept me in a toxic relationship for almost a decade. It was only when I began to process this abuse with my therapist, that I could begin to understand that my mind was removing me from the present moments in an effort to escape suffering and shame. Her compassionate care helped me to see that his abuse was not my fault. When she was present with me in my suffering, I learned that it was OK for me to be present as well.
It takes work for most of us to stay in the present in our world full of distractions. Sometimes we need an escape. Television feels like a warm blanket wrapped around my throbbing mind at the end of a stressful day. It is OK to be kind to ourselves and soothe ourselves with a good show. A psychologist once told my husband that a certain amount of denial is even good, otherwise we might not get in the car and drive down the road. It’s all about balance. Those of us who have experienced trauma struggle with this balance. Our brains default mode is survival rather than homeostasis. I have learned that balance is not natural for me. It feels unnatural for me to be still and allow myself to notice my breathing and my feet on the floor. Sometimes it feels like a waste of time to open up this blog and begin to write. I am learning that healthy brains like healthy bodies take work. Sometimes I reap the benefits of making better choices. Sometimes I put on a few extra pounds. This is about balance, too and learning to be kind to oneself in the process. Because the more we learn to love ourselves, the more we are able to be present with ourselves.
Healing takes time. One step at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time sometimes 5 minutes at a time. Especially when it’s hard. Keep moving forward. Even when you fall behind. Find safe beings who will love you unconditionally in moments of intense pain.
Grounding, mindfulness, and guided relaxation practices can help teach the brain and body to stay present and focused in peaceful moments so it can access those resources also in distress. For more severe dissociation, therapy with a trained trauma therapist is necessary to learn ways to contain stress and find safe space in the mind, body, and physical world. Once the brain-body system can integrate a sense of safety, it will begin staying present rather than exiting when stressed. Teresa Pasquale, Sacred Wounds