Thursday, December 18, 2014
When last I met with my therapist he gave me some homework to do. The homework was focused on the issue of being a victim and the associated mentality that we might find ourselves unintentionally carrying long after an experience of victimization. My therapist asked me to ponder how I might act like a victim in my present life.
One clear way in which we can involuntarily behave like victims is to relive an experience of trauma by repeatedly recalling the memory of the event to our consciousness. Another word that may describe this behavior is rumination. I clearly see how my own rumination has proven to be a waste of copious amounts of time and energy.
Blaming others for the circumstances of your own life is another way a person can behave like a victim. A better way of speaking about the issue of blame would be to introduce the words fault and responsibility. Fault may imply guilt for those who perpetrate an unjust action. Responsibility is a more neutral word. Other people may prove to be at fault for allowing or deliberately making something happen that harms another person.
An excellent example of a complicated scenario is child abuse and neglect. Parents who abuse or neglect their children could be described as being ‘at fault’ for such behavior. Yet when such abused children later go on to develop dysfunctional coping behaviors (either as children or also as adults) they have a responsibility to clean up the psychic mess made possible by their parents’ poor behavior. Is it fair that children should have to fix the messiness that their parent’s shortcomings or genuine negligence caused? No it isn’t fair. It is unjust. But if you want to have a rewarding life you have to find a way to take responsibility for how other people’s lives have ultimately affected your own.
Besides what I would call involuntary re-traumatization and blame a person can also act out of a victim consciousness by stubbornly clinging to an outdated identity. People change. People change for a variety of reasons. To cling to that which no longer serves our highest good is to refuse to allow for the inevitable process of change that will be a constant feature in all of our lives (whether we want it to of not). Growth takes courage and a willingness to let go.
I find myself feeling more and more capable of letting go lately. There have been portions of the last eighteen months of my therapeutic odyssey (yes I think using that word is fitting) in which I felt mired in a ‘2 steps forward and 1.9 steps back’ scenario. Other times the progress has been less halting and felt more irreversible.
As I prepared to make my way to visit with my therapist today I was able to articulate an important change in the nature of my grief. I find myself spending less and less time grieving the actual traumas that caused me so much sorrow. I am aware that more and more my grief is due instead to the consequences those traumas had on my sense of self and my sense of what was possible for me to create in my life. I am thus no longer grieving discrete events that took place outside of my skin and bones but instead how these events changed who I later became.
At first blush it might not seem this distinction in the focus of my grief is really all that meaningful. But reflecting on it further leads me to a different conclusion. I cannot really change events that took place years and decades ago. But I can change the person I am now. I can change the habits of thinking and being in the world that I developed as a way of coping with the trauma I experienced. In my personal experience it becomes a lot easier to change your life once the traumas you have experienced lose their hold over your psyche. Once your identity is no longer wrapped up in unhealed traumas it becomes much easier to move forward.
I suppose I have been thinking about this distinction in my grief due in part to my recent visit to Chicago. As I recounted in recent postings in my blog I went to the Loyola University campus (where I once was a student a number of years ago) during my visit to Chicago. I made an offering in honor of my paternal family of origin that also served as a ritual of separation and closure.
While visiting this once familiar section of Chicago I thought about this photograph taken of me from January, 1999. I was only twenty-five years old at the time. There was a mound of snow behind me in the picture. Winter sunlight was falling on my face and causing me to squint. I looked so young at the time. I held this remembered image of my younger self in my mind as I briefly visited the property where I once lived. For a matter of a few minutes I stood and looked at the split building and its driveway. I remembered that day in May, 1999 when I said goodbye to my Jesuit colleague Tim Calvey, got into my rental car and began my seven day drive across the country to my new home in California. It was strange to reflect on how it had been over fifteen years since that important day in which I redirected the future course of my life. As I think back on that moment of departure I can now say with firm conviction that my early history of trauma was still bothering me at the age of twenty-five. When I left Chicago to begin a new life in California the darkness of my childhood was still inside my heart and mind. I just didn’t appreciate how much that history had affected me.
I still feel some sadness that my childhood history burdened me well into my young adulthood. Did it have to be that way? No it did not. Could I have successfully attended to the psychic harm that had accumulated within me earlier in my life? Yes I could have. How could I have done that? I could have listened better. Had I really been paying better attention I could have taken the cues provided to me that something was a bit off about how I met the world each and every day.
Despite the blurred perception (and literal vision) that characterized my earlier life I nonetheless have cause for celebration. I have excellent news. It is possible to heal. My life these last eighteen months is living proof of what is possible when you set your mind to heal your life.
I’m still not done with my own process of healing. But I do feel I am starting to perceive the end of my conscious journey under the facilitation of a therapist coming in the not too distant future.