part three of a blog series on trauma, relational compassion, and my new book Parrot Flower.
The unconscious insists, repeats, and practically
breaks down the door, to be heard.
When I was a kid, I loved to play any game that involved finding clues and solving a problem/mystery. Who knew then that I’d spend much of my adult life doing the same, but with real problems and a real psycho-emotional mystery? I had no idea memories of being assaulted at age eight would rush into my mid-thirties and leave pieces of trauma scattered literally everywhere so that I had to search for them or encounter them in the most random moments and try to make sense of the fractured reality they portrayed.
And, I had no idea that a long-term domestic violence situation would further shatter my psyche to the point of a severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis; and that the words stress and disorder wouldn’t even begin to describe the random system overload I experience when something sets off my survival brain flinging open every file until I crash, puzzle pieces everywhere and no energy to arrange them.
“When fragments of past trauma play out inside us,” says Mark Wolynn in It Didn’t Start With You, “these fragments leave behind clues in the form of emotionally charged words and sentences that often lead us back to unresolved traumas.” Those words and sentences are the puzzle pieces, scattered, drawing my attention to a past story needing resolution.
The truth is whatever lurks in the shadowed areas of our mind will eventually demand to be considered. No matter how hard we try to deny its existence, it remains, as Annie Rogers says in Tbe Unsayable, “breaking down the door.” One way or another our traumas will manifest and ask for attention.
Repression of these traumas in the first place, has everything to do with our associations—cultural and social associations. If certain parts of human experience, emotion, pain, etc. are deemed undesirable, too disturbing, and/or shameful by the predominant culture those parts slink into the shadows of our individual psyches and there, by default, we name them dark because they are shrouded in mystery.
Nevertheless, they are there. They are as much a living part of our souls as anything else deemed desirable and acceptable in common culture and society. And they continue to demand attention as living parts of our souls even if we continue to repress them.
In Parrot Flower these traumas most certainly demand attention. The poems themselves are constructed of fragments: words, dialogues, phrases, pieces of letters, questions, and short scenes that all bespeak the fractured dark. They fall like petals into a long narrative about a couple equally plagued my memories of childhood assault. Their child selves, lurking in shadows, try to find sympathy in the other even as they embrace distractions—both mundane and destructive—to avoid feeling.
Still, feeling comes. And still, they reach for whatever temporary mechanism they can find to soothe and appease the traumatized self in secret, coaxing it back into its shadowed place.
When reading this book, I see all of these fragments as clues; just as, when experiencing episodes of PTSD, I find these clues scattered about me. Typically, that’s when I write. Getting curious about these fragments, I begin constructing the anatomy of the self that has been lurking in shadow.
That’s how I wrote Parrot Flower. The woman in the story is, in many ways (though not all ways), me. Her fractured psyche is me. Her pain, terror, need for acceptance, discomfort, and dissociation are all my own even if all her ways of coping with these things do not directly mirror my choices. In her, and in myself, I discover the voices of many survivors; and, over time, our shared pain and appearance become more visible to me.
To be honest--like so many survivors--when my shadowed self surfaces, I often fear her and turn her away. She does not fit well into the predominant culture or my present social circle—so I deny her any space. I repress. Avoid. Cope.
But sometimes, instead of reaching for something to soothe and coax her away, I begin to ask her questions—learning her terrors, insecurities, dogmas, and perceived failures. Writing her story, hearing her speak through it, answering her with something that maybe mirrors love—showing compassion to this flawed shadowed self.
Drawing her out into the light and trusting that there is a similar desire in all of us, no matter how much we deny it, to be seen.
Parrot Flower comes out with Glass Poetry Press in January of 2021. This is the third of a series of blogs I will write on trauma, coping, and relational compassion—the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with others in their darkness and learn from them. But “what value is learning,” asks thirteenth-century theologian Anthony of Padua, “that does not lead to love?” Let’s learn and be led to more love.
part two of a blog series on trauma, relational compassion, and my new book Parrot Flower.
To go in the dark with a light is to know light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
To Know the Dark, Wendell Berry
In Parrot Flower, darkness is evident. There is fear and depression, egoism and defeat, addiction and neglect that manifest in the lives of two people throttled by memories of childhood sexual assault. On the surface, this is distressing and easy to judge; especially if our premise for human existence and behavior is some sort of code to which we must conform—a narrow space.
But what if spaciousness were the premise? What if there was no conformity or code?
In the Biblical poem Song of Songs—my starting point for writing Parrot Flower—a woman begins the drama with “Do not see me only as dark,” and then goes on to explain the abuse that affected her sun scorched appearance. Why this command? I think it’s because we simply associate darkness (as a metaphor) with shame. She is asking a potential lover, as well as her audience, to not see her only as shamed or shameful and, in doing so, socially perpetuate that shame—not to fixate on the parts of her humanity that have been affected by abuse and neglect.
“My brothers ridiculed me and sent me to work in the fields,” she offers in the Song by way of explanation, “They made me care for the face of the earth, but I had no time to care for my own face.” The darkness is natural, she tells us. Don’t fixate. Look deeper. Discover the beauty in this condition and let that inform how you respond to me. This is what she asks us to do.
It’s all a metaphor, of course, for our places of shame—the parts of our personality we are uncomfortable with, the emotions that have been wounded, rejection from others, neglect and harm—anything and everything we don’t want exposed. Many of these “parts” are unacceptable in social contexts. They don’t suit the code, whatever that may be in any context. And those contexts change making the game to hide parts of ourselves more exhausting as we move among different circles or, more easily, choose to adapt to limited social contexts and avoid others.
Responses to trauma from abuse and neglect tend to complicate this issue. As someone with PTSD, I can’t predict when I will suddenly feel aggressed even in the most unaggressive circumstances. In those moments, I meet no social codes. I’m exhausted and fighting my way out of a situation that no one else can observe. It’s my reality alone and its outward expression, by all appearances, is confusing, surprising, troubling, and averting. It’s dark.
And it’s narrow. Not only does my psychological space enclose, but the space around me also encloses as I feel the absence of the companionship and compassion I need. People socially distance from this darkness, the very thing the woman in the Song asks us not to do. No one wants to engage the harm—not in themselves or others.
The challenge, as always, is to re-see harm and harmed persons. What if harm were something to get curious about, something to explore, learn from, witness, and wonder at. What if we got closer to it instead of turning away. What if our starting point were that darkness is a natural response to a harmed and harmful world and that this darkness (as a metaphor) was nothing to be ashamed of. Responding to a traumatic event with repulsion, terror, discomfort, and confusion, and then flailing about in the dark of it is the most natural thing to do. A traumatized person in the throes of traumatic experience (whether past or present) is doing what a traumatized person should do.
I propose that we can learn so much from these harmed parts of ourselves and in others. That, via exploration and even admiration, we can make discoveries about human need and desire that run deep and counter to what is often acceptable in our social systems with their social codes. I don’t entirely know what that means, but I do know that when I get curious about anything instead of judging or examining, I no longer try to fix or change it. I nurture and wonder. Witness and compliment.
These responses, I think, are most healing.
Parrot Flower comes out with Glass Poetry Press in January of 2021. This is the first of a series of blogs I will write on trauma, coping, and relational compassion—the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with others in their darkness and learn from them. But “what value is learning,” asks thirteenth-century theologian Anthony of Padua, “that does not lead to love?” Let’s learn and be led to more love.