One of the questions that pop up about once a week on the PTSD/CPTSD groups I follow is “What if I heal, who am I?”
I am a photographer and I think in imagery. I kept thinking about this. The image I came up with is the filthy miners that come out of the coal mines. They are covered in coal dust only their eyes gleam white. Over the years even their lungs are filled with coal dust. The transformation of the miners when they clean off the grime is stunning. The coal dust dominates who they are until it is washed off. Then who are they? No longer looking like miners they become themselves, the self buried under the filth. The person was there all along.
My earliest memories are memories of abuse. Some people refer to a before and after trauma, for me, there is no before trauma. In a sense I was raised in the filth of on going daily abuse. I remember a conversation with my therapist as to why children will stay dissociated for long periods of time. An adult the stress event happens then they reset to a healthy level. He puzzled why children do not do the same. I shrugged my shoulder, “That’s easy, on Monday, I will go hungry so my brothers can have seconds. On Tuesday, I will go hungry so my brothers can have seconds. On Wednesday, I will go hungry so my brothers can have seconds. When does it end?” All I knew was the abuse added upon by the abuse of a neighbor. Added upon the humiliation at school. It was what I knew and I adapted.
My counselor asked me who I was. I told him that I am a wife, mother, computer tech….he pointed out that is what I did. I imagined him like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “Who… are… you?” Like Alice, I hardly knew. He challenged me to find out. The interesting thing to me is that many of the people that ask this kind of question are afraid to find out. They are so used to the dirt, they are worried they will fall apart or have nothing left if it is washed away. They hardly consider the possibility they are a person in need of a good washing to let themselves shine through.
I needed to find out who I was. My therapist encouraged me to watch the movie “Runaway Bride.” The writer realized that the Runaway bride adapted to whoever she was dating. He pointed out to her, she didn’t even know how she liked her eggs cooked. I actually started there. I like my eggs cooked sunny side up with salt, pepper and toast on the side. I began to explore who I was under all the years of abuse. Washing away the impact of years of filthiness takes time, effort, major scrubbing, melt downs, and sometimes wishing I could just give up. However, I learned that I couldn’t un-know that I had possibilities far different than how I was raised. I saw a glimpse of a different me waiting for me to wash away my past. That image keeps me going when I want to give up.
Mud run I did years ago, reminded me how filthy you can get and it takes a while to clean up.