Learning to live with what is broken

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....In feigned completeness I would walk the lonely
longest distance between all points and others
because in their connection my geometry will have
been faithful to its own imagined laws...
— Barbara Kingsolver, American Biographies

My own imagined laws. These laws make so much sense in my inner world—with my geometry. They are the laws of nature, the rules, the commandments I created to survive trauma. Don’t move. Don’t flinch. Ignore what hurts. Figure out what they want or need and do it. Feelings are dangerous, shut them down. I used to call them the ‘old rules’ but now I don’t even know what to call them. They are habit, they are instinct, they are woven into the way I approach relationships. The way I form expectations. They are so hard to unlearn, to ignore, to change.

It is so hard to see these laws for what they are because they are substrate, they live below the surface, they are not what you see in my work, or hear in my words, they are the emotional source code that my behavioral computer runs off of. I can’t see them until I have lived them. So many times I have thought that I understood them, changed them, saw them for what they were—and then I suddenly find that I am living the old laws again.  I stay silent when I should have spoken up. I don’t ask for help or reach out. I am sure I have made them angry. The rules can feel so real, even if you know, really know, that they aren’t real anymore. That they don’t fit your life now.

This is the disorientation of surviving trauma. You are always living in more than one place at a time: your body is in 2019 and your brain, your emotional system can be catapulted back to 1969. Or 1972. Or 1982. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t lived through trauma. It’s hard to make this dynamic visible. It’s hard to objectively see the dilemma for what it is. But last week, I got to see in a much more visible and less emotionally charged way what it looks like when a map doesn’t match reality.

I was visiting my brother in Nashville and we spent Saturday running errands for his job. He has a truck with a video screen GPS navigation system built in to the dashboard. As I had never been to Nashville before I didn’t notice at first that his GPS didn’t match up with where we were. But as I began to pay attention, I noticed that the road we were on was not the road on the screen. His GPS was broken, but in a sort of magical way. The road we were driving on was in Tennessee; the road on his screen was in Missouri. No matter where we were driving—we were in one place, and the GPS had us located in someplace completely different. It was inconsistent and it would shift around. Sometimes on the screen we were on a small back road even though we were currently on a major highway. Twice the GPS located us in the middle of a lake. Once we were even in France. His GPS also had a feature that showed the weather—so often the GPS warned us of rain and lightning even though at the time we were driving through a cloudless day. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the make-believe world we were driving in. I’d look at the road ahead and then look at the GPS to see where the car thought we were. The map that looked so real, and actually was real, it just wasn’t where we actually were. It wasn’t our currently reality. It was impossible to use this GPS map to navigate.

I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO SURVIVE TRAUMA!”  You are in 2019 driving through your life and your whole internal GPS operating system is running off of a different map. I wanted to take everyone I knew for a ride in that car. I wanted to shout “YOU TRY AND NAVIGATE YOUR WORLD WITH THAT MAP.” It is exhausting to always feel lost. It is exhausting to always be trying to get back to where you are.

Seeing that GPS made me realize something I had been fighting for a very long time. As hard as I had tried to reprogram that map—years and years trying to undo, unlearn, rewrite those old laws—much of my GPS was fundamentally broken. Yes, some of my hard work had paid off—and some of the old rules and old laws seemed to fade away. But there were plenty that never seemed to yield. There were too many times that I was standing in the present trying to navigate with an old map and the weight of this constant struggle filled me with despair.

I took my inability to fix my internal maps personally. I saw it as a character flaw. But realistically I could no longer see it as a lack of effort. Watching that broken GPS helped me decide that I was too tired to fight my old GPS anymore. When I got back from Nashville my therapist and I discussed whether it was time to admit that perhaps there were parts of me that just weren’t going to get better. Parts that might remain hurt and that what I was living with was as good as it was going to get. I decided to finally surrender to what was broken in me: I was just going to observe it and let it be. I was going to do what my brother did with his broken GPS—just drive around with it and not use it for navigation—not try to use it as any form of information other than what it was—information about my history.

In admitting defeat the first thing I noticed was a sense of relief. I could feel the exhaustion and there was massive relief from not having to fight it anymore, not have to rally against it anymore. I actually could feel myself breathe more deeply.

And then this relief gave way to sadness. At first I felt sad because I didn’t just let go of the fight, I also let go of hope. And there is real sadness at this loss of hope—loss of the relentless hope that it all would get better. Hope that there was a version of me that was unhurt by the trauma. Relentless hope is a such a powerful pain medicine—it numbs this sadness somehow— and it allows the fantasy that if you can heal something, then maybe the trauma never even happened.

But once the sadness from the loss of hope subsided a different sadness appeared. A deep, heavy grief—grief for what I lived through, grief for what didn’t happen and grief for what might never heal. And this grief is with me now. I realize I have spent years running away from it, wanting it to be gone, wanting to fix it, wanting it not to be true. And now I am just sitting with it, the way you sit at the bedside of a very sick friend. Learning to live with what is broken is like that I think. You can’t do anything to actually change the situation, but you can be there, you can stick by yourself, and you can be good company to yourself while you go through the experience. And maybe that’s healing of a different sort.

© 2019 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

Another America: Otra America
By Barbara Kingsolver