I spent August in South Africa, and had a wonderful time. It’s such a beautiful country and I feel alive there, and I stayed with some amazing friends who kept me laughing the whole time. But I was nervous about returning. I didn’t know how my head would react to having 4 weeks in a quiet South African hamlet, and then returning back to my life here in the UK. My life here is hectic, unquestionably, and not completely safe. I love the time I spend with my friends, and I thrive off of being busy and doing various activities, but being in an environment where I don’t feel safe and have to constantly watch my back is exhausting and emotionally very draining. I have to watch my emotions and energy levels like a hawk, to try and catch myself or at least shout loudly if I can feel I’m running at a wall. I couldn’t wait to see my friends again but I somehow wished I could just teleport them and my degree to South Africa. Granted there are dangers there too, but ultimately it’s pretty far away from my family or anyone close to them.
I landed Monday and spent the day despairing about the British weather and being slightly overwhelmed by the number of cars there are around Heathrow/London. Yesterday I saw friends and kept busy, but could feel the effects of a long journey starting to kick in. So this morning when I felt edgy and restless, I wasn’t really surprised. But I have a lot of work I need to do, and my head wouldn’t focus. I stared at my laptop, I drummed my fingers on the keys, groaned repeatedly, tried seeing if a nap helped (it didn’t), and then gave up. I felt like my head was trying to get my attention, like when a little child is poking my leg repeatedly, whining at me and not letting me relax until I at least say ‘what’s wrong?’
Deep down, really, I knew what was wrong. I knew what my head wanted me to do, and I didn’t want to listen. Sometimes along this long and complex journey it feels like my mind is my greatest friend and ally, and at other times it feels like my worst enemy. It does things which surprise me or don’t, at the time, make any sense and can in fact be traumatic. Often, though, I can see in hindsight how even these more painful and bewildering moments were actually deeply helpful for my recovery. I couldn’t see it at the time, but ultimately my mind was still trying to recover, heal, and protect me. As such, I try not to fight it when it’s clearly craving or needing something. So this morning I did what my mind wanted me to do, even though emotionally I wanted to run away and hide from it.
In my bedroom, in a corner, there are boxes. These boxes haven’t been moved or looked in for the entire time I’ve lived here (over 2 years). They are boxes of stuff from my past life, and I knew most of them hadn’t even been packed by me. My grandmother had packed lots for me when I moved to University, and that stuff had remained in these boxes. (three years ago). Throughout my first year at Uni, the stuff didn’t leave the boxes, but rather I just put more crap on top of the stuff already there. So every box had my grandmother’s packing, and then my own discarded crap of negative memories on top. Needless to say, these boxes genuinely had the potential of turning into a real life Pandora’s Box.
And so I have ignored the boxes. They have sat in a corner of my room, growing dustier and dustier, with cobwebs forming around the sides and corners. Then I got a blanket and for a while that covered the boxes – out of sight, out of mind, and all that shit. Occasionally, I’d end up with some other object with very negative emotions/memories attached to it, and I’d just throw it in the top of one of the boxes. I removed the blanket after a while, as a half-hearted attempt to persuade myself into sorting the stuff out. And that’s as far as I got, and so the boxes remained…full of painful crap, and growing dusty, dirty, desperate to be forgotten but in fact just the huge elephant in the corner of the room. In this sense, they physically represented the corner of my mind that was attached to the memories and emotions in the boxes. The corner of my mind that I’d also denied and neglected, scared of what I’d discover and how painful it would be, and so I’d left that corner of my mind to go dusty and forgotten, but painfully close to where I can see it. Everytime I considered facing it, something bigger and more important came up, and so I – albeit a little too gleefully – pushed the opportunity away again. Then I convinced myself there’d be spiders in the boxes. That was enough to put me off even looking at the boxes for a good while.
And, mostly, it hasn’t bothered me. Nobody else sees the boxes, and I’m rarely in my room. I could just keep denying the dusty, painful corner, and grow used to the weight I felt whenever my eyes scanned the room and saw it. This morning, apparently, my mind had had enough of this.
I returned from South Africa feeling more sure of myself, and more sure of my potentials and abilities, and also of my desires and realistic ambitions. My life feels much more like it has a future now, and even though the plans might change, at least there are now plans to work on. I felt like a lost ship in the sea before, not really sure where I was going, spending half my life bracing desperately against the next dangerous wave, and the rest of my life going through the motions and hoping I’d reach a point in the journey where I understood the purpose of it, and could believe in a future. I think I’m beginning to reach that point, but to truly reach that point, I need to clear out some of the deliberately neglected corners of my mind – or room – and put them to rest, instead of carry them around like a dirty dusty weight. I need to clean the dirt away…
So after growling at my laptop and slowly accepting my mind wasn’t going to let me work until I paid it some attention, I went upstairs to my room. I knew I didn’t want to do this, but with abuse and painful recovery moments following, who in their right mind actually does want to do it? Someone else put me in this position, I’m not here by any degree of choice, and yet I am the one who needs to pick up the pieces and sort out the crap, if I am to stand a chance at recovering properly. Of course I don’t want to re-live what they did to me, just so a corner of my room looks tidier. But I knew I needed to. I knew it would be powerfully healing if I was brave enough to do it. To sort through the memories hidden in the various boxes, and decide for myself what to do with them. To throw them into the rubbish bin and imagine them being crushed in a bin lorry. To remove the dark corner of my room, and mind, on my own terms and in my control. I had considered asking my friend to just bin the lot, and I’d buy him a million pints in return. But I knew this would be pointless – I wouldn’t heal that way, it’s just shoving the dirty elephant in the room to another place – not dealt with, unattended to, and still gradually choking my head.
So I went to my room and stared at the corner for a while, trying to practically think about the best way of dealing with this. I could feel my heart racing already and the trembling started. I cursed my abusers repeatedly under my breath. I knew once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I also knew I didn’t want to touch any of the contents with my hands; I didn’t want that physical connection back to the abusers again, thank you very much. I got the vacuum cleaner ready, and some bin bags, and put on my horseriding gloves. I decided they’ve been covered in enough shit in their time, that a little more wouldn’t hurt 😉
And then I cried. I hadn’t even started and I was crying. For half a second I was angry at myself, but then I stopped myself. I needed these tears. I was about to go through a stressful and triggering experience, with memories of goodness knows what attached to contents in these boxes. I couldn’t remember everything that was in the boxes so each box had the potential of surprising me. Every box held a lot of tears, that much I did know, and now the tears were coming. It was okay. So I let myself cry. Gently the tears came and my body shook in frightened protest, and I quietly encouraged my arms to move, and my legs to bend so I could sit down. I took a deep breath, trying to keep the feeling of panic under control, and pulled the first box across the floor. And so it went.
With each object my tears grew stronger and my emotions more haywire. Some objects made me physically heave. A fair few had been in a room, years ago, whilst I was being raped or hurt. Whenever I’m being hurt I try desperately focus on some inanimate pointless object in the room – namely, my old bedroom – and pay close attention to every aspect of the object. Colour, texture, scratches, marks. Some of these pointless objects were in the boxes. Holding them in my gloved hands, I felt the physical and emotional sensation of being back in the bed, staring at this stupid thing in my hands now, willing it to somehow help me. I held these objects in turn, sobbed, my tears splashing onto them, my stomach turning and gagging violently. A few times I had to run out to throw up. One object, a tiny porcelain dog, reminded me of when I was little. This dog sat on my windowsill and fitted comfortably in the palm of my hand, with my thumb resting on its head. I used to tell it everything. How on earth it had made its way into one of these boxes is anyone’s guess. I stared at it in my hand and wonderedhow much did you see, little dog? If only you could speak…
Because the top half of each box was full of my more recent – and less traumatic – crap, it meant the more I dug, the worse it got, because the worst stuff was at the bottom. By about half way, my crying had become physically painful and I had to take a couple minutes out. My ribs ached from sobbing, my tears were running out and dry-sobbing is the worst. My body was violently shaking and trembling, going through it’s own body-memories and trauma. I could feel my stomach muscles contracting, and my neck throbbing from tension. I was drenched with nervous sweat. Just something as simple as searching through forgotten boxes had caused a massive trauma response for me. I was re-living memory after memory, desperately trying to prevent myself from going into a full-blown flashback, and instead existing in a parallel state, not quite ‘conscious’ but not in a flashback either. Just locked in emotions and body memories. I wanted to quit. My god I wanted so much to give up. I’d done half – wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t I run now? But I knew I couldn’t quit. I needed to sort it all, throw it all out, cry for every fucked up moment of it all, and clear the corner of my bedroom, and thus the corner of my mind. I needed to be free from this shit, even though it was killing me to do it.
I tried singing, and it turned out that helped. So I kept going, singing to myself amongst the sobs, picking through each box in turn, feeling glad I was wearing gloves and still physically distanced from various levels of trauma and triggers. I found a camera and went cold – what photos would be on it? Would they be so daft as to leave a camera with criminal photos on it? I put this to one side. (NB, I have since checked, but the camera just had photos of a holiday, phew.) I found a memory stick – my school memory stick, and I smiled slightly, remembering the stress of trying to squeeze all the 7 a levels worth of coursework onto this one stick. I found old clothes, and gagged again, remembering so many horrible moments that had happened whilst I was in those clothes.
Finally, it was done. Everything painful thing is now in bin bags. The dust has all been sucked into a vacuum cleaner; the boxes are empty, waiting for me to fill them with objects carrying memories of my life now. Memories of my current life which is hectic, but so much safer and beautiful than my life from before. Memories of my life now which have the real chance of a future. I will pack the boxes with stuff I don’t currently need, and in 3 years time (or so), maybe sorting through memory boxes will be a chance for laughing and remembering, and reminiscing with friends. It needn’t be this traumatic and painful, ever again. Isn’t that wonderful?
The corner of my room is free now, and my mind feels massively lighter, like a weight I wasn’t even aware of has been lifted. I cried for a fair amount of time afterwards, now as a complete release and also as a form of self-grieving I guess. I hugged myself and cried, and let myself cry, and congratulated myself for having succeeded in clearing out the corner.
The process was very healing, on various levels. It hurt like hell, it frightened me and upset me, it put my body into a state of memory and terror, and my emotions on extreme mode… but this is why I’m writing this, for those survivors out there who have periods or moments in recovery that hurt so much, you wonder why you’re bothering. I get that sometimes. If it hurts this much now, when it hurt this much before, then what’s the point? But the point is this: what happened to you is painful, and so of course sorting through that is going to hurt. But I promise you…the relief you feel when you realise YOU took control of that pain and darkness, and dealt with it, and didn’t die or get abused for it…that relief is beautiful, and empowering, and will help you step further forwards in recovery. Bravery hurts a lot. And it is bravery to sort through so much pain and force yourself to keep going even though you want to fall apart and give up. But it’s worth it. It frees you… be brave and know you’re not alone, and that you deserve that freedom…
healing thoughts to all..