Can I tolerate peace?


A couple days ago, I had what I call a meltdown. A melting down of many of the psychological structures that hold my world together. A melt down of a boundary between the past and the present. A melt down of my clear sense of truth, of what is true for me and what I believe is true of the world.

Before my melt down, I tried numbing my feelings with television and household chores. I was cooking dinner when my partner arrived home. In the company of a loved one, I could melt. Crumble. Fall apart. These words symbolize dis-integration, a breaking into pieces. In my 13 years of living with complex PTSD and healing with/from it, I knew somewhere in me that this was a healthy dis-integration of my old ways of knowing and an integration of my new life in freedom. 

My new life in freedom includes emotional meltdowns. The word meltdown is slightly derogatory, often used to refer to children expressing uncontained emotions, emotions we think they should not be feeling, or expressing the way they are. But I don't mean it as derogatory. I mean to refer to the feelings of childhood when something feels too much, too confusing or discordant and there are no words to express it, only outward physical displays of distress. 

I never got to melt down as a kid. I never had a tantrum. I had displays of distress - crying myself to sleep, crying at school, unexplainable physical pain, ulcers, and a couple times, screaming while in an empty house after speaking with my mother or father on the phone. I carried extreme distress in my belief of culpability and in my shame. I could ease my pain by believing that I deserved harm and I caused horrible acts. 

My recent meltdown came a week after unbelievable external validation for who I am. My meltdown came after success - after I was recognized and applauded for the actions that I value, and that I view as success. I'm not talking about a let down from a high of joy. Or withdrawal from all the public accolades. I am talking about a let down during the experience of joy. My internal world - my psyche - was not nurtured to experience joy as a safe and calm emotion. 

When I was being raped and sold by my parents, joy was fleeting. Joy was a representation of everything that by parents did not have - hope. They did not have much hope for their lives nor did they have love for life and love for others.  There was no coming home and telling them about my day at school. There were no pictures of scribbles and finger paint posted to the refrigerator door. There was also no congratulations, good job, or I love you. There is no laughter.

At school, I found some solace. Teachers would hug me, I could get good marks, and I could get awarded for good behavior and obedience. In school, I learned to love singing. I had a primary school principal, who would bring together an assembly, play guitar, and have us sing along to the school anthem he wrote.  I continued singing in middle school.  I felt what Frederick Douglass talks about where singing was an expression of the slaves' pain.  Music was a place where I could express emotion, without telling everyone about the horrors that I was suffering. 

I earned my way to sing a solo at a winter concert. I had to beg my mom to let me leave my duties at her nail salon, and go perform in the concert. Despite many years of her betrayng me, I still asked her to come watch me sing. I told her she didn’t have to come to the whole concert, "just come for 10 minutes".

When I got on stage, there was still no sign of her. I was not able to give a performance I was proud of. My friends are reassured me, but I could not be consoled. I silently berated myself for wishing she was there. I should’ve known better by then. I want to the school parking lot to see if she was there to pick me up and she was. I asked her how long she had been waiting. She said 20 minutes. My performance started about 15 minutes earlier.

I mumbled. "You probably would’ve caught the last part of my song. My mother proceeded to scold me. “ I just got off of work, and I just wanted five minutes of quiet. Is that so much to ask for? You act like I’m the worst parent. It’s just a school concert.” She probably said more but I was busy trying to force myself to stop wanting her to care, and trying to hide my rage and my tears. 

Two weeks ago, I wrote something that I am very proud of. I struggled all semester to clarify my thoughts. I emotionally wrestled with how various academic writers challenged me. I did not write those authors off stupid or refuse to engage with them. I studied them.  I articulated what I disagree with. I articulated what I think. I thought about what I know to be true and how I know it. I thought about my thinking. And I thought a lot about what it means for me to say my thoughts. To say any thoughts, to put out ideas, and engage in academic conversation, but mostly, to put forth MY thoughts. My song, my solo.

What if I sing, and the person I want to hear my voice is not there? What if they will never listen? 

I must sing anyway. I must sing because it is my voice. I must write because it allows me to exist. I am must write because it allows me to hope. To hope that I can communicate my experience and that someone else will find themselves in my writing.

In my deep moments of pain, I mostly want someone to sit and listen. I mostly want to be heard. I mostly want someone to witness my experience and try to engage with me in my humanity. I don’t want to be fixed or advised. I want a relationship. I want my reality to exist in the world and be okay to exist as it is. 

When I get awards or people I respect tell my writing is good for publication, I feel a fleeting joy. A couple weeks ago, it wasn’t fleeting. I tolerated joy for about a week. This week of joy, experienced in my waking hours, was met with over a week of nightmares - memories of trauma. This weekend, the nightmares stopped but daytime flashbacks occurred. As I prepared to submit a draft of my writing, my body reacted subconsciously to memories of danger. 

I walked around scared and feeling threatened. I worried someone “would find out what Im really like”. That I’m not who they think I am. That really, I am the whore my mother and father said I was. Really, I’m a selfish, narcissistic, and conniving person. 

I cognitively know these statements are not true. But I dont emotionally know it. The cells in my brain and body don’t know it - don't believe it 100 percent. 

I do not get to take for granted my sense of safety and I do not get to take for granted a belief in my basic goodness as a human being. (See Erik Erickson basic trust vs music mistrust for an amazing reading on this). 

I do not (yet?) take for granted that my truth matters. 

My truth is that every success that matters to me is followed with seemingly unprecedented grief and pain. The more I life and speak my truth, the more I feel aligned with my spiritual purpose, the more I am able to feel the pain of all the years where this was not true. 

My safety and my success make it possible for me to tolerate the memories of terror and pain. Some survivors of trauma know what a success it is also to tolerate these memories. I find myself wanting to transform my experience of joy into what I think it’s supposed to be and what I assume you think it’s supposed to be. I find myself wanting joy and only joy. 

Though I hope this won’t be the case forever, right now, my joy is also met with a lot of sorrow and pain. Whether I or you want that to be different for me, that is what is. 

Can I show up to my own concert now? Can I celebrate my singing, and how brave I was to sing a solo, AND grieve for the child whose mother did not care to listen? 

Can I tolerate the pain that follows my joy?  If I cannot, then I will be prone to avoid joy. I will be prone to avoid giving myself experiences that will truly bring me peace. 

I feel a yearning for peace so deeply, but the chaos inside represents a war that I’m familiar with.

I more familiar with a daily war for my selfhood. I don’t yet know what it is like to live in peace time. 

Can I tolerate peace? 

On some days, I'm not sure. But I tell myself on those same days, I have every right to try.  

Minh Dang