Thursday, February 13, 2003

Full Competency Mode

One of the things that's a little strange for anyone who lives with me (but that seems normal to me) is that I'm much more expressive of emotion about small things than big ones. That is, more expressive of *negative* emotion. I’m pretty good at expressing the full range of pleasures, and I’ve always been open and enthusiastic. It’s the hard things — anger, pain, grief, despair — that silence me.

All my profanities are reserved for minor mechanical annoyances (well, and politicians); I use words to the stove I would under no circumstances use to another human being, no matter what they were doing to me. In fact, you can tell if I’m addressing a person or an inanimate object by vocabulary alone.

If I'm moderately upset about something, I can talk about it. Though I rarely yell, I do sound angry, and I’ll say I am angry. I am really clear about my feelings. I fight fair, though: I don't attack people, call names, or any of that ugliness. I focus on behavior and its effects.

If I'm extremely upset, I go into Full Competency Mode. For as long as the crisis lasts (minutes, months), I'll speak in calm tones, show zero affect, and deal with the problem. When it’s over, then I withdraw to deal with the emotion alone. Sometimes in that solitude, I abandon myself to the darkness, at least for a while. Other times I find ways to move away from it — ways I can’t seem to manage when I have to deal with the presence of another human being.

Though I withdraw, I always come back. Pursuing me into that silence, despair, anger, tears is a Bad Idea. I'm very clear about warning people, but not everyone believes me. Michele knows not to follow me or try to touch me when I withdraw. (Billy never believed me that solitude was what I wanted and needed — no matter how often I told him.) Because she has always been trustworthy, over the years I've started to be able to share some of those painful times with Michele. I can even sometimes accept comfort from her. Letting someone touch me when I’m upset is a real step in intimacy.

The silencing extends into writing as well as speaking. I was able to post about my father’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, to start working it through in writing, because I wasn’t devastated by it. When Diane was killed a week later, I carefully informed a few friends, shut down, stopped posting at all for months, and did not discuss her death publicly for more than six months — and only then because someone else let it slip. It took me nine months to cry for her.

And when I did, when I let myself experience all the weight of grief for her, for my dying father, for the marriage ending around me, for all the other stresses — then I went into years of silence, despair, emotional exile.

I spent most of my first twenty-one years in Full Competency Mode. Let’s be clear: this is a kind of dissociation. I was possessed of deep emotion, which I did not express. I intellectualized. Translating feelings to thought seemed safer. And I learned far too early that though I could not ignore or forget what happened to me, I could bear the pain more easily by separating myself from my body. Not as floating above; I was in my flesh when I was hurt and raped. But it was “my flesh,” something separate from “me.” I kept narrative memory and the feelings apart. If they came together, I would be crushed under their weight. I nearly choked to death on all the truths I didn’t utter, all the lies I went along with.

"The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. . . . The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma." — Dr Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

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