Twice Shy

I’ve been thinking about the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse and my own story in context of that. For the last few years since it happened, I’ve worked on developing a better kindness towards myself, realizing how deeply I am inclined to be invalidating towards my own emotions and experiences. I’ve been unpacking some of my childhood trauma, having recently read Pete Walker’s incredible book on CPTSD and realizing how my experiences in the formative years of my life left me with some fawning type behaviors, specifically, a habit of not listening to my emotional needs, putting those of others above my own. I also discovered how powerful my inner critic was, so that instead of having defenses against the emotional abuse I experienced, I felt every word my ex said as “truth”.

Honestly, there are still days where those words of his still sting and my partner, Wes, pointed out that since that time I have a new way of beating myself up, the words “I’m a worthless piece of shit” became a regular refrain inside my head and I often have had to request reassurance from my two partners that I am not, in fact, a worthless piece of shit. However, my partners comforting me is a temporary salve, to truly heal I am unlearning habits built over a lifetime and coming to find a healthy adult voice in myself who is less critical and more nurturing.

That said, learning to be better towards oneself and unpacking trauma isn’t the sort of thing where you do it once and everything is fixed. It’s a process and an ongoing project, potentially without a specific end but a slow unravelling, a gradual changing of old habits, rewiring of deep neural pathways so the result is a slow sort of transforming, over time, into not exactly someone else but definitely a self who is kinder so that you come to hold your memories and emotions in a different way, a way that is more compassionate and containing the wisdom that only comes with time and hindsight.

But then as time and life bring new experiences, there is also the discovery that old wounds have created new problems, problems you may not even realise are there, so thoroughly have they incorporated into your sense of self.

Dani and I have been partners for approximately two years now and for the past half year, Wes, Dani and I have lived in the same rental property that is only ten minutes down the road from Wes’s other partner. Learning to live with a new partner has not been without its challenges but overall, things have been profoundly harmonious. My connection with Dani is growing in importance, as has Wes’s with his partner so we no longer use the term “primary partners” as the relationships have grown in equal importance, all vital, each with its own unique and irreplaceable value. I couldn’t imagine my life without either of them, they are the loves of my life. I’m pretty damn happy and grateful for this abundance of love and so I cannot help but feel a connection to the concept of polyamorous family utopia. For all the challenges life has thrown our way – and there have been many – we are so lucky.

Though Dani and I have only been together for two short years, I already feel it to be a lifetime partnership with the sort of certainty that is rare for me. Of course we all grow and change but there is a depth to our connection that is not just due to our D/s dynamic, but the immensity of our ability to understand one another in the realms of art, emotions, values, dreamscapes… in fact, looking at this blog, I realize how infrequently I’ve written recently and I believe that’s because for awhile now, my storytelling has happened while lying in bed in Dani’s arms, the late night conversations where you rediscover the stories of your past through new eyes and so your self-perception starts to shift. I like who I am when I’m with Dani, I genuinely like who I am.

But he often has expressed to me, over time, how he sometimes felt there was someone else in our relationship and that someone else was my ex. I couldn’t quite understand what Dani meant and frankly felt a little defensive, yes I would bring up my experiences with my ex on a regular basis but this was because I’m a talker and I like to use words as a means of unpacking my emotions and behaviours so that I might gain greater clarity. In truth though, I was also seeking reassurance that Dani is different, that the way he sees me is different to how my ex saw me, that I could trust my experience and judgements. It’s been frustrating for me though, in so many ways I feel as if I am “over” my ex to the point where I’m sick of thinking about him and sick of talking about him, it has often been the case, now, where my only feelings I have towards him now are frustration and anger. Get the fuck out of my mind. But it’s not that. Not really.

Recently I had a breakthrough in understanding the reasons for why things were so traumatic with my ex. One of these reasons is the suddenness of his appalling treatment of me. Yes, in hindsight there were red flags and moments of bad behavior on his part, yet those two weeks in New York were a shock and a profound trauma because in fact his behavior did change dramatically when we were overseas together. Perhaps the intensity of being elsewhere overwhelmed him, he was, as he told me several times, regretting bringing me overseas with him as travel was “his thing” and I wasn’t doing his thing the way he wanted me to. In any case, the loving partner I’d believed him to be was replaced with this critical, angry, moody man who I was unable to please and was actually afraid of. The whole holiday had such a feeling of nightmarish altered reality that it wasn’t until last night, several years later, that I was able to really grasp how that whole fucking holiday was traumatic for me. Not a few isolated incidents, but the entire experience of being so profoundly emotionally violated, destabilised and routinely criticised while away from my support networks. Even the good bits were not as vibrant as I painted them to be – I was simply overemphasizing them as they were buoys that I clung to so as not to drown.

After returning home, my trust in love and my own judgement was so thoroughly shaken that I even found myself having complete breakdowns when Wes so much as changed his tone of voice a little. Wes and I had been together for over a decade and the man only has a track record of being a wonderfully supportive, kind and giving person, yet I had become afraid that his love for me contained resentment just below the surface, resentment which could bubble up and explode at any moment. Someone once described my ex’s treatment of me as “emotional rape” and something about that resonated with me so much that I even went so far as to email my ex while I was intoxicated and tell him this is what he’d done. (Yes, I know, don’t ever email your ex when you’re drunk. I know. I have few regrets in life but that’s one of them.) In any case, whatever you’d call the experience, it was profoundly traumatic and as anyone who has been through trauma tends to do, I had developed a flinch.

What I hadn’t realised was that I had also constructed defensive barriers deep within myself. Some of these blocks were obvious – for the first six months after ending things with my ex, I couldn’t orgasm without breaking down crying. But some defense mechanisms have gone so deep that I haven’t even known they are there until they’ve crumbled and fallen away. Like a week ago when Dani and I entered a new phase of our D/s dynamic and I felt what I can only describe in physical terms as if my ribs opened like a gateway and there it all was; was my heart, my guts, the internal stuff of me exposed, vulnerable and painful. It wasn’t a bad thing, in fact it was beautiful and I realized then what Dani has meant when he spoke of my ex being the third person in our relationship because for all that I’ve been deeply in love with Dani and shown so much of myself to him, there was a protective layer in front of my heart that I couldn’t even see.

A regular feeling I’ve had towards my ex has been frustrated, impotent rage. A desire to scream at him and somehow make him pay for what happened because I felt so strongly as if I lost something during that time and perhaps I’d never get it back. In fact, I’d lost it so completely that I didn’t even know what it was. It made me feel insane and I’ve had this despairing fury howling in my heart and a compassion towards every person who ever felt that someone else’s violence stole something from them. I would look at photos of myself before New York and I would swear I looked so much younger. I had, in my heart, a sort of hardness that I didn’t want there, a callous had formed and it was blocking… something. I felt old.

The other night with Dani, I felt a softening and an opening and he felt it too. If I had to put one word to that feeling, I might call it “trust”. Trust like a child loves their parents, trust like I loved everyone until I discovered that love can be weaponized and used against you. It wasn’t just trust in Dani, though, it was trust in myself, in my heart, in my judgement about choosing who to give myself to.

Adjusting to this feeling of radical softness is going to take time and I’m currently feeling pretty vulnerable. That said, I also know that over these past few years, I have learned to be much better to myself, much more capable of setting and asserting boundaries, much more compassionate towards myself and subsequently far more resilient. Perhaps it is these boundaries that have allowed me to re-access my softness, perhaps love like this should take time and of course that’s true but it isn’t just that. It’s…

The best comparison I can draw is when we’ve adopted cats who have had anxiety around people that has caused them to react in fear to sudden movements, sounds, strangers and such. Over the years of living with us, our cats have learned that they are safe, they have consistency, security and cuddles on a daily basis and so they have become calmer, more loving and more bonded to us. We’re all the same us animals, once bitten twice shy. Trauma puts your nervous system into high alert and truly believing you are safe, enough so that your nervous system can relax and your body can soften and open… this takes time and gentle, compassionate, consistent love.

I feel such a tender sadness towards myself who’s been on high alert for so long and an ever deepening alarm at the global and hidden pandemic that is abuse and domestic violence. I think about the profound trauma being done to so many people on a daily basis, I think about the relative size of my own trauma and how long it’s taken to heal from that and my heart sinks. I can’t stop thinking about this article about why calls to domestic violence hotlines are plummeting during coronavirus and I’m so terrified for all the women and children who are trapped, isolated and with nowhere to go. I think about how we are tribal animals and about how safety comes in strong community ties and the danger lies in isolation. Lately I’m thinking a lot about that.

My experience has taught me not to confuse healing with being “fixed”, I don’t ever expect to be exactly the same but I’ve been incorporating my experiences into my identity in ways that are feeling increasingly harmonious and right now I’d just feeling so lucky to be in a place of relative safety, where I can nurture my softness and open, ever deeper, to love.

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