Tag Archives: ptsd

Savage T and Cultivating Gentleness

At the high school school where I teach, my students call me “Savage T.” The nickname came from a simple physics formula for distance, which is average speed (Savg) multiplied by time (t). When I free-style rap during lessons or make jokes, I hear my nickname and wonder who it is they see. Nothing is casual when cleaning up one’s game. Not even fun nicknames…. Another nickname I had was “Miss G.” I know I can “spit fire” all too easily.

As part of healing my PTSD, I’ve returned to actively cultivating gentleness. Gentleness is the first to go when feeling small, afraid, and threatened, which is the unconscious undertoe for those with PTSD. Now that I’m aware when I am in a flashback, I am also aware of how my ability to be gentle fizzles. Frankly, I’m amazed that I’ve demonstrated as much gentleness as I have in my life – thankfully with my own children and students – given that my own sense of safety had been compromised at a young age.

I’ve only met one person in my life who has been consistently gentle. I have studied her tone, her choice of words, and her ability to pause and listen with full attention. She also pauses before speaking. She asks if it is OK to bring something up. She often says “I don’t have any answers, just some thoughts…”. She “sends hugs” and cries at sad stories. She is the opposite of force, and is a calming breeze and a soothing balm.

There is nothing more irritating than people with “answers” for someone struggling – probably because such people make too many assumptions and turn complex situations into trite suggestions. Answer-givers are condescending, especially when their assumptions – due to lack of listening and understanding – are wrong. Know-it-alls are ignorant of others and only see themselves, and are thus really always talking to themselves. A minute of someone listening is more precious than an hour of someone spirting advice. However, it is easy to listen when there’s no personal investment in what someone has to say.

In my case, what can be an issue is my response to people. The perception of threat has given me an edge since my teenage years. While I was mostly quiet as a child, I gradually became more vocal – especially when kids attacked me after school after I first arrived in America.

I was different and a target. Although I was small, I realized that, to my surprise, I had an uncanny force latent in my scrawny body. I stood up for myself in broken English, colored by street slang and intonations. I studied Martial arts for at least two decades total, and started as soon as I began “winning” after-school fights, which took place just outside the tall wire fence of a New York City public school. I was not gentle. I was vicious – defending myself in real-time and was also, unknowingly, triggered into flashbacks.

When my flashbacks began to dominate my life again, about six years ago, I became aggressive to anything that even mildly resembled a threat. It was not conscious and I could not control my response. I got better at choosing my moments of when I shot flames, but I had made no progress distinguishing real threat from perception. I began to fail in diffusing situations which was actually a skill I had used often at work.

Now, I am practicing gentleness as my default. This requires conscious effort while sorting through the mess of flashbacks nipping at my heals. I must assume first that someone means me no harm. I must tell myself that. I must connect with their humanity and vulnerability to turn on my own gentle response. It is easier to do this when I feel no personal investment in what anyone is doing and am not bothered by their agendas. All of this takes effort on my part because I am in the thick of healing. The default is to feel imminent attack, but this must transform to offering service. This is something I can do.

If I notice myself reliving pain, which is frequent these days, I pause and practice PTSD grounding techniques I was taught by a therapist. I put myself in the present by looking, noticing, describing, and touching. I sooth myself by visualizing images that are calming to me. I distance myself from the flashbacks. Now, I am also adding a feeling of deep care to my interactions – to permeate my affect and words with the calm, quiet kindness I am more than capable of offering. As difficult as all of this feels now, I know I can do this.

A Case Of Mistaken Resilience

People told me that I was resilient. When things got tough, I persevered. When situations knocked me down, I found ways to get back up. Life turned me to ash at a very young age, and somehow I came back. Over and over, there would be perceived failure, pain, rejection, and abandonment, but I just continued to redefine and redirect myself.

Moments of strength emerged from seeming eons of weakness, until I realized what was really happening. What appeared to be resilience was actually me outrunning my pain, getting ahead of ever feeling it, and escaping a deepseated conviction of being irreparably broken.

As a child, I learned to escape abuse by studying. Even as I cried and quietly begged to be erased from existence, I buried myself in books. Whatever potential I had I turned exclusively to training and honing my ability to think. When in pain, I resorted to solving math and physics problems. I became incredibly adept at feeling everything and nothing while lost in mental puzzles.

My resilience was a farce. I didn’t have the guts to face what happened to me. Instead, I learned how to dull my pain, detach from feeling, and even dissociate from heartbreak. I was a skinny runt, raped and beaten for years. When I got older and my brother was born, I was simply forgotten and abandoned. To be noticed, which felt like love to me, I had to do extraordinary things. I had to be a superhero, a mountain mover, and unbreakable. So, I trained myself to excel with no tolerance for failure.

What began as a coping mechanism turned into an obsession. I effectively internalized being “faulty” and unlovable, and invested all of my energy into cultivating performance – competitive piano, martial arts, yoga, math and physics, technological expertise, writing, public speaking, and innovating stale processes in corporate settings. I was compensating. I was faking success. Until I began to break down. It was inevitable.

My first repressed memories tore through their cocoons in my early twenties. Reliving my past put me in shock. After coming to, I doubled my efforts to hide my true ugliness. I must have been horrible to have had such horrible things done to me. Memories and flashbacks continued to bleed through even as I fought harder to keep them at bay.

This past year, another wave of repressed memories engulfed me. But this time, I knew what was happening and was onto my tried-and-true methods of escape. This time, I didn’t want to run or hide or distract myself. I just gave into the reality of my past. My previous ways of coping helped me to survive an untenable situation, but they would not help me to heal. This much was clear.

So, I gave up trying to hide and deny the brutality of my past. Looking back, I can now recognize the times in my life where I responded to life in flashback mode. I didn’t know that I was having flashbacks at the time, but I can see it now. I was seeing the present through the narrow lens of the past – small, terrified, and ashamed. I was “back there” without realizing it. This is PTSD….

For several months now, I have been studying my flashbacks and reliving old pain. The light is there to support me. Some days it feels like I may drown in this ocean of pain, but I know I won’t. I threw myself into the kiln once again and fully conscious of what used to lie beneath.

It occurred to me a number of times that I could feel sorry for myself and just give up. However, I don’t feel that it’s really possible for me. Something keeps me going even when I want to just…stop. Maybe it’s different this time because I no longer feel like my life belongs to me. Maybe it’s because I am not attached to any self-image. Maybe I know full-bodily that the only way is through.

I admit that it’s pretty rough right now. I’m not quite sure how I am managing a job, two kids, and my Masters program while also doing this healing work. I want to get through this and have no idea how long it will take.

I know things are improving because I find myself happily being a nobody. No ambition. No need to excel or move mountains. It’s quiet in the eye of the storm. I feel a quiet love even as I am being dismantled at the atomic level.