But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.
— Gwendolyn Macewen, “Dark Pines Under Water,” The Shadow Maker (1972)
So… after a seven month wait I finally got to see a clinical psychologist, who diagnosed complex trauma. I’ve lived for a long time with intermittent depression that seems to be about something and doesn’t respond well to standard medication. And I knew that certain triggers had a powerful effect on me, and that when I’m at low ebb I’m vulnerable to re-living painful episodes, without the ability to stop. But I’d never really applied that label to myself — at most, I identified as the third (at least) link in a chain of intergenerational trauma. So it felt both weird and obvious.
I’ve been trying to work out why I discounted it for so long, and it boils down to this: I thought I had too much privilege to qualify. In particular, I thought family conflict couldn’t give rise to trauma without physical or sexual violence. And I bought into the message I got a lot growing up — you’re over-sensitive — which made me feel ashamed of failing to manage my emotions. Lastly, I’ve worked with refugee communities, in Aboriginal health, and on sexual assault prevention, and my experiences were mundane compared to the stories I heard in those contexts.
But the symptoms were getting hard to ignore. Recently I’d been getting incredibly wound up about the need to move for fieldwork. In the process of making lists, I suddenly had this crystal clear memory of list-making being the only thing that kept me sane when I was part-way through year twelve and the conflict at home had got so intense I’d decided to move out. I’d make lists of the furniture I needed, the suburbs I was looking in, the weekly grocery shop I imagined myself making. I’d agreed not to move out until after final exams, so I was stuck. Just me and my lists. I’m pretty sure my teachers had picked up things were not okay, but I couldn’t talk about it — at the tiniest sign of sympathy I felt like I’d start crying and never stop; not an option at a boys’ school. Within a month of my final exam, I’d got a job and moved out of home. Ever since then, home has been my nest. The thought of moving was freaking me out.
A couple of Mondays ago, I turned 36. I kept it off Facebook and didn’t tell anyone until the day after. I knew that my custodial parent was going to call or e-mail, as if nothing had happened the last time we were in contact. And that happened. I replied saying ‘you asked for correspondence to cease, and I want that to happen.’ I took it pretty easy for the rest of the day, just having lunch and seeing a movie — all that ritual consumption we call ’self-care’ when shit’s fucked and isn’t fixable. And that night, around 3AM, I woke straight from sleep into an intrusive episode — re-experiencing a fight in a small room at the Magistrates Court, forty-five minutes of my life from 18 years ago.
I used to do that once or twice a night before sleep. I haven’t done it for a long time. I am blown away by how exhausted I was, afterwards. The next day and the day after, total fatigue. Acid ache in my limbs, my diaphragm, my stomach. I don’t know how I used to get up in the morning and go to work and go to uni afterwards. And then on Thursday morning I woke to a daggy joke from my friend Clom, and it felt like a dam bursting — the return of all the warm emotions, the shift from stressful watching to hope and optimism.
The appointments with the psychologist are exhausting, too. It takes two or three days to recover after each one. It feels good to be facing up to this aspect of my life, but it’s slow-going. I’m grateful for work colleagues who just get it. In the meantime, I got my ethics submission finished and I’ve started contacting potential housemates for my next move. I finished the last of fourteen years in back-taxes, I rolled my super together in a higher-yield product, and I signed up for health insurance. These were all on the list of things I planned to do by thirty — but however slow, it’s progress.