Trauma issues affect day to day functioning. I went poking around on the net a few weeks ago about ADHD, whose symptoms are very similar to PTSD. There were many, many articles that were heady, and wrapped up in the labeling of this symptom and that. It made me tired, but there was one article that did go into executive functioning a bit, and there is even an “executive function disorder.”
Last week a friend of mine died, and I shut down. I dissociated, which is what my whole psyche and body is geared to do, due to the abuse I suffered as a child. Things in my life came to a minor head, as my “work mom” basically told me to clean my “work room”, and a neighbor messaged me about my dirty rabbit cages.
It’s true, my room at work is not practical and really, there are no practical spaces at my job for the work I do there. Yes, it is a challenge to keep clean without proper storage or facilities. Yes, I am a single mother and in school and have way too much on my plate and was waiting for a day off to clean up my yard. But there is a bigger issue within me, one that came back to me in a dream, and one that had lessons to teach me.
My neighbor, in his message, told me that if I was going to be a teacher I had to keep my own garden clean. That morning, I had a part of me, in a dream, tell me that these challenges against my cleaning weaknesses were related to my mom. So my neighbor’s wagging-his-finger, shaming approach, combined with the dream and my issues at work, finally broke me into the cry that had been trying so hard to come this week. I cried over my friend, for the first time. And I woke up a little about this cleanliness thing.
My mom was terribly critical about how messy I was. I was called lazy, as if I were doing it on purpose. Really, I was dissociating. Criticism shut me down, because it feels awful to be so criticized, and trying to be a teenager under a barrage of criticism made me dig in my heels. If I couldn’t win anyway, I might as well be deliberately messy. But I’m convinced I was fooling myself. I honestly lacked the bare-bones, practical skills to organize my environment. Living in circumstances that are chaotic and out of control, I’ve noticed, produces two kinds of physical responses: rigid control of the environment through cleanliness, or dissociation from the environment through messiness. Of course, I was the latter, and my mother was the former.
Sometimes in dissociating I don’t notice what is going on. I don’t notice that things are getting bad and that I’m barely treading water. Laundry on the couch becomes normal. Clutter is everywhere as my inner child and my inner teen clamor to be heard through projects or shirking responsibilities. In the foggy world of dissociation, inner spiritual matters are communicated indirectly. My messes in house-life are directly correlated with the amount of grief I carry. It is as if my parts work to create this space, this outer world, to show me: yes, things really are bad. And heavy. And very sad right now. Yes, this was the chaos you lived through. It’s an unconscious outer re-creation of an inner state.
This is where inner work meets the outside world. It really does affect day-to-day functioning. Where is my adult? She came when I needed her…when my neighbor shamed me and I stood up for myself and told him he could be more helpful if he didn’t shame me. That felt just like when my mom shamed me. She also reminded me that I am an artist and that I love all things color and beauty. I don’t have to rebel through disorder, nor do I have to tune out my surroundings. I have tools to use: re-framing household tasks to take the drudgery out of them, and this weekend I used a new idea, “fresh eyes” where I become someone else looking at my house. It sounds funny but in my living in my house I become immune to the clutter. For example, an art project sitting in a corner that I didn’t even notice anymore. “Fresh Eyes” came in and noticed and helped me find a place for that project. “Fresh Eyes” moved some furniture and hung up some clothes and deep cleaned some floors. “Fresh Eyes” helped me make a list of the unfinished projects and to order my time. “Fresh Eyes” is going to go to work with me tomorrow and straighten things up. “Fresh Eyes” can deal with my inner critic who demands perfection and who points out how bad things are in a shaming way. Things like, “you let yourself live like this?”
Healing inevitably involves triage…keeping my children emotionally safe trumps a perfectly clean floor. But emotional health and physical health are inextricably linked. My environment does not have the same effect on me as on other people. I am immune to chaos, squalor, and also to order and beauty. The indifference I have is inevitably frustrating to others because we all have to “keep house” being mindful of other human beings. But I cannot tolerate shame in any amount. I am the girl who held her breath to escape life at the age of three. So dissociating is a way to go away. Coming to health involves gathering my resources to teach myself “executive functioning” but more than that, the higher functioning comes when I connect with life, when I decide to be here and not “go away” even in subtle ways. It has to come from a feeling state and not a heady “this is how you executively function.” It involves learning to care for myself through caring for my surroundings and being able to regulate the amount of clutter, paper, and general chaos in my home.
Not to mention, it involves the artistic impulse of transformation. Art is about turning chaos into order. Healing is an art in that it is an alchemy of soul, of being able to take something bad and make it good, about turning something ugly into something beautiful. I cannot connect with life without having a feeling relationship with beauty, in all its permutations.
So here I go, once again turning a new leaf with this new insight I have. Maybe it helps you, too.