I realized recently that it has been quite a long time since I posted any kind of update on my life in Belgium to this blog. When I created this blog and began writing, my goal was to write at least once every month. I quickly found the outlet of writing to be soothing, a kind of meditation. It helped me to begin making sense of this bizarre experience called life. Since beginning to post in the summer of 2010, I have been able to post at least once per month, missing only one or two months in times of extreme darkness.
This happened this past winter, though not because I haven’t been writing. On the contrary, I have been writing quite a bit. I just haven’t completed any of the beginnings of essays I have started working on. I think completing them may take many years, so I thought I should at least offer a post by way of “checking in” in case anyone out there was wondering what was going on in the life of Marieke.
My reading over the darker winter months was in keeping with the weather and lack of light. The past two Decembers in Belgium have been some of the darkest on record (since “they” started keeping records).
I am sensitive to seasonal shifts, and my mood was of the sort where I felt less motivated to write. The darkness seemed to seep into every corner of my being and also influenced the subject matter of my writing. As much as possible, I do prefer to share upbeat stories, at least in my social media postings. There is such a strong propensity to be drawn into the negative void, and I do not wish to add to this tendency. On the other hand, darkness and depression is a very real component of my experience of being human (in this life, at least).
So, after being diagnosed with PTSD by a therapist I saw this past fall, I started reading about trauma, how to heal from trauma, and research on shame, parent-child dynamics, etc. I wrote about all of this, of course, as I am wont to do. I find comfort in cramming as much information as possible in my cognitive understanding of life. There is a solace and some sense of control in learning why I am the way I am.
I was recently introduced to research on The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), which has been a profound revelation. Reading the work of Elaine Aron has been like reading a book about my entire life. Apparently, there are people in the world (like me) who are incredibly sensitive. It is an inherited trait. How a person develops over time can depend largely upon their experiences in childhood.
Cognitive understanding is helpful, to be sure, but it is not enough (for me) to be able to claw my way out of the deep, dark hole of depression. The return of the light as the spring makes it way slowly back into the grey world certainly helps. Finding a better fitting medication for depression and anxiety seems to also be helping. Talking to a therapist with whom I feel safe is yet another boon. The person I met in the fall was certainly sharp and intelligent, but her sharpness did not create a sanctuary for an HSP like me. My new therapist possesses a softer, more sensitive quality that is a better fit. She has offered the diagnosis of Complex PTSD, which can occur from one or more experiences where a person is trapped, literally, figuratively, or both. I will not go into detail here except to say that there is a relief that comes with having a professional share their thoughts and support. It is helpful to hear someone say, “you are not a failure; there is nothing wrong with you; you are not defective” and to read this in publications on highly praised research. It isn’t a panacea, to be sure. I am not cured. Hearing something and believing it in my entire being are two different sides to the same coin (as the saying goes).
All of the work I have done over the past 10+ years has helped me to peel away many layers to begin to get to the heart of my being, the essence that is me. One challenge in doing this work is that while I am thankful to be learning more about my authentic Self and my natural way of being in the world, I have also found that I lose some element of protection with each layer that is removed. It is like I am losing the resilience I built up over decades of living as a sensitive being. I built barriers, armor to protect myself. Once that armor has been removed, I am left exposed, vulnerable, naked, and raw. All of the elements of life that I could withstand in the past seem even more intense than before.
I can fully sympathize with the many people in the world who avoid this kind of work because it is just that: work. And I find that it is like a bad cold or flu. It is uncomfortable, and it tends to get worse before it gets better.
I had thought I was done with this work when I completed my dissertation on the concept of self-sustainability. I had gone through therapy. I had gone through a divorce and a complete transformation. It’s true that I had done some very intense work and removed several layers. However, several more traumatic experiences with work, a dear friend, renters, and trying to sell my house in Alaska sent me back over that cliff to the dark world of depression.
It has been in my time in Belgium where I have been hit most hard. This may be in part because I cannot work in a traditional manner with the kind of visa I have in connection with my husband’s student visa. I have a lot of time on my hands to think and reflect. These experiences have colored my perception of Brussels and Belgium, but I realize now that my mood and perspective have less to do with the daily vicissitudes of life and more to do with the triggering and bombardment I have experienced, which have left me feeling completely powerless and stressed out (to put it mildly).
I am in the process of building healthier resilience to be able to exist and cope without turning on my sensitivity or pretending to be something I am not to make other people feel more comfortable at the expense of my own wellbeing. I am not interested in simply replacing the armor I spent so much time and effort to remove. I am not at the point where I feel comfortable enough to walk around completely naked, metaphorically speaking. Certainly, I am nowhere near ready for a literal embodiment of this vulnerability. During a rare warm front that moved through Belgium a couple of months ago, I did notice a man working in the nude on the roof of a house across from ours. He spent all day every day for a week, working with only a small piece of fabric on the front and his backside completely exposed. For sure, he had a very even tan.
I learned from neighbors that this fellow has been the naked fixit man for decades. A friend told me he had visitors who were shocked when walking through the forest to see this many riding naked on his bicycle.
This is how Sasquatch sightings get started, I responded to my friend.
Is this man a highly enlightened HSP? A character? Super sensitive to fabric? I don’t know, but I do find it hopeful that there is someone out there who is so comfortable in their own skin that they have no desire or need to cover up. I may never walk around in the nude, but perhaps someday I will be able to get to a place of acceptance and grounding with my own Self.