The soul-shaped box

I heard a tale that in Ireland the tradition of keening at a death was one kept by women. I heard that at keening was a ritual for speaking truths and witnessing of the stuff of life. There were songs about sadness, loss, betrayals and abuse, so that everyone could witness them. It was a strong ritual to hold a space for hard things. The story goes that the Catholic Pope acted to halt the act of singing out injustices and in so doing was effective in establishing power by silencing the spirit of the community through removing the memories of women. In this telling of the tale, I understand that Irish culture is just coming out from the dominance of the Catholic Church and is just relearning the fact that the purpose of keening is for a truth and justice ceremony as well as for mourning, although this had been forgotten. I heard this on Radio 4, so it must indeed be a true story. A new true story. This time a bit more complex than the old true story. A bit less easy.

The true story of my parent being sectioned goes like this; me and my siblings were not there. We were out of the house, away on a trip, away at friends, we were older, we were not there. I have always accepted this true story. It is easy to grasp and it is easy to remember.

The easy story is accepted even when it casts a shadow. Underneath the easy story, however, that shadow provides quiet darkness, a cover where disenfranchised fragments of memory have vibrant and rich lives. My stories, the secret keeper’s stories, are kept outside, in the shadows, to thrive in the dark, by fine nets of belief, woven tightly together by structure of the true story. Assortments and remnants do not have a story to tell, as they cannot be weaved together to make a strong enough net to capture belief.

So I am clear, this is not the true story. This is a made-up children’s lie of a story, a miscellany full of figments, half-truths and misremembered things.

After the unnecessary violence of an unnecessary section, which happened after unnecessary neglect, which happened because institutional psychiatry is based on coercion and violence, which happened because institutional psychiatry has as its purpose the shutting down of emotion and the disavowal of adversity and abuse, after all that, this might be what the children remember about what happened to them.

A sensation: My sibling is taken away from me. They have to use force to do it as I am not letting go easily. I am certain that it is not safe to let a small person go with violent adults, or the people who called them, or the people that they then turn to for further assistance. As they take her, I know I have failed to protect her. As she goes, my insides are ripped out. I am clutching my knees to my chest, my arms crossed over them, crouched over myself in order to create my own body boundary. My stomach goes first, the separation wrenches my stomach out up through my lungs and through my throat. My lungs are drawn after it and my throat follows, dragged ragged. A red clot rises from inside me, like an ink stain, it rises up blotting out everything around me, rising increasingly hard and fast as if propelled outwards from me with the force of an explosion, pushing away and repelling the whole world- a bright, red wound.

An impression: I am somewhere where it is cold. The light is green, but it is a dark green. Higher up there are brighter green, gold lights. They are square, there are also longer, rectangular gold slivers of light. I am floating up through dark, heavy weight, but then I drown again. I float up but don’t make it. I am suffocating or falling, I might never stop being dragged down. I seem to rise again but the bright red blot rises with me. The red blot rises faster than me and breaks the surface before I do. The whole world is a red stain. Then blackness is forced over me. It seems this has happened over and over again.

A packing away: An awareness of a threat has been growing. It seems adults are saying ‘too long’, ‘has to stop’. The threat from their attention seems immense. It seems imperative that I stop doing whatever I am doing. I am still. I am still inside the red stain. As I rise I follow the trace of the blot, and pull on it like a thread, like a thick knotted rope, hauling it in. I wrap it up like a parcel, winding it in on itself, stuffing it together, rolling it back. I pack the great billowing force down, swallowing it, pressing it down like a great inky origami, infinitely folded, push it back so it fits somehow into a cavity under my heart and between my ribs. I shut it in a soul shaped box, so tight there is no air, so tight it suffocates. In the place of the bright red wound, there is an immense sensation of emptiness and heaviness. This is how you kill part of yourself in order to survive. The adults seem satisfied, the threat recedes.

For years when I feel that sensation I take myself away from others because I know I can survive the experience, but I don’t know if I can survive how other people will treat me when I am vulnerable. I remember that moment of defencelessness when I am shut in on myself and shutting the world out as one that invites attack. Years later, I learn that when I that sensation overtakes me, I seem to others immobile and unresponsive, but screaming, a raw whimper that fluctuates in volume, but does not stop. It lasts hours, days, until I am exhausted. The rest of the time I experience the sensation of emptiness and heaviness. I seem fine, but a bit distant. Even later, I also get the opportunity to learn that healing is being held, of being warmed for the hours, days and months of the scream, until the raw red clots and congeals, until the wound becomes a scab and the scab an angry scar.

Every word of this account is about what happened to me being a deliberately inflicted injury, one socially sanctioned and one committed by adults nominated by my society as caring.

We need to recognise that what we so often reward and praise for children is dependence, docility, compliance and obedience- qualities that get around the need for the adults to care or create communities that can recognise and meet their needs. We need to recognise how we act when we don’t get that tribute from them, when they stop being silent and use non-violent methods to express their resistance. Domination, coercion and silencing should not be our stand-by response, but it is.

Humans need to relearn the power of ritual. They need to learn how to keen and how to bear to witness. We do need our communities to learn the cost of trying to silence people speaking truths. The adults, the violent, helping adults try and silence it all the time, as they cannot bear these things to be spoken, so they put their easy stories in the empty hollowed out space left when a small part of the soul is packed away.

Author: Valid Consent

Promoting trauma informed care

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