For me, dissociation means that at a certain point in my early childhood, trauma split my mind from my body. My soul, my self, fragmented, and I lost the ability to feel the present, the place in the universe that my body is occupying. Even big moments–like proposals and weddings, births and deaths, long pursued goals achieved and the final load of laundry put away–have a veneer overlaying how I experience them. A veneer may be a thin image. Maybe think of a fire blanket being thrown over the experience of a moment: the feelings, the sounds, the smells, the emotions. Or try lamination: all those feelings (emotional and physical) are laminated and separated from me. Fear, elation, uncertainty, surprise. In relationships and coffee dates I learned to imitate the other’s emotions. I had a thinking face, a concerned listening face, a smiling face that communicated what I thought I should be feeling.
One of things our premarital counselor taught me was that all emotions can be found in one of four categories: Sad, Mad, Scared, Glad. As I began to learn to feel I had to learn to identify my feelings. Up pop four of my fingers and I go through my list. Am I sad? Am I mad? Am I scared? Am I glad? And then I must ask, is this emotion related to something in my present or something in my past? Ted and I have laughed at my need for this elementary sorting, but it’s also been incredibly helpful. (We laugh a lot at the my odd spots because it’s better than being frightened by them.)
Another trick to cope with my dissociation (that I remember been doing since I was a child) involves listing all the things that are true about me right now. My name is Caitie Sangalis. I am 27 years old. I live in New York City with my husband Ted and our son Augustine. I am in my library, at my desk, on my computer in my pajamas. It’s February, 2016. I haven’t eaten lunch yet. I am safe. I am here. Oh, Augustine just woke up. Etc. It’s a tactic that Katniss Evergeen uses in Hunger Games, and a tactic that helps me sort my feelings into past memories and present experiences. And slowly I’ve been sorting them all. I now can look back and see some non-trauma memories in new light. Pull on a quirk that I used to just laugh at, and I find that it’s roots run deep.
Take, for instance, this moment when Ted and I were first dating. We realized that the gala we had first met at took place near to the apartment that I just moved into. We walked over one night to see it. We stood across the street and looked at the locked doors of what once was a cathedral and was now a house of celebrations and fundraisers (a church of sorts still, I suppose, although the god being worshiped has changed.). We stood side by side holding hands as the nostalgia of a few months past wrapped around us. A chance introduction. Fate, the universe, destiny, Emmanuel: whatever you call The Love the wills us our being, s/he began our marriage love in that dark and shuttered space across the street. It was a sappy moment but a moment full of the knowledge that we can’t always measure the weight of our days while we live them. We were alone on the block in that moment of peace.
And with our nostalgia came a kiss. A deep kiss. A movie kiss. Not the “Mary Catherine Gallagher” type of kiss but the kiss that brushes your soul more than your chapped, winter lips. A good kiss that still left our side hug intact and one of each of our hands free. It was a moment made for eternity until Ted gently cupped my free arm with his, and a panic attack kissed me next. I knocked the arm that surprised me away and fled a few steps, unsure of who had grabbed me. Heart racing, sweat pouring down my brow, ready to fight off who attacked me. Only, it was Ted, reaching his free arm around to pull me in closer in a special moment.
We’ve laughed for years at that memory of Ted startling me to pieces while we kissed. And tonight we joked about that moment, more than 4 years later, as I lay in his arms for our nightly prayer. “Don’t forget, Caitie. I’m still a two armed man.” But after years of intensive therapy for my sexual trauma, we now understand that this seemingly silly startled moment was my shattered soul trying to feeling the present moment but stuck in the overwhelming traumatic fear. This “exaggerated startled response” is a classic PTSD symptom. And over the long years of healing and therapy, I’ve begun to heal and regain control of my past usurping my present.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the full amount of freedom and healing that I now know I have. I know its there, yet I know I’ll always bare the soul scars and fissures and gaps of feeling where others have forced themselves on me. So I’m content to know that that particular memory is both sour and sweet.
And tonight. I can’t always feel the delight I know I have in my squirmy little bug’s antics. The fist pump dance moves. The crib headboard banging when he is ready to get up from his sleeps. The constant curiosity and the will to pursue it. I don’t always feel the love Ted doggedly showers me with. But I can feel the new sheets we bought to go on the bed we got as a wedding gift. I can feel their cheap, scratchy cotton on my legs and the second blanket I’ve pulled on top of me. I can feel my sheets and blankets and the night in our bedroom pressing in around me, and I know that this is my life. Feeling this little thing, the weight and texture of these sheets, helps me begin to feel the larger weight and texture of my wonderful life. This is a moment I can feel. A moment where a fragmented part of my soul is set to rights.