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My Story of Trauma, Rage and Healing

I was blessed with wonderful parents who loved me, and I had an overwhelmingly happy and privileged childhood. But I also had quite a bit of serious early trauma, some pre-natal, some very early pre-verbal, and some in early childhood involving reactions to my having one arm and also including both a traumatizing hospitalization and something invasive and sexual in nature. And then, growing up in the 1950s, in a very different world than we have now, I had the pain of gradually realizing I was gay and gender nonconforming in a world where such things were still illegal, hidden away, considered sinful, and classified as forms of mental illness. I had the additional pain of having one arm and feeling disfigured in a world where disability was seen much more negatively than it is today. I felt that I was fundamentally imperfect, wrong, alone, and even repulsive—and this imprinted on me in deep and lasting ways.

Like many people in our society, I am a mix of entitlement and privilege, on the one hand, along with oppression and trauma on the other. I’m white, and I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago where our neighbors were bankers, corporate lawyers, CEOs, and several people who got cabinet positions in the White House. My father, by contrast, owned and operated a small printing company in downtown Chicago with one employee. My dad was on his feet all day, running those old printing presses himself, breathing in all the toxic chemicals that no one knew much about back then. He never took a single vacation. We weren’t nearly as wealthy as our neighbors, but we had a comfortable home in a lovely neighborhood, food on the table, great schools, and my college education was fully paid for by my parents, both of whom were deeply intelligent but neither of whom were college graduates. As an only child, and particularly as a girl with a disability, I often got my way, received abundant gifts, and thus grew up with an (unconscious) sense of entitlement alongside my deep sense of deficiency. It was a strange mix.

When I got to college in 1966 and started drinking heavily, I was often enraged and violent. I came out as a lesbian in my late teens, in those days before Stonewall, and was navigating my first intimate relationship with a woman in total secrecy. My lover and I were both sleeping with men at times as well, and we even got into a painful 3-way with my high school boyfriend, all of which brought up enormous jealousy and insecurity. The horrors of the Vietnam war were the backdrop to all of this, along with abundant drugs and alcohol, and the tumultuous social upheavals that were occurring in America and around the world at that time. I had no tools or skills for working with difficult emotions, dealing with trauma, or navigating these complex relationships and upheavals.

The trauma manifested in me most obviously as self-injury and violent rages. I burned myself with cigarettes, bit my fingers until they had large bloody wounds, drank and smoked and took drugs excessively. I punched and kicked holes in walls. I was sometimes abusive—emotionally, verbally and physically—to those I loved. I hit people, bit them, yelled at them, threw drinks in their faces, hurt them, frightened them—abused them basically. I was (idiotically) put on anti-seizure medication as a college student in order to cure my rage.

On my last drunken binge in 1973, I destroyed a whole house where I was living with my then lover, a junky prostitute who was also a sociopath—not a very healthy relationship, as you can imagine. During an argument, I threw her TV through the window, smashed all the furniture, swung a fire poker at her head (luckily missed), threw a knife at two other friends next door (again, luckily missed), swallowed a bottle of pills (thankfully, lived), and wound up several days later in the hospital having punched a bartender and then split open my head in a bad fall.

Through sheer grace, shortly after that, and seemingly quite by chance, I met a wonderful lesbian therapist whom I could see free of charge at a community mental health center in San Francisco. My life began to turn around. I began a healing journey that, over the next 5 decades, has included many forms of psychotherapy (including gestalt, transactional analysis, radical and feminist therapy, primal therapy, somatic therapy), various forms of somatic awareness work, years of meditation and spiritual work including Buddhism, Advaita and radial nonduality, martial arts, political activism, addiction recovery work, and more. It is, as I’ve discovered, a lifelong, never-ending, always NOW journey of transformation.

You’d think that, after all the things I had done in my drunken years, I would realize how abusive and hurtful I had been. And to some degree, I certainly did. But in an important way, I didn’t really grok it. Maybe absorbing it fully back then when I was newly sober would have drowned me in guilt and shame. In any case, I was shocked when my first boyfriend told me many years later, when we were in our 50s, that he regarded me as an abuser.

And then my first lover from college, whom I was with as she was dying when we were both in our 60s, told me in the months before she died that she’d had nightmares about me over the years. She said that back when we were lovers and I was drunk, I once hit her on the back with a chair and slammed her into a wall. I have no memory of this—I was often in black-outs when drunk. It was heartbreaking to hear that I had done this, and that I had given her a lifetime of nightmares.

It literally took decades, and these sobering words from two of the many people I had hurt, for me to really get how scary, hurtful and abusive I had been. Why was I so clueless? Because my internal experience in all these events was that I was the victim. In those moments of rage, I felt helpless, powerless, misunderstood, deeply hurt, unseen, threatened, victimized, betrayed, abandoned, wronged, lost, devastated and broken. I was lashing out like a wounded animal fighting to survive. I wanted to get the pain out of me. I felt powerless, not powerful, so I had no sense of how scary I was to others. I felt abused. And under the rage, I now realize there was tremendous fear and grief as well, fear and grief that I had completely buried—and, of course, there was unresolved trauma.

As a result of my own experiences as an abuser, I can totally get why OJ Simpson, after allegedly brutally killing and nearly decapitating his ex-wife Nicole with a knife, apparently said he felt like an abused husband, as outrageous as that seems. That’s exactly how I felt, that I was the victim. And I’m guessing that’s probably how many men feel who do terrible things like beating their wives or raping women.

Luckily, by sheer grace, I did not kill or seriously physically injure anyone, or kill myself, but I so easily could have done either or both. Over the years, thanks to sobriety, therapy and spiritual work, my anger comes less often and less intensely and, at least much of the time, I am able now to deal with it more skillfully when it does come. I haven’t hit anyone or been physically violent since I sobered up back in the early 1970s. But I did behave quite abusively a number of times in my early sobriety. And even in recent years, I’ve been emotionally or verbally abusive at times when my anger has boiled over. My anger has even spilled out at times on Facebook when I have been triggered by someone’s comment or by world events. The word “abusive" has been used more than once to describe my behavior. Sometimes my anger comes up so strongly that I am unable to take a time out—and it is painful to see the ways I can still be hurtful to people when that happens.

It would be easy to be drowning in shame, guilt and regret, but I can see that my rage and anger is a force of nature that is sometimes completely out of my control. In my drunken years, I didn’t have the insight, the skills or the sobriety to work with any of it in a constructive way. And even now, when I do have considerable insight and many skills in that regard, I can still find myself exploding at times—not in the extreme ways I did back then, but I can still snap, and when that happens, it feels out of control and choiceless at that moment. At other times, when anger rises up in me now, there is an apparent choice, and I can pause and feel the anger and what’s under it and not react. But sometimes, that possibility just isn’t accessible. It’s like my fingerbiting compulsion, which still persists—sometimes I can stop, sometimes I can’t. Both of these compulsive behaviors come less frequently, happen less severely, and pass more quickly—but I can’t say that either of them is completely gone.

My last therapist, to my surprise, regarded my anger as a positive force—it was my attempt to protect myself, she pointed out, and it was full of my aliveness and will to live. There was tremendous energy and power in it. Obviously, that doesn't mean she thought being hurtful and abusive was a good way to manifest it, but she was clarifying that it had positive aspects and that we don’t want to get rid of those—we just want to find other ways to work with it. Not pathologizing what I had long regarded as a "bad," “destructive,” “unacceptable,” “shameful” part of me was very healing. That wounded-violent-abusive part of me needs love, not condemnation, shaming and hatred. And, of course, this is equally true of OJ and all the people we each find it so easy to hate.

I’m not saying that abusive actions are okay, or that what I did was okay, or that rapists and murders should be turned loose on society, but is hating and shaming and punishing people the answer, does it break the cycle of abuse and pain?

We live in a culture that thinks in very black and white terms, a culture that assumes we are all acting out of free will and freely choosing to do everything we do. Our response to abuse is most often to shame the abuser, to punish them, to hate them, to tear them down—to meet abuse with abuse. We do this to criminals, locking them in abusive prisons, and in the present divisive political climate, it often seems that there is a kind of lynch mob mentality on both the left and the right. We often seem to lack compassion for perpetrators or for those we see as wrong or as threatening to our well-being.

What drives others and ourselves to harmful behaviors? What is the pain that gives rise to painful behaviors? Must we meet abuse with abuse? Does that really help, does it break the cycle or keep it going? When we have been abusive or hurtful, does being abused in turn help us to change, or is love what actually changes us? Love doesn’t mean tolerating abuse or not naming it clearly and putting a stop to it. It simply means seeing more deeply—seeing the whole picture.

My own history of abusive behavior gives me compassion for others who do terrible things. Of course, I don’t always feel compassionate or manifest compassion. Sometimes I am filled with anger and hate, and sometime I still do or say things I regret. When that happens, I do my best afterwards to repair the damage and to not get caught up in self-hatred. It’s a lifelong journey, this healing work, healing ourselves and healing the world.

This is my prayer: May we forgive ourselves and each other when we fall short, and may we all have the courage, faith and resolve to get up again and keep going, to once again ask the deeper questions and dare to touch that vulnerable place inside, to open the heart. May we have the courage to feel the human pain we all share. At the very heart of that pain is a jewel beyond all price. It is the bottomless presence at the heart of everything and the boundless awareness beholding it all, and it is the love that is trying to come forth even in the most broken and unskillful ways, the basic goodness of this aliveness that we are. Once we have discovered this jewel, this unconditional love, our work is in opening to it again and again, cultivating a growing faith in it and a faithfulness to it, and forgiving ourselves and others when we fail.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021 --

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