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My Story of Trauma, Rage and Healing

Ram Tzu has a question for you…

You are kind to others.
You give to charity.
You go to church.
You pray with sincerity.
You are honest in your business.
You fulfill your obligations.
You know yourself to be a good man.

Where did these qualities come from?
How is it that your heart is not swollen
With the rage and despair
That causes a man
To slaughter his children?

Are you really so different from him?

Follow the spoor of your blessings
To their source.

There will be God.

– Ram Tzu (aka Wayne Liquorman),
from his book No Way for the Spiritually “Advanced”

I wrote this article out of a desire to be honest about my own history and shortcomings and to share the perspective they have brought me to. This is a story of suffering and healing in which I’ve played all the parts. I hope it will be helpful to some who read it and that it will contribute in some small way to the emergence of a more compassionate approach to all of us when we behave in terrible ways.

Like many if not most people in our society, I am a mix of privilege and oppression, good and bad fortune. I was blessed with wonderful parents who loved me, and I had an overwhelmingly happy and lucky childhood. I’m white, and I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago where our neighbors were bankers, corporate lawyers, CEOs, and 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 worked long hours and never took a single vacation. He was dead at seventy-six.

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. Both of my parents had been through hard times during the Depression, but my whole growing up experience was one of abundance. As I grew up, it troubled me that people were starving in other parts of the world, and that so many in my country were living in poverty. My parents had both worked hard for what they had, but I knew that my good fortune had nothing to do with my working hard or being a better person than those who were starving. It was simply a gratuitous unearned gift.

Although my childhood was overwhelmingly a lucky one, I also had some early trauma: a pre-natal amputation of my right hand and forearm by amniotic band strangulation while I was still in the uterus, probably toward the end of my mother’s pregnancy; a hospitalization for a serious ear infection around age 3 in an isolation ward that my parents could not enter; something invasive and sexual in nature that I cannot fully remember in my early childhood; losing my virginity in a very disturbing way as a teenager to a man who was my boss and a sexual predator; and in many ways not fitting in to my assigned social role.

Growing up in the 1950s, in a very different world than we have now, I had the pain of being a physically imperfect girl in a world where females were judged primarily on their beauty, a world where disability was seen much more negatively than it is today. I was gender nonconforming from early childhood (as an older adult, I thought seriously about a gender transition, and I now consider myself nonbinary), and I realized early on that I was attracted to girls, in a world where homosexuality was still illegal, hidden away, considered sinful and classified as a form of mental illness. I was a one-armed nonbinary potentially transgender lesbian in a world where no one like me was yet reflected in the cultural mirrors and where I didn’t even have the words for my situation.

Although my parents, friends and schools all treated me very well, I had a deep sense that I was fundamentally imperfect, wrong, alone, and even repulsive—and this imprinted on me in lasting ways. As an only child, and particularly as a girl with a disability, my parents wanted to shower me with blessings, so 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, I started drinking heavily. I was often filled with rage and was sometimes violent. I came out as a lesbian during my college years when I was in my late teens. It was before Stonewall, and I 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 three-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.

All of this manifested in me most obviously as self-injury and violent rages. I burned myself with cigarettes, bit my fingers until they had bloody wounds, drank and smoked and took drugs excessively. 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 “seizures of rage.”

After college, I moved to San Francisco and lived in the lesbian bars—back then, those were the only places where you could meet and socialize with other lesbians. Not surprisingly, alcohol addiction was rampant. Drugs of all kinds were also everywhere. I’d done marijuana and psychedelics in college, but now I was also doing uppers, downers, cocaine, and a few times even shooting heroin.

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), apparently threw a knife at two other friends next door (again, luckily missed), swallowed a bottle of pills (thankfully, lived), hallucinated, 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 for LGBT people. This therapist specialized in addiction issues, and her approach was unconventional. My life began to turn around. I sobered up, stopped taking drugs, quit smoking. 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 of various forms, and more. It is, as I’ve discovered, a lifelong, never-ending, always NOW journey of transformation.

I’m well-aware that it was grace and privilege of many kinds that allowed me to undertake this healing journey. I was white, middle-class and college educated. I had loving parents who also sent financial support. I wasn’t a single working mother with no skills and no family support trying to sober up while working two jobs and dealing with an abusive boyfriend. Yes, I did the work I did—but only because I was able to do it. For many others with traumas far worse than mine and fewer advantages, the possibility of doing such things as going on meditation retreats and working for a small stipend for five years so I could live at a retreat center were simply not options.

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. The word really rocked me, and my first impulse was to deny it.

But then, I was hearing that word from others at times when my temper flared up, 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 told me about some of the violent things I had done when we were lovers and I was drunk, things I had no memory of doing because I was often in black-outs when drunk. It was heartbreaking to hear all of this.

Hearing all this finally allowed me to really get how scary, hurtful and abusive I had been, and how abusive I sometimes still could be. Why was I previously so clueless? Part of it was surely denial and self-protection, but a large part of it was that my internal experience during these events was that I felt like the victim. In those moments of drunken 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, but I didn’t have the skills back then to understand why. Feminism, LGBT liberation, and disability rights were movements still in their nascent stages, and nobody knew much of anything about trauma back then.

So I was clueless about why I was really so angry, and I focused my rage on all the people who loved me. I was out of touch with most of my other emotions, so it wasn’t until I sobered up and was in therapy that I began to feel the fear and grief that was under my rage, feelings that I had completely buried.

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 most 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 is the result of infinite causes and conditions that are completely out of my control. In my drunken years, I didn’t have the insight, skills or 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 and understanding, not condemnation, shaming and hatred. And, of course, this is equally true of all the abusive people we each find it so easy to hate. Of course, I’m not saying that abusive actions are okay, or that they should be tolerated, or that what I did was okay, or that rapists, child abusers, mass shooters, murderers and perpetrators of genocide should be allowed to go free in society, but is hating, shaming and punishing such people the answer? Does it actually help to break the cycle of abuse and pain?

My own experiences with compulsive rage and self-injury have given me a window of understanding and compassion for people who do terrible things, often things far worse than anything I’ve done. Yes, their behavior should be called out, and in some cases, such people should be taken out of circulation and put in prison for the safety of everyone else. And there is certainly a place for responding to abuse with anger and even with violence in self-defense. And of course I have tremendous compassion for those who are being abused as well. But what forces of nature and nurture and what life experiences turn someone into an abuser? And if they cannot control it, does shaming and punishment really make sense? Could there be a better way? Yes, there is a place for taking responsibility for our actions, but it's paradoxical, because our actions are really the actions of life itself, and the bodymind does not always have the ability or capacity (the response-ability) to respond constructively.

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, 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 and hate with hate. 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.

Can we explore 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 and understanding 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, seeing from wholeness.

I certainly regret the harm I have caused, although in another sense, I can’t regret anything in my life, because I know that nothing can ever be other than how it is, and I see how it all goes together. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t been through all of this, and if I hadn’t played all the parts, and I see that this applies to everything and everyone everywhere. Our suffering is often the grit that creates the pearl and the crack where the light finally gets in. It certainly has been for me.

Although my own history of abusive behavior gives me compassion for others who do terrible things, I don’t always feel compassionate or manifest compassion. Sometimes 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. 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, 2024 --

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