Lately I’ve been feeling this knot in my stomach—an overall sense that things just aren’t right. I know what the underlying issue is, but I’ve been reluctant to confront it. Like the mythical ostrich, I prefer to bury my head in the sand instead of working through the problem. In a previous post, I described myself as a “megalomaniac with an inferiority complex” because at heart, I’m very uncomfortable being around people. Today I made the decision that the only way I can “pull my head out of the sand” is to publicly voice what I’ve been feeling.
Many of you already know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was abused for the first time by a coach, and later, I was the victim of a very violent assault by two strangers. After that violent assault, I began to bury the part of me that trusted others, and my mind went into self-protection mode as I hid this part of me from everyone in my life. In April of this year, I disclosed to family and friends about what had happened, and I entered a treatment program for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
I am grateful that my life is getting better day by day, but my self-esteem is still painfully low. Thanks to the support of family, friends, therapists, and my online community, I am slowly gaining the ability to trust again, so in terms of this issue at least, I have seen a noticeable improvement in my life. What I’m having the most difficulty with right now is this knot in my stomach—a feeling of general "dis"ease. I’m able to label all the symptoms, as they manifest in sadness, fear, and lately—apathy. Having talked to other survivors of abuse or trauma, I am well aware that many of these emotions have a parasitic quality in that if left unchecked, they derail recovery and movement towards a more “wholehearted” life.
If I’m being truly honest with myself, I can see that low self-esteem is at the heart of this current malaise. The real question is how does one actually go about rebuilding self-esteem that was truncated as the result of abuse or trauma? I wrote in a previous post about the need to give myself the “gift of time” for my healing journey. I think what that boils down to is a sense of “patience” in the process of reintegration with the piece of me that was left behind as a child. Buddhist scholar Sharon Salzberg describes patience “as [not] what we commonly assume…a dull endurance, but rather holding a much bigger picture of life. Patience involves carrying on—even flourishing—through ups and downs, twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies…Patience is peaceful awareness in the midst of weathering life’s storms, giving us the ability to go on in the face of adversity.”
Low self-esteem is an insidious problem because, as in my case, it is intricately intwined with trust issues. In my relationships with most people, this becomes apparent in my desire to withdraw, and with my spouse, it manifests at a more personal, intimate level. I’m so appreciative of my wife and of the fact that we have been together for 27 years. I can’t even begin to imagine what dealing with these issues would be like for couples who have not invested as much time in their relationship as we have.
I had the pleasure of attending a meditation workshop this past weekend, and the facilitator said something that really resonated with me. He said that as we become more mindful, our ultimate goal is to “change states into traits”. Instead of vacillating between brief bouts of happiness, joy, and gratitude (known as states), we could consider inviting these states to become our long-term embedded mode of being, thereby changing “states into traits”. It’s definitely something to consider as I travel this serpentine road to wholehearted living.
One of the issues that I need to be wary of is confusing permitting myself time to work through this process with the unhelpful behaviour of simply doing nothing. It’s often said that “time heals all wounds”, but I would include the addendum that we need “time coupled with constructive action”. Sitting around willing the situation to get better is not constructive in terms of my mental health. I was listening to an interview with the writer Andrew Solomon in a recent On Being podcast, and he pointed out, what I believe to be an important distinction. The opposite of “depression” is not “happiness” but “vitality”. This would indicate that living a “wholehearted” life will include riding the natural ebb and flow of emotions—the highs and the lows. I find immense comfort in this because I no longer wish to numb uncertainty and discomfort in my life. I’m witnessing spiritual growth and general well-being by learning to simply “be with” whatever is in front of me. I describe this as being “okay” with “not being okay”.