It’s Halloween! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies) #2

On Thursday, I rewatched the first horror movie I had ever seen in a theater–actually the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, period. It was probably one of the most intentionally rebellious things I ever did as a teen. Movie theaters were “evil” places in my cult, and I was forbidden from going to them, even to watch a Disney movie.

Horror movies were also considered evil and demonic for the obvious reason that they often deal with dark topics and the cult didn’t know how to recognize a metaphor.

So, what do I do when I decide to sneak out to a theater for the first time? I go watch Silent Hill, of course.

I remember being scared shitless, but I didn’t remember much about the movie itself. Watching it this time was sort of like watching it for the first time all over again. This one quickly took a place amongst my “movies that are metaphors for the importance of darkness.”

Spoilers in case you haven’t actually seen a movie this old yet.

Silent Hill is a moody, thrilling underworld journey about abuse, revenge, and facing your dark side. Whereas IT focused on facing and conquering fears, this movie is about encountering the dark, painful parts of ourselves.

The story opens with Sharon, an adopted little girl, sleepwalking and dreaming about this place called Silent Hill. It’s implied that these types of episodes have been going on for quite some time, with no response to medication or medical attempts to manage the sleep walking. Her mother discovers that it was a town in the state in which she’d been born that had become a ghost town after coal caught fire in the mines and drove people away. Thus, Rose decides that the only answer is to take her daughter back to this burning town to see if they can figure out what is haunting Sharon.

Rose and Sharon end up separated, and the movie follows Rose’s attempts to find her daughter in a land that has become a nightmare. Her searches eventually lead her to discover a bullied little girl who had been burned by religious fanatics for being a witch. Down in the bowels of the hospital where Alessa was put on life support after her burns, Rose encounters a little girl who looks exactly like Sharon…if Sharon were a demon.

Rose learns that Sharon is “what’s left of Alesssa’s goodness.” Her look-alike is Alessa’s revenge. They had sent Sharon to Rose to be cared for, eventually calling both of them back.

Rose also learns that the religious extremists plan a similar fate for her daughter. Although Alessa’s mother, a member of the cult, had abandoned her when the group had chosen to “purify” her, Rose has an opportunity to save her daughter from the religious extremists by taking in the darkness of the other half and carrying it to the church where the extremists hold their meetings.

It’s a powerful movie with so many characters playing off each other that my Jungian heart goes crazy with the possibilities for analysis.

The movie points out that “to a child, mother is god,” highlighting both the incredible power that mothers hold over their children. Most children, even when their mothers are harming them, still see their mothers through rosy glasses, requiring the child to take on the interpretation of “if good mother is doing these things to me, it must be because I am bad.” It’s nearly impossible to consider, as a young child, that mother might not actually be good. In keeping with this theme, Alessa’s mother is never actually touched by Alessa’s revenge. Even though she’s one of the people that Alessa could easily blame, she doesn’t.

In a similar way, cults like these ones often portray God in a similar light. It takes a lot for a member to question whether the group (which represents God) is doing the right thing, whether life circumstances are indeed deserved. Alessa’s mom wasn’t a good mom because she hated her daughter. She failed Alessa because she herself was under the same spell with the group.

Rose is contrasted with Alessa’s failure. Rose is able to save Sharon the way that Alessa’s mother should have saved Alessa. In some ways, I like to think that Rose is the internal mother that can be developed to heal from religious trauma, but I think the literal interpretation of her being an adoptive mother is also legit.

In turn, Alessa is contrasted by the split girls, identical except that one is good and one is…not exactly evil, but definitely dark. The good child, Sharon, is easy to love. The one that carries Alessa’s pain and anger is harder because she’s scary and unpredictable. But Rose can’t save Sharon without accepting Sharon’s other half.

Alessa’s mom is horrified by the shadow side as she watches her take her revenge on the religious fanatics, but there’s an interesting question even in the violence. Who is the true monster? Yes, the fanatics have been hiding from this dark child, but they also were the ones who created her. They burned Alessa, blind to the evil they themselves perpetuated. We also find out that they’re dead too—that they died in the fire they started, but that they are avoiding awareness of how they have destroyed themselves until Rose forces them to confront the shadow they have created.

Right towards the end, after Rose has managed to cut Sharon down from the stake (technically a ladder more than a stake, but serving the same purpose), she’s holding her and rocking her. Suddenly, the dark duplicate appears and looks into Sharon’s face. The scene cuts away then, and Rose and Sharon wake up later and head home.

It’s unclear from the movie whether the dark one just leaves Sharon alone after she looks at her or if she and Sharon reintegrate with each other in that moment, but my guess is that they integrated because neither were whole on their own. They had been split by the horror of what happened (good metaphor for trauma), and the healing came through Rose offering the corrective experience of a mother who doesn’t abandon her child. Rose needed to love both the shadow and the light in order for the little girl to fully heal.

Irreconcilable Differences

The last month or so has been incredibly intense for me. Back in the beginning of the summer, I wrote about how I had reached a point where I was no longer satisfied with merely avoiding conflict with my family at the expense of myself, keeping a delicate balance that indicated more about the fragility of the relationship than it did about actual peace. I resolved to pursue allowing myself to be more present in visits, not hiding out of fear of a fight.

Little did I know what door I was opening. Before I even had a chance to challenge myself to live up to my own dedication to authenticity, I found myself embroiled in a toxic stew of insults, cold shoulders, and hostility. Maybe they had always been there and I was just more aware. Maybe this visit was coincidentally bad. It’s hard to say.

Being around my family in that way, with everyone interacting with each other as if they were held hostage rather than fulfilling a desire to see me, opened my eyes.

For the first time, I realized that I don’t really ever interact with my family—I interact with the cult. I am not part of that family anymore. I am a stranger. I could not one of them because I am not of the cult.

For the first time, I realized that nothing has really changed. They may not be able to physically abuse me anymore, but the psychological game was still present, jerking me around.

For the first time, I realized I couldn’t save my parents—from the cult, from the awareness that their abuse had hurt me, or from the consequences that accompanied not taking responsibility for that abuse.

For the first time, I thought about how if this were a friendship, I would have ended it years ago. If it were a marriage, I would have gotten a divorce.

It was then that I knew I couldn’t maintain a relationship with them. I was healthier when they weren’t in my life. The more I tried to hold onto them while they strung me along, the more I betrayed myself.

I wasn’t able to take action on that knowledge until a few weeks ago.

There’s something primal and terrifying about letting go of the illusion of family even if you’ve never had the actual experience of a loving family. Yet each time I tried to talk myself out of this move, telling myself it was “one bad visit” and that “things could get better,” I knew I couldn’t bear to walk into that house ever again.

My own pain is to be expected—managed even.

What intrigues me is the response that others have.

For the most part, we have gotten over the stigma of divorce. There are still pockets of judgment, but they are rare these days. If I were to tell the average person that I was divorcing my husband because he had been physically and emotionally abusive and had refused to take responsibility for that or make any effort to change, I would be praised for the strength it took to make my decision and offered assistance and comfort. If I never wanted to speak to him again after the divorce, no one would question that.

We’ve come to accept that break ups with romantic partners, while unfortunate and painful, are sometimes necessary.

That is not guaranteed to be true for blood relatives.

There is no legal recourse to divorce my parents. Articles and self-help guides that offer support and advice on parent-child relationships more often talk about reconciliation after confrontation or setting boundaries.

If I choose to tell someone that I have chosen to cut my family off, I’m just as likely to be accused of being unforgiving and over-dramatic as I am to be offered comfort and support.

And I don’t understand why that is…

What is it about shared genes that makes toxic relationships something to cling to when, in other circumstances, it would be considered more unhealthy not to end the relationship?

My decision did not come easily. It was years in the making and driven by a multitude of incidents. This last visit was merely the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and came at a time when I had tremendous support to help me through. I don’t think it is meant to be an easy decision, but I wonder if it might have been easier if there had been just a smidge more acceptance for the idea that break ups are sometimes just as necessary with family as they are with partners.

There is a part of me that wants to keep this private because of how painful it is, but I realize if I do that, I contribute to the stigma. If I am willing to talk about my journey when boundary-setting or confrontation are on the table, but I shy away from sharing when I realize that there are irreconcilable differences, I am no better as an author and blogger than the self-help books that I resent right now.

So I share my pain, aware that others may read in horror, judging…but mostly hoping that some who read realize they aren’t alone.

 

The Angst of Freedom

Pause: If you haven’t read my post about The Point of No Return, maybe hop over and do so now because it ties heavily into this post.

It’s the paradox of existential philosophy: No one can take away the freedom you have within yourself. But you are not necessarily free. People can and do exert a tremendous amount of influence and sometimes direct control over your decisions, consciously and unconsciously.

Those who have been at the point of no return know that there is a place in your soul that you can reach where you will do what your heart tells you to do, regardless of the consequences. In my case, it was breaking free of a cult. I was free and not free to do so in many different ways. It was only when I decided that the reasons that made me not free weren’t strong enough to prevent me from exercising my freedom that I was able to shake off the invisible binds that tied me down.

I’m well familiar with that place of desperation. It’s terrifying, but on some levels exhilarating because I’ve found there is more freedom in a moment of desperation than in maintaining balance.

It’s as much the problem as it is the solution.

I’m not of the Buddhist opinion that attachment is bad. I think attachment can be a beautiful motivator and protector. Attachment drives us to make something work. Within a relationship, attachment makes two people try to work through the difference of their first fight rather than walking away from each other. It’s worth it to sit through that discomfort and do that messy work because of the attachment.

Attachment becomes unhealthy, though, when it detaches us from ourselves—when we become powerless to our own attachment and thus powerless to the one to whom we are attached.

In relationship this might look like suppressing one’s own needs in pursuit of making someone else happy or (hear me out on this) submitting to abusive behavior.

I am not trying to say that those who are survivors or victims of abuse have allowed that to happen to themselves or that they have knowingly or willingly given up their power.

I am trying to say that attachment is often what keeps people in toxic situations, hoping beyond hope that things will get better. The fear of losing that attachment can be as strong as an iron cage, and toxic people exploit that attachment to undermine an individual’s autonomy.

The oft asked question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” has a complicated answer, but part of the answer, I think, comes down to “She didn’t feel free to.”

The same is true on a larger scale for groups. The process of leaving a cultic or toxic group often involves a process of recognizing that things aren’t well, trying to ignore that things aren’t well, attempting to influence change from within, experiencing the backlash of trying to change things from within, and exiting–not always in a linear order, and sometimes often repeated because leaving isn’t easy. Toxic or abusive relationships or environments hook themselves into your soul—into your hopes and dreams and ideals. That’s how they keep you there. Leaving ends up feeling like leaving yourself.

Physical restraint is certainly one way of removing someone’s freedom, but there are other ways, more subtle and more insidious. The only thing necessary to capture someone is to convince them they are captive–or worse yet, to convince them they aren’t captive but “loved.”

On the flip side, even in the most captive spaces, no one can forcefully capture a person’s mind.

And that is where the truth of the opening paradox lies.

Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I don’t think she was talking about conscious consent. Few of us who have ever been insulted have sat down and thought, “Gee, I think I will consent to this barb, but next time I won’t.”

What she was talking about was the power that comes with being grounded in who you are and in owning your freedoms (which comes hand in hand with owning your limitations). When you know that your mind is your own, no one can infiltrate it no matter what they might be able to do outside your body.

Freedom is not always about being able to do whatever you want. Although ideally we should all be free to conduct our lives how we see fit, even when that is not the reality—when the reality is that there are limitations on our choices—we can still have freedom in making the choice from the options before us in full clarity and autonomy.

At my point of no return, my choices were severely limited. I could stay, try to force myself to submit to more abuse. I could kill myself and exit the scene entirely. Or I could escape and try to rebuild a new life. All three were a death on one level or another.

I won’t rehash the ways in which facing suicide helped me make the hardest decision of my life. You can read about that in the other post. But I will say that owning the power I had to leave was directly tied to realizing that the things that held me back weren’t worth the price I was paying in sacrificing myself—my freedom.

I’ve learned since that the world is hard to navigate when every decision isn’t as catastrophically big, but the process repeats itself on smaller levels. I find myself going through cycles where I get attached to something—a relationship, a dream, an ideal. I throw myself into it. I either find a way of being authentic within it or I find myself becoming increasingly disempowered and controlled by it. I struggle with how to regain my power.

At some point, I realize that my power and freedom are just waiting for me to step back into myself again, which often involves letting go of my attachment, which in turn involves grieving my own hopes as much as the attachment object itself.

I don’t go all the way to the point of confronting death each time…but I think because I’ve been there, I can recognize the confrontation with symbolic death in each cycle. In a metaphorical sense, attachment is life; freedom is death. The existential concept that we are free but not free isn’t actually a paradox—it’s the life-death-life cycle. It is the cosmic balance.

 

Facebook Sides with Abusers and Bigots

Facebook is being a fucking ass right now. In case you haven’t heard yet, they’ve begun shutting down people’s accounts for using chosen names or pseudonyms.

I first started hearing rumors about Facebook locking people out of their profiles, asking for identification in order to get back in, several months ago. At the time, they were very distant rumors. I assumed it was someone who had been harassing another person and was reported as a result.

But then I started hearing rumors about drag performers being told they had to use their real names, and I thought, “Well that’s dumb. They’ll get push-back and change their policy.”

I began to watch more closely as Sister Roma struck up an attempt to raise awareness and convince Facebook to change their policy to allow pseudonyms or alternate names. Sister Roma, and those fighting with her, made an excellent case for why Facebook should rescind the policy, but Facebook declared that they were going to stay with their jack-assed assumptions that people must use their legal name on their profile.

Why is that such a big deal?

There is quite a bit of prejudice inherent in demanding that drag performers or transgender individuals use their legal birth name. Refusing to acknowledge someone’s preferred name, like choosing to ignore their preferred pronouns, is a form of transphobia that attempts to steal identity away from the person. It’s an ironic move on Facebook’s part since they recently introduced more gender options for a person’s profile. It’s even more ironic since I haven’t heard of a single celebrity being locked out of their account for using a stage name rather than a birth name. So much for consistency.

But the transphobia and double standard isn’t all that’s at play here. This name policy holds huge repercussions for other groups as well, particularly survivors of abuse.

I found out the hard way that using my name on the Internet wasn’t a good idea. I was stalked both by former cult members and a random stranger who just decided I was a convenient target. I always thought that just keeping my information private would be enough, but when one of the stalkers (hint: it was the stranger) managed to find out where I lived and worked by using a combination of Facebook and the white pages, I decided that was the end of my “real name” days.

Many others hold similar reasons for using different names, whether it’s someone trying to get away from a toxic relationship, questioning cult members seeking answers, LGBT who aren’t out of the closet yet, political refugees who want to maintain contact with family and friends without putting those people in danger, or a blogger who doesn’t want to risk being threatened and driven out of her home by angry jerks like Anita Sarkeesian experienced.

According to Facebook, their name policy stems from their desire for others to know who they are connecting with, but I think they reveal their hand a little too well in the face of their opposition. Their interests do not lie with the LGBT community or with domestic violence survivors or with rape survivors or with anyone whose identity puts them at risk of harm if revealed. Their interests lie with the abusers, the haters, the stalkers, and the violators. Their interests lie with those who don’t give a flying fuck about other people’s privacy or autonomy.

Which makes Facebook an abuser in its own right, using the threat of isolation and the loss of access to personal information to coerce people and putting individuals in the line of violence with cold disregard, declaring that those who don’t like it must be the ones in the wrong.

 

Why I Hate The Mental Illness Rhetoric about Depression

Following the death of Robin Williams, I watched Facebook flood with articles and discussions of depression. It’s a tough subject at the best of times, even harder following the fresh sting of loss.

Emotions were high, so I prepared myself for an onslaught of insensitive posts about suicide being selfish, cowardly, etc. I was dismayed, though, to see phrases like “depression is a life-threatening illness” and “depression is out to kill you” dancing alongside the other comments.

I’ve watched the fight to raise awareness about depression for quite some time, and it seems that we’re finally reaching a place where people sort of understand that depression isn’t a character flaw…but I’m not sure that where we’re headed is any better.

Although it’s important to recognize that depression can be rooted in physical causes, vitamin deficiencies or hormonal imbalances, it’s equally important to recognize that it isn’t always rooted in physical causes. Sometimes it is entirely emotional or situational.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

What’s not okay is to diminish the impact of a person’s emotional process or environment, which is exactly what this “life-threatening disease” model does.

A while back, I talked about reaching the point of no return when I was in the cult. It was the moment that I realized that I would rather die than continue to live the life I was in—that wasn’t an overstatement. I was suicidal for almost two years before I finally left, and one of the things that gave me the courage to break away from the toxicity of the IFB was my suicidality. When I look back on my life, I don’t see that struggle as “dangerous” or as part of a “disease.”

It was a crisis, to be sure—but it was a good crisis. When death was more appealing than my life, I had nothing to lose in trying to make my life worth living. My depression was the signal to me that things couldn’t just go on the way they were. Something had to change.

Had I been taken to a doctor during that time, I could have easily been dismissed as “mentally ill,” given some pills, and sent back into abuse. I might have spent years more, maybe even the rest of my lifetime, trying to battle “depression” (the symptom) rather than the true “disease” (abuse).

I get that the “illness” proponents are trying desperately to end the stigma around depression, but as someone who was depressed for non-medical reasons (still good reasons), I don’t see a true end to stigma.

We might have shifted slightly in our opinion of depressed people, but only because we’ve shifted from thinking of them as emotionally unstable to medically unable to be happy…so technically, the stigma is still there. Sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, desperation—they’re all still “bad.” We’re just more willing to say, “It’s not your fault.”

But I don’t want my emotional state to be acceptable only if it’s caused by an imbalance somewhere. I don’t want to live in a society where being sad is demonized to the point that I either keep it hidden or I go get a pill to make it go away.

I want my emotions to be okay, no matter what. I want to live in a society where having an emotional struggle is as acceptable as having a medical problem. I want to live in a society where depression can be a valid indication that something is off in my environment rather than just an indication of something being off in my body.

The disease model is convenient in a society where minorities and oppressed groups are far more likely to experience depression. It allows us to shake our heads over a “diseased brain” rather than considering what societal factors may be creating an environment in which depression can thrive. It allows us to ignore problems like abuse, discrimination, bullying, economic distress, and prejudice as we scurry around trying to find the magic bullet that will force everyone to be happy with the way things are.

Yes, I struggle with depression. I struggled a lot in high school and college. I struggle less now, but I still struggle (usually when I’m not embracing my emotional work and end up stagnating in the emotion I don’t want to work through).

But NO, I do not have a mental illness or a disease. I don’t have a chemical imbalance. I’m not helpless or in danger because of it. I’ve learned to embrace my downward cycles as an indication that it’s time to make changes in my life or focus on healing old wounds that have been ignored. I’ve found hope. I found my own way of working through it, with the assistance of some amazing people who had the guts to tell me that my emotions weren’t bad or dangerous on their own. It was fucking hard, but it was worth it in the end because I understand my moods better than anyone now, and I know I can sit through the dark times…and grow through them too.

I’m not saying there is never a medical reason for depression. I’m not saying that medication can’t be helpful. I’m not saying that offering assistance isn’t necessary.

But I am saying that the rhetoric that paints depression as nothing more than a physical illness is as damaging, in my opinion, as the rhetoric that paints depression as a character flaw.

What would happen if we stopped talking about depression as if it were the boogyman hiding in the corners of our minds? What would happen if we didn’t assume that emotions were an illness or teach people to be afraid or ashamed of what they are going through?

Maybe, just maybe, we could actually begin to address depression intelligently, allowing each person to figure out what physical, social, and mental components are at play for them. Maybe we’d actually see people capable of working through their depression rather than succumbing to it.

 

Cult Recruitment: An Insider’s Perspective

Even if you don’t know that much about cults, you’ve probably heard about the famous mind-control of brainwashing. It’s the process whereby new members have their identity broken down and cult values and a cult personality implemented instead. It sounds like a sensational process, requiring torture and weird machines.

Remember this scene from Lost?

Karl being brainwashed in Lost

The truth is, it’s not. If it were that obvious, people would be much less likely to join a cult. Brainwashing is a simple process of manipulation that is so subtle that new members don’t notice the destruction of their sense of self.

I know how the process works, intimately. Recruitment is an essential part of most cults (outside of the handful that stopped recruiting in order to kill themselves off), and the IFB is no different. However, I’m finding a disconnection between some of the scholarly understandings of recruitment and my own experience.

It’s not that the breakdown is wrong, per se. The mechanics are all there—targeting emotionally vulnerable people, bombing them with love, and offering them hope. All of that is entirely true.

So where’s the problem?

It always sounds so sinister. In Cults in our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer describes the process as “deliberate,” and to some extent it is deliberate, but it’s not intentional-deliberate (“I’m going to brainwash someone”) or malicious-deliberate (“I want to ruin her life”).

In the IFB, we absolutely targeted emotionally vulnerable people (children, military, grieving family and friends, the lonely, etc.). We had any number of programs to reach out to those in difficult places in their lives, those less fortunate, or those simply confused and dissatisfied with where their life was going. We promised them answers and meaning and showered them with love. We had both subtle and blatant ways of worming into their minds and planting the idea that their misery and trials were due to their sin. We were trained on how to approach people, how to gauge their receptiveness to the message, and how to gently push them into accepting our beliefs.

I think I still have a bookmark in my old Bible with my script cues written on it!

But we did it thinking we were doing the right thing. We would have never called it “recruitment,” “brainwashing,” “mind control,” or any of the other clinical terms.

We called it witnessing, sharing our faith, spreading the good news, and sharing the love of God. We saw ourselves as missionaries of good. People were dying and going to hell because of their sins, and we had the cure. It was our duty to offer them a chance for salvation.

“The most sobering reality in the world today,” Bob Jones III would often prompt in chapel.

“Is that people are dying and going to hell today,” the students would chant back to him.

I would have never admitted it because it was horribly taboo, but I never liked witnessing. I hated approaching a complete stranger and trying to find a way to trick them into talking about God. I hated asserting that they were sinful and needed to be saved or else they would go to hell. I even hated knocking on apartment doors and asking parents if I could take their kids to my Bible club when I was at BJU, often wondering what kind of parent would let a complete stranger take a child away simply by claiming to want to tell them about Jesus?

Every time I witnessed, I felt like a pompous jerk.

But I did it because I was led to believe that I was responsible for the lost souls of those I failed to witness to. Choosing not to try to recruit someone was tantamount to murdering that person. How could I possibly bear the guilt of watching them burn in hell for all eternity simply because I was too embarrassed to approach them?

Today, when I watch documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” I shudder to see the brainwashing tactics in play. When I hear about how Missions to Military (which has connections to the IFB, for the record) waits until soldiers are at their most broken point in boot camp before approaching them to witness, I get sick to my stomach to see vulnerable people being targeted.

But not for a single second would I ever think that the people doing the recruiting had bad intentions at heart. They believe in what they are doing 100%. That’s why they’re so seductive. Cults are insidious and destructive because victims believe in them. Brainwashing doesn’t end when you join—it’s just beginning. You can lay out a map of behavior for cult members to look at and point out exactly how they fit into that map, and they still won’t think they’re a cult because they’re convinced they’re doing the loving thing, the right thing, the only thing they can do.

Why am I writing about this?

Because it’s not good enough to just identify the behavior of cults and how they are destructive or even how that behavior is used in the grand scheme of control.

Cults are monsters, and the people in them can be monsters. But if you’re looking for a monster under your bed or hiding in the shadows, you’re not going to find it. All you’re going to find is a smiling face and a human being who desperately believes they are doing the right thing.

If researchers are truly going to expose cults and protect people from them, they need to be able to recognize that the most important part of the recruitment process isn’t the part where they break down the recruit’s identity—it comes long before that, when they lull the recruit into letting his/her guard down. The claws and fangs are there, hiding under the mask, but no one will see them until they try to leave.

Recruitment is a golden road to a physical hell paved with someone else’s good intentions.

On a Scale of 0 to 10, My Pain Is . . .

“Does that hurt?” the doctor asked me, pressing against my swollen foot.

“Yes?” I asked, then added, “No. I don’t know.”

“You’re grimacing.” She moves her hand to a different spot.

“Yeah, I think it hurts.”

Putting my foot down, she makes a note on the computer. “Has the pain worsened since it happened?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure. It comes and goes.”

This was me in the doctor’s office on Thursday as I got my foot checked out after having it hit by a baseball on Tuesday night. Thank goodness she didn’t ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 0-10 because I would have given two answers on two opposite ends.

The truth is, I have no idea how to gauge my pain. When I broke a toe in high school, I walked on it until it healed, wearing four inch heals every Sunday. I never went to the doctor, even though I could clearly see that it was misshapen.

“That’s impossible!” people have told me.

Maybe for someone who grew up in a normal environment—where belts are not considered legitimate whipping tools, where sexual abuse doesn’t lurk around church corners, and where abusive siblings don’t minimize the pain they caused after throwing you across your room by your neck.

Bur for someone who faced the possibility of pain on a daily basis, I’m not sure I could have survived if I hadn’t learned how to ignore it. I became very good at dissociating out of my body, talking myself out of my feelings, and redefining sensations as something else—as something acceptable to my various abusers.

So what happens when I suddenly don’t need the protection of a high pain tolerance?

I have to teach myself to listen to my body again.

Notice I didn’t say teach myself to feel pain again. My body, on some levels, has no problem feeling pain. It registers in my brain just fine. Sometimes it’s from current stimuli; sometimes it’s from past traumas. I feel it, but immediately my cognitive mind works to control its interference. Deep breaths, creative visualization, etc.

Like most things in life, it’s not bad in and of itself. The ability to look past pain is a good tool for pain management.

However, that’s not so good when the pain is there to tell me that something bad happened—like my foot this week, or the shin splints that notified me that I needed to adjust my running a few weeks ago, or the pulled muscle that told me I pushed myself too far in yoga last year.

In high school, I would have ignored all of those unless I simply couldn’t function—and I would have done permanent damage to my body.

I may not feel any more inclined to acknowledge the pain now. I could have muscled my way through this current injury if I were determined. I chose to go to the doctor—not because the pain was more intense than it was the last time I broke a toe, but because this time I’m committed to caring for and loving my body.

Plus I’m surrounded by people, for once, who don’t understand why the hell I wouldn’t go to the doctor if I had a question of injury, so I had lots of encouragement.

Turns out the X-ray didn’t show a fracture.

Immediately my stoic upbringing ran its familiar diatribe.  “You’re such a baby.” “You’re going to get fat.” “You’re so lazy.” “It’s not broken, so why can’t you walk?” “Is the pain really that bad?”

Apparently only broken bones serve as legitimate injuries to this “old me” that I’ve resurrected. It’s hard to make room for weakness and injury when you grew up on the motto “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

But here’s one thing I realize now that I didn’t realize back when I could bully myself out of listening to my body:

Ignoring the pain doesn’t actually make it go away.

Ignoring the injury doesn’t heal it.

Pain is not weakness leaving the body. It’s weakness entering the body. It’s the signal that my body sends to my brain that something needs attention—something’s wrong. While there may have been times as a child when my mind needed to believe that the pain was unimportant, I’m not there anymore. I’m in a different place—a safe place—where I am responsible for listening and caring for myself, which means using crutches for a few weeks instead of trying to prove my willpower to those ghosts in my head.