The Benefits and Limits of Mari Kondo’s Method

Like many people this year, I found myself swept up in the fever of Mari Kondo’s “Tidying Up” on Netflix. I loved it and quickly found myself sorting my clothes while watching episodes of others sorting theirs. And then I expanded that to other areas of my life, asking myself, “Does this spark joy?” for both material and non-material objects.

I quickly found that there were some ways in which Mari Kondo’s method was incredibly helpful! I can honestly say my dresser drawers have never looked better, and I got rid of so many cds, knickknacks, books, and craft supplies that I began to realize were never really going to be used because I didn’t like them (it’s amazing how much you can horde out of guilt that you “should” use it someday but don’t actually have a desire to).

I even deleted over 500 files from my computer after realizing that I had no intention of returning to that short story again and didn’t need to keep that paper from high school anymore.

Probably the most important shift was finally having the courage to deactivate my Facebook account. It wasn’t a hard answer when I asked if it sparked joy. The answer for months had been a resounding “NO!” It was a source of stress more than anything, but because of how important Facebook had been in helping me build community and find support when I first came out as bisexual and when I began my recovery journey from the cult, I had a hard time letting go. Kondo’s advice to offer gratitude as you released something was the missing piece I needed to be able to finally say, “I no longer need this in my life.”

There’s a certain amount of truth that in releasing the things that don’t really spark joy, I have more energy for things that do. I’m more likely to grab a cd and pop it into my car knowing that the ones on my cd tower are the ones that I actually enjoy. I also have returned to some old hobbies and creative projects now that Facebook no longer clutters my mind, and I’m finding ways to increase the meaningfulness of my connections with others through letter writing, text, and phone calls.

But I also found there were limitations to her method.

For me, it’s not enough to touch a book as a way of “awakening” it before deciding to keep it or not. I have to read it because, until I know what it contains, I don’t know whether it has joy or value to me. Reading through my books and choosing to release the ones I don’t like has been a project I’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s a slow process that doesn’t offer that immediate satisfaction of releasing like Kondo’s method, but ultimately I think it’s a more thorough gauge.

There’s also a limit in how much one can do solo when you co-habit with others. My partner is decidedly not on the konmari trend, and so much of our possessions have become intermingled that I can’t really decide on my own whether something should be removed. And unless I took a whole week off work to sort, I can’t really afford to pile things into the middle of the room by category. Perhaps that’s my own limitation more so than the limitation of her method, but I’ve become resigned to the fact that it’s just not going to happen.

However, probably the biggest limitation is in applying the joy question to the things from my past, the “sentimental” things, as Konda would call them.

She recommends saving those until last, but it was inevitable that as I sorted through desk drawers I would come across pictures, diaries, notes, and various other things from my past. After having my PTSD triggered sky high by uncovering some pictures and sermon notes from summer indoctrination camp shoved in the back of a drawer, it hit me that the question of “Does it spark joy?” was horribly inadequate given my history, even if I save it until the end.

“Joy” is not a word I would apply to my childhood. Even the best of memories are laced with the pain of trauma and loss. There’s a part of me that would like to just burn anything that reminds me of abuse, to eradicate any evidence of the unusual life I led, and to bury anything that reminds me of all I lost in trying to break free.

But I also know that if I did that, I would be left with nothing from my past, and I’m not prepared to erase who I was entirely. Some of those memories are important, even if they are painful.

Keeping it all probably doesn’t make sense, but figuring out what to release and what to save is going to require more than the joy question.

It’s going to require processing the painful memories, discharging the triggers, and integrating those parts of myself. And that’s a time-consuming, slow process that will only happen in increments. Only then will I be ready to say whether something is meaningful—and I say meaningful because I doubt that I will find it “sparking joy” even then.

I think what I’ve found in the last few months of playing with her approach is that I like her “spark joy” standard as a beginning place. From there, if it’s not sparking joy, I think I have to find another set of questions to ask myself.

I’ve become comfortable with this method with books. Not all of the books I keep are books I like. Sometimes they’re books I think are important to keep on hand for utility purposes or because they are important for reference.

The same goes for anything else. Expecting nothing but joy from the things in my life might be naïve, but I can at least expect that the discomfort they create will be purposeful. If it’s not sparking joy and the stress, pain, or discomfort isn’t serving some important purpose, it needs to go.

Reclaiming Healing Part IV: The Relationship

Over the month of September, I’ve been exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the idea that healing is a destination. From there, I explored healing as a multi-faceted phenomenon and as a progressive cycle of Underworld journeying.

For this final week on reclaiming healing, I’ve been thinking about how healing is a relationship to myself as well as to my trauma and wounds. It’s about being able to meet myself wherever I am.

Remember in the story of Inanna how the only function of the creatures sent to rescue Inanna from the Underworld was to wail alongside Ereshkigal, empathize with her until she had spent her grief. Then she released Inanna and the two were able to integrate some of the aspects of the other—to heal the split between the Goddess of Heaven and her shadow side.

Pulling away from myself in moments of pain and trying to make the memories or feelings go away only makes things worse. That’s when I get an angry Underworld goddess who tortures me.

Rather, leaning into myself in those moments, greeting the sadness and memories, listening to them the way I might listen to a friend or child—there’s magic in that because relationships are magic.

Relationships are healing.

Especially when trauma has been caused by a relationship, I think the view of healing as relational is particularly important. Trauma needs safety in order to heal, and the more safe I can make my internal world, the more my trauma will be able to tell its story and feel heard and held.

With healing as an internal relationship, the ebbs and flows of the various emotions and memories are an invitation to draw closer to myself, to love myself more, to listen deeper, and to be present.

Suddenly whatever is happening in that moment is exactly what needs to happen. Whether I’m feeling strong and capable in the face of something which used to terrify me or whether I’m cradling myself as I cry after a nightmare, I’m healing in that moment because I’m being with myself.

At the same time, I don’t expect myself to be the sole relational support for my healing. Other healing relationships are important too, including my therapist, my partner, my friends.

The trick is that they can provide an external safety and relationship to support my healing, but I have to, in turn, have that internal relationship in order to actually heal.

Often with relational trauma, that internal relationship has to be built. It starts off as an acquaintance and grows as the relationship is deemed tolerable.

My therapist had to create a holding environment where I could briefly meet with my shadow parts before pushing them away again (going back to the progressive cycle!). I couldn’t tolerate extended contact with myself. That had to be developed up along with my self-compassion, tolerance for pain, and ability to stabilize and anchor to my core.

But the more I got to know myself, the more I came to understand that I was strong enough to be with the intensity of my emotions. I was strong enough to hear the stories of the parts I had tried to bury.

Today, I can invite my difficult parts and emotions to come in, sit down, and drink tea with me.

Not always, of course. I still have moments of trying to push away or “move on” to the point of erasing them. That’s where I know I need more healing–when I don’t feel capable of meeting myself and, as Rumi describes, welcoming all of my emotions as my guides in healing.

 

Reclaiming Healing Part II: Spinning the Web

Welcome to part 2 of my reclaiming healing mini-series. If you missed part 1, you can find it here. This week I’m going to begin exploring one of the aspects of healing that stand out to me as I explore the meaning of the concept for myself.

But first, a relevant tangent.

In my dedication to radical self-care, I have learned that there is a nauseating pop-culture view of wellness that makes me want to smack people…and then there is the more nuanced concept of wellness as developed by researchers.

If I were to listen to pop culture, I would think that wellness was a light switch with two positions, Well or Not Well. Usually it’s relegated to one or two facotrs, e.g. physical wellness or emotional wellness.

But when I look at wellness more deeply, I realize that it’s a multi-faceted, ever-changing thing. And it’s not so much about obtaining perfection in all of the facets as it is about balancing them and obtaining the best functioning of them all in that period of time.

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One version of the wellness wheel. Source: SAMHSA

Thus, someone can have a physical health problem and still be relatively well if they have a strong support network, a healthy environment, plenty of resources, methods of caring for themselves emotionally and physically, and a way of finding hope or meaning through the experience.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. I think as a society we have a tendency to reduce healing to as simplistic and ineffective a model as we do wellness, but if we were to actually look at a visual representation of healing, I’d bet double the amount I owe on student loans that it would be more like the wellness wheel than like a light switch.

Last week, I talked quite a bit about physical healing and the parallels I see to emotional/psychological healing, but it doesn’t just have parallels. The mind and body are astounding in the way they relate to each other, and science is just beginning to scratch the surface of how interrelated they can be around trauma (for a deeper look, check out Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).

In the healing work I have done around my sexual abuse, I have had to learn how to respect that mind-body connection and the reality that memory is stored in my muscles as much as in my brain. Both my body and my mind have to heal, but they require different kinds of healing practices. Counseling has been invaluable to my mental and emotional healing, but it took working with a physical therapist to address some of the physical damage.

But like wellness, healing is not just emotional and physical. Growing up in a cult is a relational trauma, and there has been a social component to my healing as well. I’ve had to learn how to trust again. I’ve had to learn how to take relational chances and open up to people—how to ask for help or reach out for support. And most importantly, I’ve had to learn how to set boundaries.

The cult was also a spiritually abusive place though, so healing my spiritual life has been a large focus of my journey. Much of that has taken the form of exploring Paganism and Goddess spirituality…which could also be seen as a healing of my gender identity as I created new ways of thinking about the feminine that didn’t root it in shame, inferiority, and perversity.

Already I have loosely and easily covered several of the wellness wheel spokes. I could go on and on tracing a map of healing in a myriad of places. I use the wellness wheel as a jumping off point for visualizing, but it could be just as easily portrayed as a web.

The short of it is: healing is simply not simple. It’s multifaceted in a gorgeously complex and interdependent way.

 

If Virginity is a Myth, Then What Did He Take From Me?

Trigger Warning (obviously): Discussion of sexual abuse and purity culture. I promise I’ll have something a little lighter the next few weeks. 

Purity culture taught me that my virginity was the greatest gift I could give my husband. It taught me that losing virginity made me discardable—like used gum or dirty water. It taught me that my value lay in my purity.

Purity culture also taught me that I was responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and actions towards me. It taught me that I could prevent rape by being pure—and if I was raped, it was better for me to die than to live with my tainted purity.

When I rejected purity culture years ago, I also rejected the concepts of virginity, purity, and sexual innocence along with it. I needed to in order to begin to come to terms with my sexual abuse. I needed to be able to believe that they were just constructs—myths—in order to slough off the guilt and self-hatred that I felt over having been violated.

More recently, I’ve been trying to give myself space to access some of the deeper veins of my grief around my sexual abuse. But I found I can only name that grief with the very constructs I rejected.

Innocence. Purity. Virginity.

Certainly the innocence I was taught I’d lost is not the innocence I grieve. Feminism has done its job. I do not feel culpable in any way for what happened to me.

But there’s a different kind of innocence whose loss I feel intensely.

I’ve come to think of it as the Peter Pan innocence.

It’s what I lost when I was forced into an awareness of sexuality—a violent understanding of affection and love—at an age when I could barely understand that some people had different body parts from others.

It’s the innocence that allowed me to believe that those who claimed to love me were safe, the innocence that gave me a sense of autonomy and belonging to my body, the innocence that assured me that monsters were make-believe and nightmares weren’t true. And it was ripped away from me when I was five years old, leaving in its place a shattered little girl who convinced herself that she was bad in order to continue to believe that her spiritual leaders were good.

And just as I know that I’m not responsible for what my abuser did, I also know I’m not bad because of what he did. But the purity that I lost has nothing to do with good or bad.

It’s the purity of separation.

There are days when I feel like I carry my abuser with me wherever I go, like an invisible residue. No amount of assuring me that I’m not dirty is going to take that feeling away because the “dirty” doesn’t stem from me. It’s his dirt, his perversion. I know that, but I’m still tortured by the visceral sensations.

Sometimes it feels like I share my marriage with him—the unwanted third-party who lurks in the corner waiting for an opportunity to pop out again and remind me that my first sexual encounter was traumatizing and invasive. The beauty of consensual sex—that amazing experience of soul-sharing—is so easily interrupted by flashbacks, as if my abuser can walk into our bedroom and whisk me away to my childhood whenever he wants.

It tears me up that he was the one who stole my virginity. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the value judgments society tries to place on being a virgin or not being a virgin. Virginity, to me, has nothing to do with the hymen. It’s not an object. It’s just pre-sexuality, like pre-menstrual.

I envy the choice that others have to end their virginity.

Beautiful, romantic, irresponsible, silly, uninformed, embarrassing—I’d give anything for my first sexual encounter to be any of those—a stage of growing up and discovering my sexual self. By rights, I should have been able to choose when to end my virginity, where, and with whom. I’m sure I would have made mistakes, but at least they would have been mistakes from my choice.

But I didn’t get that choice. The end of my virginity was forced on me. My first sexual experience was forced on me.

It doesn’t matter that the patriarchal value of innocence, purity, and virginity is bullshit. What I lost goes deeper. It’s the loss of a childhood naivety, the loss of discovery, the loss of choice, and the loss of first times.

I can’t get those back, and to make matters worse, I find that I can’t even properly grieve them without the words that were used to blame me for their loss.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to find a way to turn that grief and loss into something positive. Grief has always been a Phoenix process for me, and I’m sure this one will be the same. But right now, all I have are the tears, the rage, and the emptiness. All I have for myself and my readers this morning is the rawness of truth telling without any flowery ways of making it sound okay.

This is the grief I wasn’t allowed to feel when I was five.

Trauma Addiction: Freud Would Be Proud

There’s a certain trauma theory that I’ve come across a few times in the last few years that disturbs me—trauma addiction. That’s not trauma and addiction. That’s addiction to trauma.

I’ve mostly seen it come from people uncomfortable with the pain of trauma when they make statements like, “Why do you insist on reliving it?” or “You need to just let go.” I’ve only encountered in in one professional therapist that I went to briefly.

Several days ago, though, I came across the theory of trauma addiction in Psycholotical Trauma by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk. I guess I had just assumed it was the expression of ignorance, but to find that it’s supported in some psychological circles was truly shocking.

As both a survivor and someone who is studying trauma, I feel very uncomfortable with this theory for a number of reasons.

For one, the theory seems to make some huge assumptive leaps. In the book, van der Kolk lists the following examples of trauma addiction to support his point:

“Voluntary reexposure to trauma is very common. Veterans may enlist as mercenaries or seek other dangerous occumpations; incest survivors may become prostitutes; abused children may expose themselves to dangerous situations or engage in physically self-destructive behaviors.” (van der Kolk, 73).

He later even refers to a study that he himself did (but didn’t publish) that found a significant number of war vets who watch war movies.

The problem is that he goes from describing behavior to determining motivation without any supporting evidence to show that the behavior stems from that particular motivation (an unaccepted enthymeme fallacy). How could he possibly know why all war vets enlist as mercenaries? Or why they watch war movies for that matter?

It seems that these vets are caught in a double bind. If they voluntarily continue with the occupation they’re trained in, then they’re “addicted.” However if they do something that countless other people are able to do without being pathologized (watch movies), they’re still “addicted.”

The second example bothers me even more though. It takes the assumptions a step further and assumes that prostitution is necessarily the same as rape. But a voluntary prostitute (let’s assume he’s talking about voluntary because the implications of him talking about sex slaves is even more disturbing) has complete control over the sexual encounter. She is the one who chooses her clients. She is the one who sets the boundaries. If she’s not, then she’s not really voluntary and I would consider the sexual “encounter” to be rape.

Contrarily, incest involves the violation of boundaries and non-consentual sexual violence. The only connection between rape and voluntary sex work is the involvement of sexual organs. If prostitution is seeking out and reliving trauma, then so is having sex with a spouse.

Lastly, the cutting.  Ugh! I’ve listened to so many psychologists try to explain cutting in a way that makes them happy. It’s always the one thing that seems to play into and prove whatever their pet theory is around depression, anxiety, or PTSD. However, it rarely holds much accuracy to those who actually do cut.

Although there are as many reasons for why others cut as there are individuals who cut, I think it definitely has strong connections to trauma. But the connection isn’t an addiction to trauma.

It is a conditioning of trauma.

In high school, my cutting and hitting stemmed from the belief that I deserved to be punished for my mistakes. It helped to justify the punishments I received from my parents. It helped to distract from the terrifying thoughts and memories that plagued me. It helped to give me something physical to actually cry about because it was horrible living with wounds that I couldn’t see, couldn’t name. It was a coping mechanism for trauma, and if I was “addicted” to cutting, then it was because I didn’t have any other coping mechanisms to fall back on, not because I was addicted to trauma.

Which brings me to my second disagreement with the trauma addiction theory—the definition of addiction becomes too broad to hold any value.

Yes, battered partners can fall into a pattern of abusive relationships. Children can fall into a pattern of self-destruction. A broken sense of self is hard to love and hard to nurture. Old scripts are hard to unlearn. New ones are hard to learn. And to some extent, the familiarity of a negative situation is going to feel more comfortable than the unfamiliarity of a positive one.

But if that’s addiction, then addiction becomes anything from relational or social schemas and models to coping mechanisms to conditioned behavior, which means it covers pretty much every aspect of human interaction and personality and, as a result, covers nothing.

Aside from the fact that such a broad definition isn’t fair to people who are actually struggling with addictions, it does a disservice to trauma survivors. It disempowers survivors by making them feel trapped into their behaviors. It makes them their own enemy by framing the behaviors that helped them survive as “bad,” and it diminishes their ability to change through learning new coping skills and redefining their relationship models and identity.

My final objection to the trauma addiction theory (and I think the most important) is its vast capacity for victim blaming. Addiction implies the abuse of something. So addiction to trauma implies that a person is . . . what . . . abusing trauma?

It leaves the door wide open to say that the victim is the one seeking out the trauma to feed a desire/need. Technically, the victim should know better and avoid trauma, except that their need for it is so strong that they seek it out to their own detriment.

It sounds so much like the rape culture mantra “she was asking for it” that my skin crawls just to think about it, especially considering that one of the largest traumatized groups is women and girls who are sexually and physically abused. Like Freud’s theory that women make up rape fantasies because of some masochistic desire, the trauma addiction theory has far too much potential for devaluing the pain of victims and diminishing what was or is being done to them.

Perhaps in Freud’s day it was unfortunate but understandable that the theories around trauma would be both rudimentary and subservient to the status quo (men who didn’t like women talking about their rapes); however, I would hope that we’ve come far enough in our understanding of trauma to no longer need the manipulations that Freud resorted to with his patients/trauma victims. There are other theories that do a better job of describing the behaviors, thoughts, reactions, motivations, and wounds of trauma survivors that don’t resort to unaccepted enthymemes, broad generalizations of specific conditions, and victim blaming.

Book Review: The Program by Suzanne Young

Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and suppressed memories

In a future that isn’t too different from our present, suicide has been declared an all-out epidemic among teens. In a desperate attempt to “cure” them, the nation has developed a treatment program that involves the involuntary confinement of anyone “at risk” of suicide (including those who know someone who committed suicide). The treatment involves altering the brain to remove painful, traumatic memories . . . or as Sloane learns, any memories associated with “dangerous topics.”

After Sloane’s brother commits suicide, Sloane and her boyfriend James (who was also her brother’s best friend) do their best to hide their grief in order to avoid being flagged. Unfortunately, their plan doesn’t work. Shortly after her boyfriend is taken into the Program, Sloane is deemed at risk and taken too. She emerges with her memory wiped of her brother’s suicide and of her entire relationship with James.

However, unlike what the Program promised, she’s not given a fresh start and a happier life now that her memories are gone. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed with emotions that she doesn’t understand, a grief that seems to have no place, a love that seems to have no object. Her body remembers what her mind can’t, and it tortures her as she struggles to put the pieces together.

This is an intense book—so intense that I had to take multiple breaks from reading it. Not five-minute breaks. More like month-long breaks.

But it’s fantastic. I almost think it should be required reading.

Despite being set in the future, I feel like Suzanne Young was referencing more reality than speculation through most of the book.

Memory wipes, for instance, are already in the making. A couple of years ago, one of my psych teachers showed the class a video discussing the new “hoped for” treatment for PTSD that involved preventing traumatic memories from forming and blocking already formed memories. They had already even had a few test subjects.

I’m not sure if Suzanne Young based The Program off of this developing “treatment,” but she definitely understands the drawbacks to which the developers seemed to be blind. Memory isn’t just held in the brain. Muscles hold memories too. Even now, I can sit down and play songs on my violin that I can’t consciously remember the notes to because my fingers remember the way the movement feels.

And yes, my body remembers my abuse even when I can’t consciously recall the details. It’s terrifying and confusing to have my body react to something that I can’t see or even fully remember. My vagina doesn’t care if I can pull up an exact image of my sexual abuse or not. It spasms just the same. My bottom doesn’t care if I can recall how many times a belt was drawn across my bare backside; the muscles clench anyway when I’m exposed to triggers.

For someone who has spent over twenty years with patchy memories, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is a treatment that removes my memories. If I were to imagine hell, hell would be knowing something bad happened but not being able to remember it. People live that hell every day, yet science thinks they are offering a solution to pain by offering to put people in that hell.

But memory isn’t what drives The Program (It may be what drives the sequel, but I’ll have to wait to find out where she takes that).

Rather, the main thrust of the book seems to be about the way society responds to depression and suicide. Perhaps it’s exaggerated a little, but not a lot. Even today suicide risk is one of the things for which a therapist is required to break confidentiality. Friends and family members are encouraged to report if they believe someone is contemplating killing themselves.

And the response? The same! Lock you up; take away your autonomy.

Now if that isn’t a recipe for desperation and isolation, I don’t know what is.

In the book, Sloane and James are afraid to even cry in genuine grief. They have no one to confide in about their feelings except each other, and even then they have to be careful about where they confide to each other for fear that someone will notice them looking “sad” and report them. They have a school therapist, but the therapist is all but useless because…how can they trust someone who has the power and responsibility to flag them for what they are feeling?

The bottled up emotions don’t dissipate. They become stronger until even normal emotions seem overwhelming. They are drowning in their emotions, but it’s the only choice they have because the alternative is to lose themselves entirely.

The Program directors try to make themselves look good on the television and to parents, but amongst the teens it’s pretty well understood that the Program isn’t a cure. It’s an erasure. The “epidemic” of suicide grows because teens would rather die than be taken into the Program.

I felt as though Suzanne Young were pulling back the veil on our own societal stigma around suicide—a topic so taboo that most people can’t bring themselves to talk about struggling with it, leaving them to flounder in their emotions alone.

Those who do talk are given medication that may not erase memories but certainly deadens their emotional response. They’re shamed and treated like they have a horrible disease, often hospitalized whether they want to be or not.

And perhaps because we view depression as an illness that needs to be cured rather than something that should be worked through, we encourage people to assume that once “infected,” they can’t think rationally. They start to act as though they can’t think through their feelings, and it all becomes a rather tragic self-fulfilling prophesy (or group-fulfilling prophecy).

Ultimately, despite the lives that are saved by drugs and bed restraints, I don’t think our solution is any more effective than the Program is. We make suicide the problem rather than the symptom. We treat those who struggle with the desire to kill themselves as though they are broken rather than autonomous, rational individuals who are in pain.

In essence, we create a war against those we are trying to save. 

I think Suzanne Young wanted to make us think about what it would be like if, instead of punishing and shaming those who feel depressed and suicidal, we supported—genuinely supported—them with resources that empowered them to navigate their own emotions and thoughts constructively rather than locking them into a destructive pattern of fear and reaction.