RSS Feed

Tag Archives: dissociation

I am Cookie Dough

We started re-reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning last year in the bible study class at my synagogue. When I first joined the class, eight or nine years ago, they were already deep into the prophets (the really really boring prophets), so it’s been exciting to go back to Genesis, which is chock a block with crazy stories. And right away, with the stories about the creation of the world, I found something I’d never understood before: God doesn’t create the world in Genesis; God looks out at the chaos and begins to separate things out and name them: light from dark, land from sea, male from female. And I realized, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, within myself, since I started therapy so many years ago. I saw myself as chaos, and I started to separate things out and name them, in an effort to make sense of what was already there. I didn’t need to, or want to, create a new self in therapy, I just wanted to organize the self I already had.

            Many theorists have attempted to organize the self in general: like Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, or Erikson’s Stages of Development, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are theories that focus on the structure of the brain: with the reptilian brain running on instincts, and the limbic brain running on emotions and social behavior, and the rational brain/neocortex running on thoughts, language and reflection. And all of these general theories of the mind/self are attempts to acknowledge the multiplicity of the self, while also controlling it.

And yet, most of us don’t fit neatly into any of these paradigms; they are all imperfect and incomplete, and I needed to map out my own chaotic self, in my own way, in order to feel seen.

“I’m here! See me!”

            Mapping out the various aspects of the self is hard enough, but for a survivor of childhood abuse the process of recognizing the different parts of the self is complicated by the dissociation and fragmentation the mind uses to survive the abuse. Some survivors have thick amnestic walls between parts of the self, that in someone who has had no childhood trauma would be much more fluid, and some have endless slivers of self that can’t speak for themselves. Each abusive situation is different, and each survivor survives in his or her own unique way.

“I eat chicken.”

The paradigm of having multiple different parts of the self, without being limited to the ones named by the experts, has helped me to identify many different feelings and internal conflicts within myself, but the further along I get in the work, the more I see the parts blending and blurring at the edges, like sticky slices from a roll of cookie dough. Even after so many years of work, I still feel like there are parts of me that are left unclear or completely unseen, and I believe that my lack of ability to see them, or to tolerate them, is part of what keeps me stuck. It’s possible that I’ve got a handle on eighty percent of who I am, or fifty percent or forty. My best guess is that I’ve mapped out about sixty percent of who I am, and who I was, and what happened to me, and how I felt about it; but I don’t know how to get to the rest of it, and I don’t know if the rest is just blurry or still completely unknown.

            Part of the confusion is that it often feels like I’m starting from scratch each day, going through all of the same internal conflicts and trying to remember how I resolved them yesterday. Sometimes my memory for the work I’ve done in therapy is very clear, and sometimes I have to rely on my notes to remember that I went to the supermarket this morning, but mostly it’s somewhere in between.

“You did not take us out five minutes ago.”

            And yet, strangely, I’m a pretty consistent person in how I act, and in how I seem to other people. No matter how hard I have to fight with myself every day to resolve each internal argument, I tend to answer them all the same way I did yesterday. I exist as the same person every day, seemingly, but sometimes I see myself clearly and sometimes I see myself through a distorted mirror.

There are times when my memories are so richly detailed that I can figure out what time of year something happened, and how I felt, and how the people around me looked and sounded, and I can even remember the furniture in the room; and then there are times when those same memories are trapped behind a thick veil and I’m squinting to make out who’s who or why the memory is even important.

            The study of psychology, is, like me, still cookie dough. We are very early in our understanding of the brain, and in our understanding of how the anatomy of the brain and our life experiences create our individual senses of self. We cannot fully map our brains, yet.

Now that the bible class is (finally) moving from Genesis into Exodus, I’m wondering what new things I will discover, both about ancient ideas of God, and even more important, ancient ideas about people and how they acted, and why. And maybe going through the Exodus from Egypt again, but more slowly than we do it at the Passover Seder, I’ll find more details and clarity in the chaos than I’ve found before. Maybe that’s just how it is: understanding comes with repetition, and with a willingness to look at the same book or the same self over and over again from different perspectives, so that the picture gradually becomes clearer, though maybe never complete.

“You can study me, Mommy!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?



The first sexual abuse memories that came back were from my second abuser, my best friend’s older brother. He was six years older than us, and it seems like the abuse started when I started to sleep over at her house, at around age four, but he had access to us long before that. He boasted a few times that he used to help change our diapers, but that seems unlikely. He abused us in her bedroom, and in the den when we slept on the fold out couch in order to watch TV. He also abused us during the day, in the pool and in the kitchen, when he was left to watch us.

I couldn’t have told you that I was being abused if you’d asked me at the time. The memories dived under the surface as soon as they were created. All I knew was that whenever I saw my best friend’s brother I felt sick to my stomach and frightened, but I wasn’t sure why.

I stopped sleeping over at their house, abruptly, when I was seven or eight years old, after I couldn’t get to sleep one night during our weekly sleepover. I don’t remember going to bed, and I don’t remember the abuse that night, I just remember pacing in my friend’s room and then walking out into the hall and knocking on her parents’ bedroom door and asking to go home. It may have been ten o’clock at night, but to me it felt like three o’clock in the morning. I called home on the phone in the hall, and Mom came to get me, though I don’t actually remember going home. There’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was my best friend’s house. We’d met as infants, when our mothers took us to Mother’s Day Out at the local community center. We did everything together, for years, except that we eventually went to different schools. She went to a Lutheran school and I went to a Jewish school. I brought her with me to junior congregation at my synagogue, and we danced around her living room to a record of Jesus songs for kids.


“Who’s dancing?”

Looking back, the abuse must have taken a turn that last night, something worse than usual to make me so desperate, but I don’t know what it was. It’s possible that something else woke me up to my fear, or to the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. I don’t know. But I still went over to her house during the day, even though I was starting to be aware that something was wrong. I knew that I felt nauseous each time I saw her brother, and I knew that it seemed ironic (and yes, I knew that word as a kid), that I wasn’t allowed to walk home alone from her house once it got dark, and her brother was sent along to protect me. He liked to carry Nun Chucks. Their parents thought they were keeping me safe from the bad guys by sending him along with me. They never let me walk home alone in the dark, no matter how much I begged.



My friend and I grew apart for multiple reasons. We were, as I said, at different schools during the day, and my father became more and more religious, making us keep kosher, so that I couldn’t eat at her house anymore. But the abuse had to have played a role too, though neither one of us talked about it, or seemed to remember that it had happened. There was some sort of secret miasma that sat between us in a way we couldn’t articulate. I went to her eighth birthday party, a sleepover, but I threw up multiple times and had to go home, again in the middle of the night.

It took years to piece those pictures together, though, and to guess how old I was in each one, and how one thing led to another. It’s still like a kaleidoscope, with tiny pieces taped together in incomplete patterns; but the memories I have are vivid, and eventually, when we were older, my friend and I were able to talk about what happened and validate each other’s memories.



We’d both experienced amnesia for the abuse. When we talked about it years later, our memories of the abuse were remarkably similar, including the ways we had forgotten about it, but while my memories of being abused always included her sleeping nearby, or being abused as well, she’d blocked out any memory that I was even there.

Flashes of different images came back to me at different times, out of context. I didn’t have words for what he had done to us, sexually, or emotionally, or psychologically. I couldn’t make sense of why he would do those things. I remember these little speeches he gave, telling me to close my eyes and that everything would be fine, telling me that my friend was fine with it so I should be fine with it too, telling me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they’d be disappointed in me. My friend was right next to me in her bed, sleeping through his abuse of me, and of her, and I couldn’t make sense of that. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t hear him. I hated how easily she fell asleep.

I remembered hiding in the bathroom one night and holding the door shut, even though it was already locked, and arguing with her father, because I thought he was her brother coming to get me, when he tried to open the door. I remembered standing in their kitchen, with the sun shining on my face, and my underpants down at my ankles. He’d made it into a game, kind of like hide and seek, and I was terrible at hiding. I’m very bad at games in general, but I was also a very slow runner compared to my friend. I remember her leaning out of her hiding place and asking why no one had found her yet. I remember being terrified as her brother counted down, because I couldn’t think of anywhere good to hide.


“I could have helped you, Mommy.”

It wasn’t until I’d been in therapy for a few months, at age 19, after years of remembering parts of the abuse, that I felt strong enough to confront my friend’s mother with my memories. The family had moved out of the neighborhood and it was a long drive out to see her. By the time we got there I was too scared to get out of the car, so Mom had to talk to her first. That’s when we found out that my friend had already told her what had happened, a year or so earlier, but had only told her about one other little girl who’d been abused, and not about me.

My friend called me in the middle of the night, that night, for the first time in years, to talk about our memories of the abuse. She had no answer for why she hadn’t mentioned me to her parents, when she confronted them with her own memories of the abuse. She said that she just didn’t remember that I’d been there that much. She even named someone else, a boy, as her best friend from that time. It was part of the dissociative response, I guess. That’s the most sense I can make of it. She had told herself that we weren’t as close as I knew we’d been, and that I hadn’t spent as much time at her house as I knew I did. Something about remembering that I was abused too was more than her brain could handle. And even her mother, who could have guessed that I was, at least, a potential victim, had forced herself not to think about the possibility. But in the next sentence, my friend told me that it was my fault that she was so bossy to her friends, because I’d let her get away with that behavior when we were little. She saw me as the template for all of her later friendships, but she couldn’t remember that I’d been at her house constantly, for years, being abused right along with her. No matter how much my therapist tried to explain dissociation to me, I still had a hard time with that.

My friend’s parents made a special trip to see my parents, a few weeks later, and I tried to listen in on their conversation from my bedroom upstairs, but I could only hear the clinking of glasses, and laughter, while I sat in my room, shaking with fear, and anger. The one line I remember from Mom’s description of the conversation later on, was that my friend’s father had said, well, it gave her something to write about, or something to that affect, because I’d given my friend a story I’d written about the abuse, which she then shared with her parents, and her brother.

My father’s response to me, the day after seeing my friend’s parents, was that he was “surprised to find out that the memories were true and not just your fantasy.” This was said with a smile.


“This is worse than Grr.”

The validation of the sexual abuse by my best friend’s brother was probably the trigger that allowed me to look at the even darker memories I had around my father. I’d been hinting at abuse by him to my therapist, telling her about all kinds of weird things he’d said, about how children under five don’t remember anything, and children under three don’t feel pain. And the way he took me on “dates,” and the way he tried to get between me and my mom, and bribe me with presents, and the way he’d used religion to control me. There were so many things that were off, overtly, about my father and the relationships within the family, but it wasn’t until after the validation of my memories of abuse at my friend’s house that I could even contemplate the other images that kept swirling around in my head.

And even then, it was a long process, with images being pieced together over time, and body memories finally being verbalized, and memories I’d always had being re-examined. I started to recognize that the same way my memories of the abuse at my friend’s house would fade to black, memories of time spent with my father, in the darkroom developing pictures, and in the dark, period, faded to black too.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was doing one of my language learning apps and the word for “eel” came up in Hebrew, and below it there was a sketch of an eel, and suddenly, memories of the abuse by my friend’s older brother rushed back; memories that I’d supposedly worked through ad infinitum over the years, and resolved, over many years of therapy. The images of a squid and an octopus, both phallic-adjacent, had bothered me in earlier lessons, but it was the eel that pushed me over the edge.

I resent the way memory works, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with the consequences of these triggers, and honoring the need to process what comes at me, with as much patience and self-compassion as I can muster. I used to think that I could force all of the therapy work to be done at one time, and on my schedule, and fully under my own control, but my brain refuses to let me. It decides when I’m ready, and when I’m not.

Maybe someday I will know everything that happened, and I will stop feeling like there are ghosts waiting to jump out at me from behind every curtain. But maybe not.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?



A Sense of Time


Time feels like a game of Chutes and Ladders to me. On paper, time seems like it should be a linear sort of thing, with one hour following another in orderly progression, but sometimes I fall through a chute and I’m suddenly ten years old again and I have to work hard to climb back up to my forties and remember all of the events that came in between. I know too many people who slip and slide through time like this to think it’s unique to me, but the percentage of my time spent falling down chutes and climbing up ladders seems excessive. Trauma creates strange loops in our brains. We call them flashbacks, or regression, or dissociation, depending on how we experience the details of the thing, but they all have the same general effect of making time feel like an unreliable substance that refuses to stay solid and constant.

When it snows, memories of winters past pop up, but they don’t have solid picture frames around them announcing that they are moments from the past, or even descriptions in permanent marker telling me the exact date and time when it all occurred. In my mind I am both here in this moment, in my walk-the-dog shoes, stepping out onto the slushy walkway with Cricket and Ellie dragging me forward, and I am also eight years old in my pink snowsuit and boots, feeling like an over-stuffed sausage and too hot and too cold all at once.




“I’ll wait here.”

And then I smell mildew and I’m back at Grandpa’s house in Chappaqua, looking at the pen and ink portraits in the laundry room, and the chute that carries the laundry down from the upstairs hallway. But really I’m thirty-something and living in half a house, in a town by the water, where the smell of seaweed blows through the windows. Wait, no, that’s not right. I’m forty-something and there’s no mildew smell at all, and I don’t live by the water anymore, and I’m not even sure I’m awake.

The image of the Chutes and Ladders game feels so visceral to me, as if I’m sliding down a red chute into the past or laboriously climbing up a silver ladder to get back to normal. But I wasn’t sure that my 3D memory of that childhood board game was even accurate, so I had to ask Google for help. According to Wikipedia, Chutes and Ladders is the American version of an English (and Canadian) board game called Snakes and Ladders, which itself is a variation on an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam, filled with moral lessons based on the Karmic cycle. The English version adapted those lessons to teach children virtues like generosity and faith and humility, and to discourage vices like lust, anger, theft, and murder. And then the American version adapted the lessons again, to fit good and bad deeds that American kids could relate to, like saving a cat from a tree and eating healthy food, versus eating too many cookies and not doing chores.

I don’t remember any of that, and it’s possible that Wikipedia is lying to me, but I’m pretty sure the essentials are true, especially the fact that the game is a game of luck. The player doesn’t get to choose whether to do a good or bad deed, and therefore to receive the resulting reward or punishment. Scoring is all based on the roll of a die or the spin of a wheel. And that bothers me, because it’s too close to the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of being a good person. I strive to be a kind and generous and open-hearted person, to hurt no one, or to hurt as few people as possible, and to help when I can. But I don’t actually believe that these virtues will add up to an easier life for me, or to a more successful life with more rewards. I don’t believe that we are always rewarded for good deeds, or punished for evil ones, though I wish we were. I do believe that our souls are impacted by our actions, but I know too many people who walk around with Swiss cheese souls and don’t seem to mind.


“Those people scare me, Mommy.”

This Chutes and Ladders metaphor started out as a way to describe the way my memory slips and slides through time, and how I struggle to maintain myself in the present tense, and yet the original meaning of the board game works for me too. Whether we act in good or evil ways is not about chance, but whether we are rewarded or punished is chance. And I resent that. I resent that the game of life has such unreliable rules, and that the rules don’t always fit my moral code.

I resent that evil acts can be perpetrated, on me, and on others, that create these chutes and ladders in our brains, and yet the punishment belongs to me, not to the perpetrator. I resent that the roll of the die can go against me, no matter how many good acts I perform, or how good of a person I try to be as I am slipping and sliding through time. But I still do the work. After every fall through a chute into the past I climb back up the ladder to the present, and maybe the reward is that the ladders actually exist at all, and that I can climb them; that I can always find my way back into the game and the chance for something better. The dogs always help me back to the present tense with their right-this-moment view of the world. They make every ladder easier to climb.


“Where’s this ladder you speak of, and do we have to climb it too?”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?


A Butterfly Moment

A Butterfly moment

A Butterfly moment


Sometimes, especially at night, Butterfly likes to do a walking meditation. She’s not overly energetic by then, or full of poop, and she’s sniffed as much as she’s interested in for the day, so while Cricket drags one of the humans up the sidewalk to sniff the world, Butterfly gently but firmly leads the other human to a quieter place in the yard. She walks slowly and with intention. She listens for the wind and the shaking of the leaves. She sniffs the smells that come to her on the air. She takes this time to unwind and let go of whatever didn’t work out from her day so that she can sleep well and wake up refreshed and ready for a new adventure.

Walking meditations are full of joy

Walking meditations are full of joy

Meanwhile, Cricket is practically flattened to the ground to get better traction as she pulls mightily on the leash. She always wants to go towards the street and the cars and the noise. She wants to make every pee trip into a three mile walk, uphill, into traffic.

Cricket is so strong she pulled me back to the Fall

Cricket is so strong she pulled me back to the Fall

When Cricket returns, Butterfly tries to share her calm with her sister. It’s like a Reiki master who warms her hands to build energy before sending energy to someone else, but Butterfly uses her nose. She breathes in the fresh air, paces herself, rests her mind, and then when she sees that her sister is overwrought, she offers a nose to nose check in, and inevitably, Cricket calms down, somewhat (we can’t work miracles here.)

nose to ear, close enough

nose to ear, close enough

Whereas butt sniffing is about curiosity and checking in, nose to nose sniffing is about sharing breath and offering peace. It’s like when you take the hand of a friend who is grieving or in pain and you offer your energy and warmth and life to the other person, as a bridge.

Butterfly really listens to the birds when we go outside. The birds I recognize (with help from my nature loving mom) are the red breasted Robin, the Cardinal, the Baltimore Oriole, and the cowbird. Mom is not a fan of the cowbird. There were also starlings at some point, and a bird whose feathers were left in a pile, like a quickly discarded coat, white with black polka dots.

Butterfly's indoor birdie friend

Butterfly’s indoor birdie friend

I’m not sure if Butterfly knows the differences between the birds, or gets a sense of what they are singing about, but she listens carefully to all of them, and to the sound of the airplanes overhead, or a bus passing by, or the train stopping at the train station. She’s a connoisseur of different sounds and songs, but she doesn’t sing them herself, She just likes to listen.

I wonder if the extra birds hanging out in the yard this summer have been drawn here by Miss Butterfly. She has such a Zen feeling about her that we now have Robins and starlings sitting on the lawn, having their own Butterfly moments, as if two fluffy dogs are not inches away from them.

Even the white cat with brown patches who used to run up the retaining wall at the sight of a dog, has become more relaxed, watching us walk in her direction, even coming up to our front door, and only running away when the dogs make eye contact with her.

Maybe there’s an ad in a newspaper only animals can read, inviting everyone to our backyard for meditation class, and that’s why Butterfly has been barking more often, impatient to get outside to her students.

Butterfly has the ability to dissociate from her body too. She spent eight years in a puppy mill perfecting this skill, so that nothing happening to her or around her had to penetrate her heart and soul. She does this less now, but it’s been a process. When Cricket tears around the room like a pinball, Butterfly will freeze and her face will go blank, for a moment or two, and then she will come back. When my youngest nephew (or his father) decide to drag Butterfly around by the neck, she lets go of herself for a moment, until it’s over, or until she hears me screaming.

Dissociated Butterfly, waiting fro Cricket to stop barking.

Dissociated Butterfly, waiting for Cricket to stop barking.

This is different from meditation. Dissociation is absence, from the mind or body or self, a way to survive, but meditation is something else, it’s sparkly and kind and full bodied and it lets in noise, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. And Butterfly is mastering meditation in our backyard, and, little by little, teaching it to me.

Butterfly's favorite form of meditation - on food.

Butterfly’s favorite form of meditation – on food.