This paper was presented as part of the 2022 Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, as part of the reading "Writing Resilience: A Reading by Neurodiverse Writers," organized by Larissa Shmailo.
I started my summer break with a bright hope for my fall sabbatical from university teaching: to draft a significant chunk of the memoir I haven’t been writing for the last seven years, since graduating from my MFA in Creative Nonfiction in 2014. I started the memoir as my MFA thesis, though instead of focusing on my own life at the time, I dove headfirst into my maternal grandparents’ youthful trans-Siberian journey to Sakhalin Island, where they were sent on work assignment as newlyweds by the Soviet state in the mid- 1950s. I suppose I started there because of a desire to “begin at the beginning,” which for me was the origin story of my family as I knew it for most of my childhood— the story of Mama, Baba and Deda.
I figured during my MFA that I would eventually get to my own life story after exploring Baba, Deda and Mama’s, because mine didn’t seem to invite or even allow a head-on approach. Frustratingly, I could not explain my life coherently, even to myself. Memories of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood seemed to have been atomized and recombined in alien ways, as though having journeyed through and emerged on the other side of a black hole, as though they belonged to someone else.
I was always trying to write about the black hole, but its gravity swallowed all of my words and imagination, so I couldn’t seem to make sense of it all. Whenever I tried, I would end up getting sucked back inside it, lured by the need to name what was happening to me in something other than metaphor. I realized I could not write from inside it, but I also couldn’t find a lasting way out. I did not even understand what it was in any other terms— only the metaphor could capture the experience in language.
When the black hole swallowed my relationship with Mom and my entire US-based extended family three years into my post-MFA writing drought, I was left to make sense of a story that seemed to have come to its natural conclusion. I thought — well, now I can write it — I no longer have to worry about how my writing will impact those relationships and can just focus on myself. But I couldn’t. My throat clenched tighter than ever and writing wouldn’t come — only tears, rage, and grief. The special fountain pen that Baba, who had since passed away, had gifted me a decade earlier as a college graduation present had disappeared, and along with it so did strength and hope for writing my story.
Urgent health matters had also been keeping my attention away from writing as I grappled with a new diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in my early 30s against the backdrop of ongoing financial stress and the voluntary but excruciating loss of my family. Years went by in a kind of holding pattern, as I struggled to stay employed while managing chronic pain with copious NSAIDs, worrying how I would make it through each subway ride with its jerky train movements pulling on my joints and unruly crowds squeezing me into shapes my body couldn’t hold. There was no room in my life for anything other than surviving.
2020 brought everything to a head. In February, I started a new anxiety medication for the first time in 16 years after my old standby had seriously declined in efficacy. Unfortunately, the new drug was a bad match for my chemistry and I descended into the worst condition since my teens, when I thought the black hole was immigration and blamed all of my pain and confusion on the tug of war between two cultures, each of which wanted to claim me in my entirety. March brought Covid to NYC, sending everyone into lockdown. Classes transitioned to online delivery, and I along with the entire faculty of my university were retrained for this format. Though the change was drastic and difficult, because of my declining condition on the new meds, I was privately grateful not to have to leave the house.
This return to the netherworld for the three months I spent on the wrong treatment and then weaning myself off of it prompted an inner reckoning. I saw clearly that no one was coming to rescue me, as in my teen fantasies and visions the first time I descended. Back then, I imagined as I wandered in secondhand evening wear the ornate, pristine halls and gardens of wealthy DC homes and embassies where my pianist mother accompanied at concerts and I turned the pages for her, that someone might see me — see the sadness and hurt in my eyes that my mother could not. The gaze of a handsome man, like in all the fairy tales, would come to rest on me, a long-suffering Cinderella, righting somehow the wrongs of my life, siphoning that sadness like poison out of my mouth with his lips.
Now in my 30s, and already paired to a wonderful, caring partner in spite of my worst fear of being too broken for a healthy relationship, I understood that being loved and seen was not a vaccine against suffering. The damage, such as it was, had already been done, and no amount of fierce loving would ensure that I never felt so horrid again.
It was up to me — a matter of life and death — to find a way out of this place, to find the resources that would make it possible, to trust the love and support that were there for me from my partner, his family and my friends. Ironically, if Covid had not created the space and time for me to rest, reflect, and research, I would never have been able to get to this important insight. I needed the interruption to my routine of barely hanging on — a break from constantly pushing myself to squeeze out the last dregs of my energy to keep my job — so that I could glimpse the sadness and hurt in my own eyes and refuse to look away.
Little by little I started to dig my way back to myself. I changed medications, restarted therapy and seeing my rheumatologist again after a years-long financially imposed pause. I returned to meditation after a decade-long hiatus and began spending more time walking the park across the street from home as the warmth of spring beckoned and the stay home order was lifted. The black veil too began to lift, just a little, but I knew there was so much more work to be done, that I would have to commit to caring for myself differently this time, like it was my job, my most important job. Like I wished that Mom could have decades ago.
Building on this progress, I started reading more online about what might connect all of my issues together. Over the course of my research, I came to understand more and more deeply that what I had been looking for had been right in front of me all this time. The black hole had a name in the literature of psychology. It was called complex trauma. And my most recent brush with it prompted me to finally walk away from my family, though it started long ago, in the earliest of childhood. Trauma explained the fragmentation, the shame, the memory issues, the confusion, the inflammation and aggression of my immune system which expressed itself as arthritis. It explained my reliance on metaphor — language ceases to exist in trauma states or becomes meaningless, broken down into sounds and rhythms, textures and colors and images, sensations and emotions swimming together in a turbulent primordial soup from which something living has the potential to emerge but which lacks the coherence of life itself.
On some level I had known what the black hole was since my teens, but having been raised to thoroughly mistrust my own experience and perceptions by a family shaped by Soviet oppression and unwilling to examine its dysfunction, I suppressed this knowledge until recently. Now everything I read kept confirming my experience — what I felt made perfect sense when looked at through the lens of complex trauma. The black hole had felt so dangerous because it fed on light and was therefore invisible. Now it was as though I had access to astronomical blueprints that proved its existence by its effect on me — the symptoms it created in my nervous system that otherwise had no coherent explanation.
I applied for sabbatical armed with new knowledge, but still far from certain in my success. Would the writing come now that I had this validation in my instincts? It didn’t seem so straightforward, but I knew I was ready to try again.
This was my first ever sabbatical — a privilege I could not believe I had been granted in the way that any good fortune feels suspect to one knocked down once, twice, thrice too many times. I’d saved up money from an extra class I taught in the pandemic fall of 2020 so that I could take not only fall 2021 to write but also the summer preceding it to focus on bolstering my nervous system. As that time approached, I felt the familiar lump in my throat that accompanies a foray into my psyche. Of course, avoiding those forays was equally useless in protecting me from the pain and confusion of separation from the self — just because it was not staring me in the face did not mean I was ever really free of the shame and sense of brokenness I felt particularly sharply when examining my fractures.
As soon as I approached to look at myself more closely, the cacophony of voices in my head demanding that I get with the program and write, dammit, blaming me for failing, pushing, pulling, and stretching me into unnatural shapes and postures, would go dead silent. Like the observer effect, but with my inner world. Just as I readied the lassoes of my intellect, of words, to grasp my inner experiences, as soon as they saw me coming, seemingly before I even took a step toward them, they would transform into clouds of smoke and dissipate, leaving me disoriented and defeated in a void from which I could perceive nothing but the shadows of my shame and failure blocking out all the light of the world.
In my research I found an online class I could take to help address the impact of trauma on my nervous system that caused such great swells and surges of panic and such swooping swings into deadening depression in my body. I wanted to learn how to ride the dangerously powerful waves of feeling and sensation without getting sucked back into the singularity. The course lasted most of the summer and I learned a lot about the functioning of the nervous system and how it can stay stuck in a protective response after an event or series of events that prove too much for the organism to handle.
Like many other course participants, I realized I had been stuck in a protective nervous state for decades and learned that the path to a regulated, healthy system is non-linear, requiring patient self-exploration and the daily practice of deeply multilayered self-care for the rest of my life. I learned breathing, journaling and movement practices that help settle the body and mind and improve communication and energy flow between them. Though incredibly helpful, I could see that my new skills were unlikely to result in the sweeping nervous system healing I needed to help me finish the draft of my memoir by the end of the year. Still, having acquired a beginner’s toolkit for my nervous system by the last week of August, I was all set to start my draft on September 1st. Miraculously, that was also the week I discovering while searching for something else altogether Baba’s fountain pen lodged in the cushions of the couch where I had looked frantically many times before but never found it.
Writing went smoothly all of September. I got to 20,000 words of my memoir and celebrated a budding almost daily writing practice. But then something shifted and October came and went with only a handful of pages written, pages that bothered and displeased me like naughty children, refusing to listen and follow instructions. I felt lost again, even with my new emotional self-care toolbox, and entirely daunted by my task.
In November, I told myself I would pick back up again after a month of soul searching. I did start writing again, but what came out was this essay— not my memoir. This feels like a kind of failure and a kind of success.
I only realized that the term complex trauma had anything to do with me less than two years ago, and every month I learn something new, something that opens new doors inside of me. This essay was started the day after a 75 minute online Internal Family Systems workshop. IFS is a therapy modality based on the phenomenon of internal fragmentation that develops as a result of complex trauma. According to IFS, the parts of me that need me to write and the parts that are terrified of trusting my own truth to myself and others are in a constant battle. I asked the teacher about the void I faced when I sat down to write — how when I tried to access my parts, the voices inside of me, everything went dead and I felt entirely cut off from myself.
“The void,” she said, “Hmm, sounds like a protector part.”
“You mean the void is not an absence but a part itself?” I clarified.
“What do you think it’s trying to protect you from?”
I considered the question. The one thing the void spared me was the confusion of all of the voices inside talking, yelling, screaming over each other and paralyzing me in self doubt. By keeping the voices at bay, the void was shielding me from suffering.
“The cacophony,” I answered after a moment.
And with that the void became a door and I walked through it.
Anna Fridlis graduated from The New School with a nonfiction MFA in 2014 and has been teaching at her alma mater since. She is currently on academic leave to work on her memoir about immigration, trauma, family and identity. Anna also edits for Seventh Wave Magazine and runs an online kids writing camp.