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  • Catherine Greer

The Power of Suffering

Now dissolve me - two tabs on your tongue.


I miss Belly.


It's been a week and a half. I said goodbye to my sweetie cat on the 28th, started classes on the 30th, and had a friends wedding events from the 4th through the 8th. It's been go-go-go for me...


Knowing we had the beginning of Fall term and our friends wedding converging on the first week of October, Aaron and I opted to not make much in the way of plans for the remainder of the month. With the loss of Belly being heaped on top of it all, I'm feeling especially grateful that we didn't book much for ourselves. Aaron and I will be celebrating our second year of marriage on the 13th. We have tickets to see a band we both love (Caravan Palace) on the 19th. We planned a dinner with friends on the 20th. I'll have classes and work, and Aaron has been putting in overtime. We're not free, per se, but this month currently holds the least responsibility for the both of us as compared to the rest of the year. And I miss Belly. Broken sweethearts who sleep apart; both still pine for the others side spine, spoon as sleep starts.


It was a joyous event, my friends wedding. It was also a Big Thing, when my energy level currently sees Small Things as much larger. Grief and Joy tag-teamed this weekend and the dueling duo succeeded in overwhelming me. I do not see myself as a victim of my emotional intensity, but I do suffer from it. I think that this largely has to do with how PTSD can affect the brain.


PTSD does something that I actually find kind of fascinating. In 'Making Light', I mentioned that trauma is a psychological harm - trauma is damage of the mind. Well, enough psychological trauma can also cause physical damage to the brain. While the research is currently unclear as to whether it is an effect or a risk factor, it's been found that adults suffering from PTSD have a smaller hippocampus. This area of the brain is responsible for a good chunk of our memory production, as well as certain emotions - like fear. A person who suffers from PTSD, then, has a brain that was either already vulnerable to the condition, or is reduced in size by the presence of the condition. A person who suffers from PTSD will see a notable effect on their memory, and are less able to overcome a fear response.


PTSD therefore has a unique tendency to cause both a strikingly specific memory of a moment, and cause a loss of memory surrounding an event. To both remember and forget something that ultimately shapes you is... strange. I have long thought I was broken for not remembering significant portions of my childhood. Turns out, that's pretty normal. So is the intrusive, vivid reliving of the moment of Belly's death, unfortunately.


I am see-through; soap sliver, you're so thin. As I begin rubbing lathers up, your state worsens on my skin.


I have been doing a lot of reading, and looking, and reflecting. I have largely avoided my paintbrush and my pen. But this term, I am in a painting class. It's acrylic mixed media, mostly self-directed content, with a healthy balance of homework assignments and in-class work. I find myself in therapy and in painting at the same time, and cannot help but feel that I am meant to be holding a mirror to myself. There's something in here that I am meant to see. And maybe seeing is the beginning of healing.


So, my term content is a study on the healing journey of art-working and creation in general, via a series of self-portraits. This sounds a lot like my reasoning for wanting to become an art therapist, so I'm trusting that I am on the right path here. I don't have a history of working conceptually with my artwork, instead choosing to work instinctively. The last year that I have spent in observation has also been spent allowing myself to reconnect with my intuition; it makes a certain amount of sense that now, with my life being navigated more intuitively, I turn to art with a structured approach.


The structure of things is an important aspect of my thinking lately. In the approach to my self-portraits, I want to focus on building some sort of visual architecture of myself and of my emotions. The sudden and forced reliving of some of the worst moments in my life are not things that I want to dismiss anymore. PTSD symptoms include avoidance of any trigger that could cause the painful memory to bubble up. My avoidance techniques are strange to me because until now, I hadn't even noticed them. I'm here now, trying to sit with things that hurt me, just so I can make out the shape of them and find out why they're here.


I am committed to honoring my hurts.


In that commitment, I find that it is important to be transparent - to be as see through as a soap sliver, and just as delicate. That imagery is imperative to me here, because even as a sliver, the soaps job is to cleanse, to heal. Even the most fragile piece of soap is still capable of meeting its intended purpose. If I am soap, then, I am at once fragile and very strong. I like to believe that I can be transparent here while maintaining my ability to be seen as an intellectual, grounded individual. I carry damage within, but I am not a carrier of damage - I will not infect, I will not harm.


And pulse to pulse, now shush: She makes the sound the sea makes to calm me down.


My friends wedding was a beautiful affair, with a lucky break in the rain and plenty of love and laughter filling the eventful weekend. I was honored to be a bridesmaid, and my husband equally as honored to be a groomsman. We happily put forth extra effort to make this event as wonderful as possible for our friends, and in doing so we had an even better time simply for knowing how much we could help. In stark contrast to the sheer joy I was experiencing, I also felt a sudden and sharp sadness overtake me. The joy and the grief coexisted in the space of a breath. It happened after the wedding, when my body had started to relax the physical tension that comes from the build-up to a particular moment.


The recessional music was the lovely song Married Life from the movie UP. This music was set to the utterly charming montage of Carl and Ellie's relationship from conception to end. There is a part of their love story that is painful to see; they find out that Ellie cannot have children, and Ellie is particularly devastated by the news. The song changes during these scenes, to reflect the sadness that Carl feels at seeing Ellie suffering.


As I took the arm of my equally-short groomsperson, I lost sight of the bride and groom and of my husband, who was the first groomsman to leave the ceremony space. I had a flash of feeling suddenly alone. And then the sad part of the music started.


Aaron and I have been together for a little over six years. We started trying for a family after we had been together for one year. Last year, I went through some testing because I was concerned that we had not successfully gotten pregnant yet, and we'd had a potential miscarriage scare. My doctor believes I am not ovulating and, at the time, wanted me to use a medication that would force my body to comply, then come in for testing to verify that it was working. Aaron and I chose to put that on hold until we had at least tested him, but then we didn't prioritize getting him seen and it hasn't happened yet.


I watched my dad play hide and seek with my godson after exiting the ceremony space in what felt like a heavily poignant moment. The joy I could see in my dad and in my godson sparked a secondary pang of sadness. My immediate reaction after both the recessional and seeing my dad get to play grandpa was to shove the sadness down, because this is a wedding, damnit, and it's not about me, and it's selfish of me to have any feelings that aren't rooted in joy for the happy couple. Right?


But then I got a plate for dinner, and sat down to eat, and one of my lovely intrusive flashbacks to Belly's death happened. It struck me that if I am a mother, Belly will never see it. That hurts me in a way I didn't see coming. I went all the way upstairs and locked myself in a bathroom and cried my heart out, thinking that maybe a good cry would be beneficial. I didn't cry for very long, but when I stood up and saw my reflection with my makeup running down my face, I cried again. I got myself pulled together and went downstairs, only to find that it was time for toasts. I choked in the middle of the shortest speech I've ever given, deflected with humor, and sat back down.


As soon as I could, I pulled Aaron somewhere private so that I could share what I was experiencing. He held me and let me fall apart, and validated my emotions without judgment. We talked about the practical things we could do to address what was at the root of my sadness, and to alleviate the mood, my wonderful husband farted on someone who was just trying to take a smoke break away from the crowd. I'm legitimately blessed.


And then I was so relieved at having unburdened myself that I decided to dive headfirst into 2.5 bottles of white wine. I had a lot of steam to blow off - it took a lot of wine to soften the edges of all the hurts I'd committed to making space for. In the last three weeks I have lost my feline companion of nearly half my life, been diagnosed with two new disorders, begun medication for one of those disorders, begun trauma processing, begun Fall term, and been involved in building my friends picturesque wedding. It's been a lot.


It was too much wine, obviously. I spent all of Tuesday hungover as hell. I didn't manage to keep water down until sometime after 1PM. Aaron got me food, but I didn't eat until nearly 5. And it was in between the water and the food that we got the phone call:


Belly's ashes are ready to be picked up.


I still look for her when I come out of the bedroom in the morning. I was playing with Tana last night and flicked the toy around a corner, and for a brief second was startled that the other kitty had not come to play too. I haven't been able to handle piles of anything on the floor because my eye is tricked; post-wedding, we have several piles everywhere, and I have not had the time nor the energy to pick them up. I have been avoiding coming home because she's not there. I miss her in a way that feels physical. Like perhaps if I just stepped aside quickly enough, you'd see the shadow of Missing Belly behind me.


One of these days, I will go into detail on what exactly makes my "robust resiliency" according to my therapist. It's quite interesting, at least to me, and makes me feel a lot better. I only want to mention it now as a partial segue to something else I'd read about called post-traumatic growth. The potentially transformative power of suffering is an old concept, something thought of and about by many before me. Post-traumatic growth is seen when someone who has experienced trauma is able to grieve and gradually accept their trauma, assimilate the existence of their trauma into their belief system, and then return to their previous level of functioning. Actually, more specifically, there exists two markers of this return. The first is resilience, like what my therapist says I have in spades. Resilience will bounce you back to your previous level of functioning more quickly. But post-traumatic growth is the ability to thrive. Post-traumatic growth is the ability to accept the transformative power of suffering and utilize it in a way that fosters positive change. I miss Belly. I will always miss Belly. I miss her extra hard right now. This suffering feels like a transformation. My therapist says I have a robust resiliency, and that's fantastic, but I wanna grow. I don't want to go back to someone I've already been, if I can go forward to someone who thrives. This month is going to be a lot of stepping forward only to step backward. The road to recovery is not a simple walk. I am determined to stop and acknowledge the hurts I have carried with me thus far, and I intend to treat them like they are the slivers of soap - I want to rub them into my skin, absorb their ability to heal and cleanse, let them finally meet their purpose.


But for now, this incredibly long read can be summed up by the complexly simple

fact that I really, really miss Belly.

She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea

She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea

She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea She makes the sound the sea makes, knee deep in the North Sea xo, Cate


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