The result of experiences that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.
I want to share something very personal with you- and I’m scared. I’m nervous that people may read this and project themselves into the story. I’m afraid that people’s own trauma might be triggered by this. What I hope is that sharing this very personal thing might help me find some healing- and perhaps, if you’ve been through something similar, it might help you find some healing to know that you are not alone. So, here goes.
There’s a story from my matrilineal ancestors in Ancient Greece, of the demigod hero Heracles- son of Zeus- who faces the Hydra, a giant multi-headed serpent with venomous blood who has terrorised villages. Heracles uses his sword to cut off one of the serpent’s heads- but in its place grow two new heads, and when he cut off one of those, two heads more. Heracles fights with futility against the serpent who spawns exponentially more heads for each that are severed, and grows more venomous and more monstrous as the battle wages on. Realising he cannot win the battle alone, Heracles calls for help from his nephew, who holds a torch to each severed stump to prevent new heads from growing, and thus through the power of sword and fire, Hydra is defeated.
In Mythological symbolism, the Hydra was seen to be the embodiment of the archetype of the venomous feminine. Raised by quick-to-jealousy goddess Hera, her entire purpose was to kill and destroy Heracles, and prevent his possible ascension to Mount Olympus. Joseph Campbell would identify this part of the Heraclean legend as part of the Road of Trials in his Hero’s Journey. An arduous, almost impossible task, that makes him stronger and teaches him the strength he will need in order to triumph in a future challenge.
I have this crucible, this road of trials that I traverse. Some time ago, something happened to me that was not okay- not for my body, nor my psyche. It haunted me, raged in my dreams, and drove me to build walls between myself and others. I’ve been ‘brave’ to process through this- and to do so privately and silently whilst elsewhere a different story is spun has been one of the most painful experiences of my life, an experience that has taken me to the precipice of a darkness and hopelessness in myself that I do not ever wish to see again. My hope is that by sharing something of what I have held silent, that perhaps I may find ease.
My crucible is the quest for peace with my own personal Hydra- a many headed serpent formed from both the inner and outer mechanisms in my life that continue to fuel an experience of compounding trauma.
“As soon as you concern yourself with the “good” and “bad” of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weakens and defeats you.”
~ Morihei Ueshiba, The Art of Peace
The proverbial Hydra I fight appeared in my life some time ago now. The catalyst for it was a sexual experience. For the first few weeks, I existed in a state of confusion, almost like I wasn’t in my body. My dreams were filled with flashbacks I couldn’t understand, I found it challenging to engage sexually unless I was intoxicated. I don’t remember now what my outward behaviour was like at this time- it’s a blur- but friends noticed I was behaving differently, irrationally. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, and that my life was unravelling and I couldn’t comprehend why. Slowly, with the support of friends, lovers, therapists and counsellors, I began to piece together an understanding of what had happened to me, and I exploded with rage and sorrow.
There are no ‘villains’ in this. Only, as one friend might put it, a series of painfully tragic expressions of unmet needs.
I was so embarrassed by the rage I felt; I thought I had made so much progress in finding my inner Zen until then. I was chastised by some for my anger- couldn’t I see how much it was hurting the other people who had been in that situation with me? I felt like I was losing my mind; I asked for space, and I asked for help- but I didn’t know what would help me, other than finding space away from everyone and everything that was associated with that experience. Sleeping at night meant relying on pills and sometimes alcohol to numb my mind that couldn’t let go of the screams I was suppressing.
I was ashamed of myself, of my inability to cope with this new experience. I sunk into the depths of depression, a cavern I still work on escaping from. I worked hard to give my sorrow healthy expression through my writing, and others told me this replaying things in my mind all the time was not going to help. So I suppressed the sorrow, I isolated myself, I silenced myself in the hopes of finding peace- I tried to cut off the head of the Hydra… and it grew two more.
Even today, after months of processing through this, my body feels heavy and foreign to me as I write, and my hands shake and vibrate with emotion as I sob from this deep heartache. I have cocooned to find healing, to defeat this Hydra through my own self-work, and many times I have courageously emerged from that cocoon only to find that it has grown more venemous in my absence.
Something I have grown weary of in polyamory is the insular nature of the community. As a friend puts it, “In Monogamy, if I have a bad break up, or an iffy one night stand, I can just wipe the slate clean and start fresh with someone new, and move on with my life, processing what happened at my own pace.” In polyamory- the community being smaller, and the relationships being frequently interwoven- this is not so straightforward; the same people show up again, and again. One either needs to find a way to coexist peacefully through the painful emotions, or withdraw completely from an entire social network in order to retreat from an individual.
This is one of the shadow sides of polyamory that doesn’t get the air-time it deserves: as much as the interconnecting relationships can foster connections and offer a sense of community, when you withdraw to look after yourself, all of that can change. Those connections can so quickly drop away as everyone moves on with their lives, dating new people- and while you are withdrawn in your emotional safety zone, projections and stories and hurt feelings grow in the void. There is all the cliqueiness of high school, alongside all the more complex conflict that can emerge between grown adults.
My brave, brave heart is so tired and seeks rest, seeks peace. There are well-meaning, kind souls who wish to help, who wish to support healing, but with my own voice having been silent, they’ve had no means of knowing the hurt, the sorrow, the life-arresting and emotionally paralyzing trauma that I’ve been through.
There are moments when the discordant anger I feel is overwhelming- and I write and work harder at what I do, because I don’t want to let the anger win. I refuse to let the anger- or the trauma- become the defining feature of who I am. And, while I haven’t wanted to ‘burden’ others with my pain or my story, in recent months I’ve been learning the deep value of being vulnerable and allowing my emotional state to be seen.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”
~Sun Tsu, The Art of War
I’m afraid sometimes. I’m scared that people will think differently of me if I let go of my silence and share openly about my experience. I’m concerned my friends will try to take on the fight for me, to hold that flame to the Hydra’s body, and put themselves in harm’s way. I don’t want to let anger dictate my actions; I know what it’s like to be a slave to it and lash out at others. I don’t desire to be that person. But I also know that I can’t fight this Hydra- and find lasting healing- alone any more.
Too often in relationships we compromise, walk the other way, withdraw ourselves from the places that might hold land-mines for us- but compromise isn’t peace. I realise now that one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life was compromising my own commitment to my self: ignoring red flags, forgiving deal breakers, falling into fantasies of polyamorous perfection, and not being firm when my boundaries were repeatedly bumped up against- and, continuing to come back because I thought, in some twisted way, forgiving those actions meant connection, and symbolised Love. I compromised in an attempt to ‘keep everyone happy’ and maintain the status quo.
I’m sure there are many people in my life I have rubbed the wrong way. I’m certain that the very nature of who I am and how I do relationships has put people on edge- including other polyamorous people. I seek to live my life courageously and authentically, and I’m fortunate to make my home in a part of the world where that is possible, and where there is wider acceptance of alternate lifestyles. I know, however, there will still be people who will judge, who will misunderstand me- whether it’s my polyamory, my queerness, my ethnic heritage, my cultural background, my physical limitations, my trauma- we all project our own stories onto others, and there is little I can do to change that. Instead, what I am able to do is to seek kindness and compassion in myself, to nurture my emotional muscles for empathy, and to send love to those whose words and actions have (intentionally or unintentionally) brought about more hurt for me.
I believe in a culture of consent and for me, that’s synonymous with a culture of compassion, nurturance, and empathy.
There’s so much in this that I still hold back on speaking to, out of respect for the pain of others, the trauma that can be triggered when such things are spoken of. Even in those lowest moments when the stress and anxiety has drawn me to contemplate how I could end my life, I’ve made a choice to be silent and to spare others from pain- yet in silence others can project their own pain in a myriad of ways, and truth can seem to evaporate.
I choose to not react from a place that would be oppressive. In any challenge such as this, we have a choice: to go to war, or to go to peace. I don’t have to live from my pain and my anger. Though they are a part of me, so too are kindness, love, and compassion, and so I choose to live from those. That choice is a daily one, one I’m admittedly not always effective at playing out, but this is the choice that has helped me to find healing.
In my youth I realised that the ‘bullies’ who would push me around at school were people who were hurting too, and didn’t have help to understand and heal from their pain. I still believe this to be true. Anyone inadvertently crossing boundaries and shirking responsibility is hurting, a victim of a society that tells us its acceptable to cross boundaries and shirk responsibility. Anyone lashing out in anger and bitterness is a person in deep pain; the target of their venom is often not even the root cause of their anguish. They might try so hard to pull down and destroy others, only to find their hurt magnified. They need our love, our compassion, and our support for healing the deeper wounds they carry.
I haven’t yet ‘defeated’ my Hydra. My healing journey continues. I acknowledge the very real, very destabilizing effect this has had on my life, the opportunities and invitations I have had to turn down because I haven’t had the internal resources to face anything beyond my bedroom walls. Many who see me may only see the shiney happy side of me, and not the consistent storm that leaves me feeling so often lost. Those dear few whom I have trusted to hold space for my breakdowns, they reflect back to me the courage they see, that they witness someone able to face life challenges with conscious determination. I hold hope that one day, I will find lasting peace against this Hydra.
We all have a choice. You have a choice, in whatever battles you find yourself fighting, the Hydras you duel in your own lives, in your own relationships: you have a choice. Please don’t sink into a stalemate of silence; it doesn’t allow an opening for peace. Please don’t rage at the serpents heads with swords; you will only cause more pain. Peace is the only way everyone can heal. And that means addressing each piece of the pain, one by one, and cauterizing the wound so that no more pain can grow. That, takes time. It takes patience. It takes asking a friend (or friends) for help.