Polyamory, Trauma, and Unmet Needs: Facing the Hydra

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Trauma
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.

shattered glassI 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.

shadowsEven 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.

love-heart-love-feeling-girl-wings-sunset-freedom-sky-horizonMy 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.

friendship

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.

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In Limbo Lies the Love Languishing

“The ultimate state of love is freedom, absolute freedom, and any relationship that destroys freedom is not worthwhile. Love is a sacred art. To be in love is to be in a holy relationship.”
~ Osho

 

My heart feels heavy as I write this, aching in every direction. The self chatter in my mind talks about being foolish, rash, and irresponsible, and it’s fighting the deeply romantic part of my personality that wants to keep my heart open.

In every relationship, there’s a moment- well sometimes, oftentimes, it’s a recurring moment- where I find myself gazing with love and want to utter the words, “I love you”. But, I don’t. I hold back. I wait.

Why? Because we make such a big deal about the meaning of the words “I love you.”

I want to create a new way of dialoguing about love. Casual love is a thing. In the Greek language there are multiple means of expressing “I love you”- I remember vividly my grandmother tucking me into bed at night with the words, “kourichakimou, cartholamou, yagapoulamou, agapemou”.

Love is such a vast, transcendant, spiritual experience, why limit ourselves in the expression of it?

Dancing_maenad_Python_BM_VaseF253Sometimes I want to just use the Greek words directly. I am in Eros with you. I am in Phillia with you. I am in Ludus with you. I am in Agape with you. I am in Pragma with you. I am in Philautia with you.

Even just taking the time to think about what kind of love I’m experiencing can help me find clairty. It’s so enriching to engage in a way of appreciating the many layers of love that are possible.

I find that for myself, Eros (sexual passion) and Ludus (playful love) often give way to deep experiences of Phillia (friendship) and Pragma (Universal love).

I wonder if part of the reason I am Solo is that the way I love people tends to involve increasing levels of trust and connection until- I have to let go. When I hear of two people confess “unconditional love” for one another I wonder what that really means. To me, unconditional means without ownership, without expectation, and freely. I look at how my relationship with Orion has transformed- and I can honestly say that for both of us, our ability to love one another increased when we stopped dating. We dropped expectations of one another, and grew deeper in our friendship. It’s a really beautiful connection, one cherished greatly.

love-heart-love-feeling-girl-wings-sunset-freedom-sky-horizon

When you love someone in entirety, when you decide that they are someone you want to grow and evolve through knowing, there comes a breakthrough point where the next stage of loving them means letting them go, and remembering to stay true to your own self, your wants and desires, your own evolution. It’s a moment of selfishness that challenges how we are told to treat our relationships. We are told to be self sacrificing in service of a partner, when actually a healthy relationship starts with us having a healthy relationship to our self first.

Curled up with my dear friend Odin recently, talking about love, he said something that really hit home for me.
“Love is not as powerful as trust and acceptance; those are so much more specific in their ingredients. To me, acceptance is everything.”

 

Acceptance. Seeing another and being seen by another; seeing and embracing the shadows and not just the light. I feel like that’s the profound journey that love offers us.

I love in such a way as to feel free and to set those I love free. In other words, I want to experience love that is a celebration, and not an obligation. And sometimes that celebration means that, in freedom, they and I dance on, without attachment. I do not love seeking to own that which I love.

I’m in love with love, with feeling and sharing and expressing love, and I don’t believe that should be restricted to an expectation of behaviors. Love is something infinitely delightful to explore- whether self love, friendship, romantic, erotic, familial, or universal: the more we commit to engaging and being fully present to love (in whatever form it exists) the healthier we become.

Love is the four lettered glue that holds us together- as a community, as a species, as a collective of conscious beings sharing space and time cooperatively, love is the essential molecule. Without it we’d self destruct.

 

P1100900editedAnd so it hurts so much when I find myself second guessing or trying to stop myself from loving out of fear that I’ll risk too much, and be broken hearted again. I fear being taken for granted. I fear being not seen. And that’s why my heart is heavy as I write tonight. Several months ago a beautiful young man told me he was falling in love with me. And I dared to give myself permission to let that experience deepen, and to allow myself to fall in love with him too. As distance appears, as new chapters emerge, and uncertainty hangs over the evolution of our journey together, I’m looking for the courage to not just keep loving, but to be open again. To trust, believe, and share again. To live from a place of fearless authenticity, and trust that those around me are doing the same.

 

In a journey so tangled, the only way through is to dance.

Depth and Desire

Two years ago, on the morning after my birthday, I woke up in a downtown Vancouver apartment, with a life changing epiphany.

I lay naked in bed, gazing at the man slumbering beside me, his fluffy feline companion curled up in between us. The previous night I had celebrated my birthday with friends, and had gone home with him. I felt a huge outpouring of love for this man. We had dated, broken up, reconnected- it was an intense relationship, one of those ones where the chemistry is so crazy strong it’s hard to stay away. I felt conflicted, and didn’t know what to do with these feelings. I reached into my bag and pulled out my journal and my Avalon oracle cards, and started shuffling. Yes- total new age hippie at heart.

The card that I drew that morning was, appropriately, “The Cat”.

cat“The Cat reminds you of independence and to set healthy boundaries. Love with freedom- do not look to own what you desire, for too much attachment can lead to loss. The Cat lends you its power to live freely and to remember that the adventure is just beginning… Live freely, love without unhealthy attachment, and remember that with the Cat as your companion, you may fully immerse yourself in life, for there will be many lives to come.”

 

I read these words, and something began to stir inside me. It was early, far too early to get up, but I felt a sudden impetus to leave. I rolled out of bed, packed up my things, and left the apartment without waking anyone or saying goodbye.

That morning was the beginning of my journey in being Singleish.

I had figured out that I wanted to be polyamarous long before that. I had explored things with a few different couples, had a few marathon days where brunch, lunch and dinner were all date zeros, and was having a casual sexual relationship with one of my male friends. I had been separated from my husband for over six months and had been enjoying my new single life, while all too easily and quickly falling into a default pattern of expectations every time something resembling a Relationship appeared in my life.

I reffered to that default pattern as the Disney Fantasy, and later heard others refer to it as the Relationship Escalator. And that default pattern just wasn’t fulfilling me. Every time it happened, I felt like I had only escaped the box of marriage just to jump into another box.

I started with the idea that being Singleish meant I didn’t have to be answerable to anyone at all. No primary. No one to veto my actions. No one to report back to. No one whose feelings I needed to tiptoe around or negotiate with. After a summer of pursuing several relationships with less integrity and honesty than I probably should have, I decided I need to be accountable to myself, and to avoid getting lost and distracted by the romance and intoxication of NRE, I had to establish a primary relationship with me.

All the time while I was married, and during all the explorations of dating I had done since separating from my husband- I had been seeking love externally. I have battled with depression for years, and in that battle I found that struggles financial, emotional and health-wise make it all too easy to feel down and to seek external validation. I realised that in the midst of all that I had gone through, I had forgotten how to love myself.

Furthermore, in an attempt to emotionally bypass the deeper things going on within my psyche, I was becoming enamored with multiple external distractions, seeking human crutches on to which to lean my wounded heart and spirit. I resolved that I didn’t want to do that any more. I decided that rather than seek a primary partner externally, that I needed to be my own primary partner.

I was also clear that being Singleish, for me, had to mean more than multiple friends-with-benefits.

As a person, I’m a die-hard romantic, and I know that I need relationships with substance. Just because I don’t want to jump on the Relationship Escalator with someone, doesn’t mean that I don’t want to connect heart to heart, or that I will tolerate being treated as a purely sexual object or objective. All too often has that assumption been made, and I’m tired of people thinking that being Singleish equals treating the relationship with me as disposable.

To some, this has seemed like a total contradiction- a woman who desires relationships with substance, yet doesn’t want to commit to the standard “lets get married now” ideal. An individual who values her autonomy and independence so fiercely, yet who desires to share sexual, romantic, and emotional intimacy.

lifebeginsAt the same time, I’m realising that buried behind the joyous “I am Singleish; hear me roar!” battle cry is a huge amount of fear. I have grown to value my independence and free spirit so much, that I am absolutely terrified of sacrificing that or loosing it. I lost it in my marriage, and do not want to loose it again. Yet, I desire intimacy. I desire partnership. I desire to share more of my journey- but without jumping onto the Relationship Escalator, without finding myself entangled in an emotional co-dependency or, even more terrifying, an emotionally manipulative and abusive situation.

It has hurt to open my heart to others, because with heart opening comes trusting and an element of surrendering. It means I can’t be in complete control anymore. But I feel I’m moving past those fears, and into a place in my relationship with myself where perhaps I could take on more.

I desire depth of connection. And I know that deep connections don’t happen over night- they grow over time.
lovekitten

Recently, with the end of a beautiful emotionally connected and sexually charged six month relationship, I’ve been reminded of the energy of that Cat card again, about the importance of asserting healthy boundaries, and of diving in to the adventures life holds.

A huge part of my journey in the past two years- and increasingly in the past few months- has been learning about how to communicate in such a way as to nurture intimacy and closeness. I can’t nurture that when there isn’t deeply honest, vulnerable sharing.

As I ask myself whether it would be possible to have primary like relationships without being on the Relationship Escalator, I realise that a lot of what constitutes my definition of primary has to do with the ability to listen with ferocious honesty, to share with vulnerability, and for everyone involved to be willing to dive into the depths of their own love.

I desire love. Love with depth.

I desire to feel love, to share love, to be drunk with love.

This year for my birthday, I once more celebrated in the company of dear friends, including some people whose company I have come to value immensely. I woke up- in my own bed this time- curled up next to a beautiful man I’ve been seeing for a couple of months now. We had slumbered peacefully in one another’s arms, our naked bodies entwined, and as I stirred in bed he moved his face towards me and kissed me softly.

I used to be afraid of those deeply intimate morning kisses and would run away placing meaning on them that would drive me insane with expectations. But- no longer. I allowed myself to be present to his kisses, and in so doing allowed myself to be present to my own lips kissing him back. And I felt so incredibly content, and happy. Not just with that moment, but with where I find myself at today.

sunbathing

Two years ago, I didn’t know how to love myself.

I had gone so long without love for myself, I was looking to others to love me.

More than that- I wanted them to love the Me who I was afraid of letting out in to the open! Choosing to find a primary relationship with myself has been one of the most significant things I have ever done because it has guided me to a place where I am no longer afraid of being myself.

I’ve embraced that “Cat” energy, and loved without attachment, lived freely, and immersed myself fully in life- and what a journey it has been. I’ve discovered more about myself, and dared to step in to the fullness of being who I have always dreamed- and believed- that I could be. And now that there’s greater depth between me, myself, and I, it only seems natural to desire greater depth, authenticity, and presence, in all the relationships that I form.

“Without feeling the loving holding of the universe, we can have no basic trust. How can you really let go and let yourself be if there isn’t trust that things are fundamentally okay, that whatever happens is appropriate? If we don’t have this trust, we are constantly scared, tense and fighting reality – inner and outer. If we have this trust, we can interact with everything exactly as it is – Let it in, Let it out, Let it go, Let go of letting it go and Let it be.”
~ Gabrielle Roth