Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.
The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.
There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.
As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, which we had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some things never change.
No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.
I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.
I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.
I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the doll was mine.
Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children. In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with dolls, this didn’t attract me.
Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is I was suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed it.
When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.
I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.
Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a long-vanished version of myself, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.
This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful I doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from others? Protect myself?
I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I belonged to at the time.
Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the familiarity of holding one again made me weep.
I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.
I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give it to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.
I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.
I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.
It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.
One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public school or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.
What I understand now is ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, a satisfying professional life, and healthy relationships. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.
To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.
Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.
As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.
If we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.
Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive nor negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.
I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.
I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.
Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.
I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.
I’m convinced feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad now, I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.
Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.
In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.
As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.
Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.
So, what to do?
First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?
Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.
Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.
Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.
Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.
I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.
I’m not a fan of labels. They say too much and too little at the same time, and they’re too easy to use imprecisely. Words and definitions matter to me. On the other hand, labels can be useful in that they symbolize a cluster of defining characteristics that have been well enough recognized and described to get labeled in the first place.
At the end of the day, I have a love/hate relationship with labels. I resist taking them on and I resist defining anyone else with them; however, in the course of exploring and reading about our human experience, certain labels have been enormously healing and helpful in my understanding of myself and patterns of behavior I’ve been involved in. I’m proud to carry some labels, even though I rarely talk about them, such as being highly sensitive, as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD. I’m deeply humiliated by other labels, and only reluctantly admit to them, but I know they belong to me whether I admit it or not.
PTSD is a label like that. PTSD is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. As a young woman, I associated PTSD mostly with Vietnam vets who came home from the war with deep psychic and often physical injuries. Over my lifetime, PTSD has gradually been more commonly recognized and talked about, and the label has expanded to cover all kinds of experiences outside of war. I encounter it regularly, several times each work shift as a medical transcriptionist. Some people are severely affected in their daily lives, and others function very well unless they get triggered.
I grew up actively ignoring my own pain and deeply involved with everyone else’s. I had the idea I was the cause of the pain in those around me and it was up to me to fix it. My own experience wasn’t significant. I also believed it was against the rules for me to have pain in the first place; pain or distress were shameful and weak and had to be concealed and denied at all costs.
This set of beliefs has made me, for most of my adult life, numb to my own distress. I often didn’t recognize pain at all, and automatically employed various coping strategies to deal with it. Sometimes it wasn’t until days or even weeks later I realized dimly I was distressed after a particular conversation or event, and then I felt shame about my distress. This is part of the dynamic that kept me with an abuser for years. I couldn’t really feel emotionally what was happening, even when I tasted blood. There was a disconnect.
At some point it dawned on me that I have PTSD.
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
I was academically injured and emotionally abused as a child in fourth grade math, which happened to be the year I was introduced to story problems. Before and after that time I successfully navigated beginning math, high school math, fractions, geometry, algebra and even a college semester of calculus and did just fine, all the while firmly convinced by the limiting belief that I couldn’t do math. I failed chemistry and physics in college, the first classes I’d ever failed in my life. Why? Story problems. I became suicidal and severely depressed and eventually dropped out of college, never to return.
I got a job, got married, and began an adult life. I dealt with a paycheck, a bank account, a checkbook, bills, budgeting, taxes, credit cards and all the rest with no problem. But I still believed I couldn’t do math, and for years I had recurring nightmares about getting on the wrong bus at school (they were identified by numbers) or forgetting my locker combination.
For me, living with PTSD is like living with hidden landmines. I go about my business feeling competent, efficient and organized, and then — WHAM!
I’ve been two years in Maine now, with a new address and phone. Six months ago, I was making an appointment to get my hair cut and was asked for my phone number (landline, not cell phone). There was a lady behind me, waiting. Another of my triggers. Terrible things happen when you make people wait. The stylist was in front of me, pencil poised, needing to get back to work and deal with other customers. What’s more basic than your phone number, for God’s sake? A 6-year-old can recite her phone number. These days, most 6-year-olds probably have their own phone numbers!
Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash
I was blank. Utterly and completely shut down. Stopped in my tracks. There was nothing in my head but static. I was freezing cold, nailed to the floor, and I don’t think I could have counted from one to ten in that moment. Somewhere deep inside I was screaming, hysterical, panic stricken, and sobbing with shame, but that was happening in another galaxy. My numbers thing had struck again.
Fortunately, I know myself, and unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time something like this happened. I went into my wallet and pulled out a piece of paper with my phone number, my address, my birth date, my children’s birth dates, my partner’s phone number and, in disguise, my SS number. I said something about having a new phone number, read it off and got out of there. I sat in the car, shaking, decided I didn’t have to throw up, and went home.
Sitting right here, I know my phone number as well as you know yours, but I’m not under pressure. I also have all the above information pinned onto the bulletin board in my office in the next room, because this can happen when I’m on the phone, too. Someone asks me for my birthday, and that’s it. The lights go out. Total and complete nothingness. I know the month of my birthday because that’s a word, and I love words, but no date, no year.
I’ll write a hundred checks with no problems. Then, one day in a busy store with a line behind me and a hassled cashier, I won’t know the date, not just the numbered date, but the day of the week, the month, the year. It’s just not there. I look at what I’m wearing for clues. I look at the carbon of the last check I wrote, trying to hide that I’m looking. I ask casually what the date is and get the numbered day of the month—but not the month. Somehow, I get through it, but then I’m likely to write the check for the wrong amount because I’m so upset. It doesn’t happen every time, or even most of the time, which is part of the problem. It’s only certain situations, and often I can’t tell what triggered it, so I can’t predict, either. All I can do is be ready and try to deal with my shame and humiliation when it does happen.
It’s on my mind this week because it happened again yesterday.
I work online as a medical transcriptionist and use various software programs for timesheets, recordkeeping and the actual transcription. I’ve been doing this for ten years. As in any job, there are irritating policies and procedures to follow, but I’m familiar with them and I’m extremely meticulous and detail-oriented (no, I did NOT say perfectionistic!), so it’s all in a day’s work.
Except yesterday I realized I somehow made a mistake in my time sheet, and my supervisor was understandably peeved and needed me to fix it. The mistake involved my time sheet, my pay check and my balance of yearly leave hours, all of which, naturally, are represented by numbers. It all conspired in a perfect storm of personal triggers, and I came undone.
Shaking, clammy hands. Hammering heart. Gasping for breath. Trembling legs. Hysterical sobbing. I looked frantically from Leave Request to Timesheet to Records and back again. None of it made sense. I couldn’t even properly recognize a single number. They might as well have been Chinese characters. Punch in, punch out, punch in, punch out — it was like an apocalyptic story problem.
I knew what was happening. I knew I was out of control. I knew I was helpless in the grip of it, and I also knew it would pass.
I got up and left the computer. With my partner, I was able to calm down enough to find language, and talk about it, which helped. Then I ate a big meal. Then I took some music into a quiet part of the house where I wouldn’t be disturbed and danced.
When I went back for my second shift, I looked again, and this time I saw. I knew what my mistake was. It all made sense. I see where I punched in, ran out of work, punched out again. It’s rational, it’s real, it’s verifiable. I’m not crazy. It’s all okay. I know what to do to fix it, but it’s 10:30 in the morning of the next day now and I still haven’t done so. I will. I know I can. But first I wanted to write this and go swimming. I feel a little like I got run over by a truck yesterday, and I still need some recovery time.
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This is an experience of PTSD behind the label. What I’m trying to do with this week’s post is remind myself and everyone else that labels are cold, dead things that convey intellectual ideas and information. They can be useful, but they’re limited. Behind every label we use, apply or accept, there’s human experience and feelings, and they’re real, visceral, passionate, complex and sometimes painful, even though they may be invisible to an outside eye.
I know PTSD is only a small part of who I am, a mere fraction, a little hairline crack. It’s there. I’ll own it, but I don’t have to allow it to limit me.