Finding the Breath, Finding Myself

Written by a junior in a dual BA program between Columbia University and Sciences Po and a 2017 Padua Alumna, Maya Shenoy

89114050_2490238674521465_7542476490382770176_nIn 2018, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an abusive partner. In addition, my abuser employed various strategies of control such as: kicking me out of our shared apartment in an unsafe neighborhood late at night, emotionally berating me, psychological manipulation, and public degradation. After my partner left me, I first felt everything: sobbing uncontrollably and forgetting to eat in my misery. I lost 15 pounds in the first two weeks after I was dumped. But soon, I noticed a shift that was more disturbing and unsettling than the initial flood of emotions: an acute sense of emptiness.

It took many months to explain how I was so deeply detached from the trauma this experience caused me. When I was finally diagnosed with PTSD I found myself scoffing. The ordeal I had been through, while painful, was not uncommon: plenty of my friends had survived terrible partners and seemingly retained their humanity. It was my own fault for being overly dramatic about this breakup with my first boyfriend. However, as time passed, the disease robbed me of something fundamental to my grounding in the world: my sense of self. I use this term in the physiological and psychological senses: I was both unable to feel myself being present in any situation, and I was further blocked from viewing myself in any type of positive light.

When I pictured myself, I felt an overwhelming feeling of revulsion and fear. When I was in social situations I was unable to experience comfort; my body acclimated to being on extreme alert at all times and I would quickly snap into being angry or fearful as a response to any stimulus. This constant resting state of fight flight or freeze would then contribute to my already negative self perception by proving my toxic beliefs about myself: I was a bad person because I reacted in inappropriate ways. This was not the person I had been before. I feared I would see that person again.

My life and health were profoundly changed by the integration of meditation into my life. My therapist recommended meditation to me as a means of coping better with my attention deficit disorder (ADD), and while this has been an invaluable tool in managing that aspect of my life, its ability to return me to my body has been its most important contribution to my daily wellbeing. Using meditation, particularly loving kindness meditation, was at first uncomfortable – almost itchy. There was something deeply uncomfortable about saying nice things to myself and believing them. Some days, it would make me jittery and I would squirm my way through a ten minute practice. With time, however, the practice of loving kindness forced me to put love out into the world and wish the best for those I loved. I had to send love and wishes of wellbeing to myself, then others I loved, and the world. This practice, of externalizing my ability to love others- particularly my friends, allowed me to gradually bring myself into the fold of people I loved.

However, this practice would have been empty without my ability to regain control over my life and responses to stimuli. Before this particular relationship, I had been a generally kind and passionate person. In its aftermath, I found myself to be the exact opposite: detached and angry, particularly towards those who loved me. I could only react to shows of care or interest in my wellbeing with vicious reticence. This stemmed from the psychological betrayal of having a partner treat me with cruelty, but at the time it truly felt like I was a mean and vicious person.

Meditation was, in this case, the antidote to my inability to be present. Keeping with the breath was a crucial tool in reducing the physiological symptoms of being in a state of anxiety. My body physically slowed down. I was able to be present with my body, feel my heart beating and my chest rising and falling. This change was the first in many steps to learning how to be emotionally present. At first, all human interaction was incredibly stress inducing and thus triggered a survival response. With meditation, I was able to slowly process these situations and forgive myself for past reactions. Eventually, I was able to build up to being mindful in the moment and, after months of daily practice, I was able to react to situations with the kindness I had so strongly associated with before my trauma.

It has been almost two years now since the end of that relationship. In that time, I have regained a sense of presence in the world and love for myself. The process of rebuilding these feelings was gradual and often made me uncomfortable, but if I have learned anything about the practice of meditation it is this: it is not meant to be easy. There is no state of nirvana that meditators have over those who don’t practice: we have not reached enlightenment. We continually grapple with the trials of being human. However, meditation has given me a power which I value immensely: control over my perception. I am able to control my perceptions of anxiety, time, and myself. It is far easier to prevent myself from spiralling into dangerous territory when I am aware of where it is going. For this reason, I am incredibly grateful to meditation for returning me to my body and allowing me to cherish being in that place.

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