I Aced the Test! Part 3: The COWs are out to pasture

abuse, ptsd, trauma

Disclaimer: Growing up in the Midwest, I never encountered any actual stories/incidents of cow-tipping. But my god, I wish I had.

In 1959, Carl Rogers coined the acronym “COWs,” or Conditions of Worth. According to the man himself:

“The self-structure is characterized by a condition of worth when a self-experience or set of related self-experiences is either avoided or sought solely because the individual discriminates it as being less or more worthy of self-regard. … A condition of worth arises when the positive regard of a significant other is conditional, when the individual feels that in some respects he is prized and in others not. Gradually this same attitude is assimilated into his own self-regard complex, and he values an experience positively or negatively solely because of these conditions of worth which he has taken over from others, not because the experience enhances or fails to enhance his organism.” *

TL;DR: We crave unconditional positive regard from our caregivers pretty much from the get-go (example: “I will love you no matter what”). Unfortunately, a lot of times, you end up with a child receiving the message (whether overtly or through subtext) “I love you if/when you ___” and/or “You’re bad/undeserving of love/etc. if you [insert thing that caregiver/person of influence has determined is bad].”

That’s radically different than the message of “I love you, you’re safe, I’ll take care of you” that we instinctively need. Again, the pleasure principle applies: We’re hardwired to gravitate toward what feels good and avoid what feels bad. 

Ironically, it’s the uncomfortable things that stick in our minds. Think about a time you received a critique at work or got into a fight with a loved one. When you think about that day, what do you remember most–the critique/fight or everything else you did within that 24-hour span?

That negative little voice in your head–whose is it? A parent? A friend? A romantic partner? …

Yourself?

This is where core beliefs come into play, but that is an entirely different discussion for another day. In the meantime, take a look at this worksheet for more info on core beliefs and how to identify yours.

This is one of the reasons why those pesky ACEs are so persistent, even years later. We may be designed to move toward the comfortable, toward stasis, and yet we’re awesome at making ourselves miserable.

The next post in this series will focus on the biology of chronic stress and how ACEs can be a risk factor for certain illnesses. In the meantime, readers, take a moment to reflect on the following questions about your own inner monologue/critic. 

 

* Rogers C (1959) ‘A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, As Developed in the Client-Centered Framework’, in Koch S (ed) (1959)

I aced the quiz! Part Two: That face.

abuse, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, trauma

Okay, so now that we know what ACEs are, let’s get a little more personal.

To begin, I’d like to share with you two pictures from my childhood.

 

Are these the same child?

Yes.

In the photo on the left, I am dolled up and mugging for the camera. I’m not sure who took me to get my photo taken that day (probably at Sears). If it was my biological mother, she was having an exceptionally good day. The reality is that one of my aunts probably arranged the whole thing. But I look happy, round-cheeked, grinning at the camera with a twinkle in my eyes.

In the photo on the right, taken roughly a year and change after the first, I am posing for my kindergarten photo. I was grumpy partly because of that damn cowlick, but also because my home life had basically gone to hell in a handbasket in the space of a year. My mother was drinking again, heavily. She would often leave me alone in the house at night to go out to bars. One of my earliest memories is waking up alone and wandering through the darkened house. I walked outside and paced the sidewalks for what felt like hours, watching as the lights in the houses lining the street flickered off, one by one by one.

Readers, that is the loneliest I have ever felt in my life.

If we ignore the backstory and focus only on the images (lighting and photo quality aside), what remains is this: The girl on the right has lost all the baby fat from her cheeks. Her eyes are huge, dark, and sunken. She is trying to smile but her teeth are gritted. She does not look at the camera, but rather past it, as if trying to see something in the distance. You know, that old chestnut–the Thousand Yard Stare.  Still a very pretty child, but not the type of kid you’d look at and go, “Oh, yeah, she’s doing well.”

Chronic stress changes the body in a myriad of different ways. I’ll touch on the biology of chronic stress (behavioral medicine is a fascination of mine) in the next post, but for now, let’s focus on face.

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. If we peeked through your windows, what might we find? I’m looking forward to hearing from you, readers!

 

I aced the quiz! Part One: Know thy enemy.

abuse, personal experiences, ptsd, therapy, trauma

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. I am a licensed therapist, but I am not your therapist. 

I ACEd the quiz! Tongue firmly in cheek, of course. There is no quiz, but today I would like to touch on trauma and its physical effects–hence the reference to ACES, or the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale.

As any even casual reader of the blog knows, trauma is kind of My Jam. I love working with clients who are struggling with the same core issues I struggled with the first 20+ years of my life. I knew that was going to be bailiwick from the time I started therapy myself, at 18, but I didn’t really do much with it until I entered grad school and suddenly had to write a thousand different papers (that were not centered around arguing whether the box of money in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is actually a box of shit. Look it up. It’ll change your life).

When I got my very first assignment, my brain went “PING!” and told me trauma was the area to hit. It’s a touchy area, for sure. Go too fast, and you risk re-traumatizing your client and damaging rapport. Go too slowly, and your client will stagnate. It’s like a dance.

The ACES study began in an obesity clinic in 1985, believe it or not. Physicians were interested in figuring out why people kept dropping out of their weight loss program; long story short, they developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale and administered it to their patients. The results were unprecedented: they uncovered a link between childhood trauma and struggles with controlling their weight later in life. 

I’d love to wax poetic about the biology of chronic stress and implications for adulthood, but that needs its own post.

On to the significance of ACEs. The instrument itself is simple–ten self-report items, scored either “0” or “1.” I’ve re-typed it here for the sake of your eyes, but you can see the original and lots of great info on acestoohigh.com.

To avoid inadvertently triggering readers, I’m going to put the actual scale underneath this spoiler tag, as the questions do involve all forms of child abuse.

On This, The Eve of My Thirtieth Birthday

abuse, Authoress, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

“The Big Three-Oh.”

“Everything will be different in your thirties,” they said. My aunt did not even get out of bed on her thirtieth birthday, feeling that the last of her youth had been sapped from her, that her life had become one gigantic downward spiral.

For every count of “Life ends after 29 because you’re old now,” I’ve heard “Life gets even better after thirty.” So where am I now? How should I feel? How do I feel?

I’m still working that out. What I can say is that every single birthday comes as a surprise to me. One of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder is this vague sense that you’re not going to live a particularly long time. For me, sixteen was when it started–my “sweet sixteen” (which was decidedly not sweet) was a total shock, not because I actively wanted to die or felt that my life was in danger, but because I had never conceived of a future where I would live past the age of ten, twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-six.

I often feel as though my story lacks the poignance of, say, a young woman who beat childhood leukemia and views each new year as a gift. Lots of bad things happened in my childhood and adolescence, point-blank-period. Were there times when I thought I might physically die? Yes, of course. But mostly, the first twenty-odd years of my life were marked by a free-floating sense of existential despair, the all-encompassing question of “where am I in the world and what am I doing with my time?” coloring every significant moment.

A person can get used to just about anything if they have to.

When I was seven-going-on-eight, my birth mother tried to kill my grandmother (who, to me, is “Mom”). I was in the house at the time and I heard everything. The whole awful night became one disastrous blur and it’s still hard to suss out all the specifics, even after multiple rounds of EMDR.

But the end result is clear: from that moment on, I was no longer a child. I was damned to live this strange half-life full of anxiety over something happening to Mom, because she was so old and frail already and had almost died once, right in front of me. As a child, I tortured myself when I awoke in the middle of the night, anxiously counting her breaths, watching the rise and fall of her sleeping chest and taking it not as an affirmation but as a question: what if the next breath never comes? As I grew older, that particular fear turned into the fear of something bad happening, period.

What if, what if, what if. Always waiting for that other shoe to drop.

I’d already gotten used to living with this sense of being just a brain floating a few feet above a body, like a balloon being dragged along by an eager child. At eight, I was already detached emotionally from my surroundings. My birthday party that year was small. The year before, photos of my party overflowed with laughing children and bright colors. Eight was different for me. Most of my friends had jumped ship; having a violent alcoholic for a birth parent does wonders to shrink one’s circle of friends, especially when said birth parent goes to actual-prison-not-jail for a couple of years.

So, eight was surreal in the way that thirteen was surreal in the way that twenty-two was surreal. I didn’t have many parties. I don’t really “celebrate” my birthday in any traditional sense, though I’ve made it my custom to take the day off from whatever I have planned and spend that time in quiet contemplation. Or indulgence.

During these times, I wonder at the fact that I am still alive and breathing. This year, I am especially in awe that I am married to a good man and attending a good school and living what is, on paper and in practice, a good life. This year, I am going to be especially self-indulgent: I have plans to make a blanket fort and drink some good wine and snuggle with my fella and our cats.

But I always remember. How could I not? I think back to those old wounds, of handing out birthday party invitations and later seeing them left, trampled, on the ground next to the swing set or stuffed haphazardly into the trash can. I think about all the wonderful things I have now, the wonderful life and the wonderful people in them, and I marvel at the vast improbability of it all.

I am still here.

I am turning thirty, the Big Three-Oh.

I am alive. I am living.

And I am incredibly lucky.

Recap of My (Roaring) Twenties:

At age 21, I got married for the first time. It was a colossal mistake and the entire marriage was plagued by ugly fights and all manner of unpleasant things. I prefer not to think or talk about it because it occupied such a large part of my twenties that I don’t believe it deserves any more air time.

At age 24, I separated from my ex-husband officially, though we hadn’t had any semblance of a proper relationship in a long time. This was the big turning point–I realized that I had nothing left to lose and decided to go to graduate school to pursue counseling, as I’d always had an interest in psychology but had been scared away from the bachelor’s degree program because of statistics. (Numbers are bad.)

26 was a big year for me. I met my husband a few weeks shy of my 26th birthday, got accepted to a graduate program in Madison, and moved into my own place. The divorce was finally finalized that year as well. Be warned, readers–it is easy to get into a marriage but incredibly difficult to (legally) get out of one!

At 27, I moved down to Baltimore with my now-husband. I got accepted to A Very Prestigious School and began my graduate work in earnest. That Thanksgiving, we got engaged on a rooftop in Boston and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I cried. (Of course I cried!)

28 was more of the same–dragging myself through school, putting in the time, taking as many courses as I could so I wouldn’t have to deal with classes during my official internship. I began my practicum, which is basically baby-internship. While I had previously thought I’d never want to work with substance use, I quickly found that the challenges and chaos of working with a dually-diagnosed population, many of whom are indigent, is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

At 29, I officially began my internship as a mental health therapist. Every day, I fall more in love with the field.

I also got married in October! It was a small wedding and drew from my husband’s Jewish culture. We got married under a chuppah, he slaughtered a lightbulb, we signed a ketubah, and we danced. Oh, how we danced. He taught me a very simple quickstep to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and I somehow managed not to embarrass myself. The fact that he taught me to dance at all is remarkable and not unlike teaching a dog to walk on its hind legs.

We should be getting our video soon, and I am very excited to see how awkward I looked on camera. At the moment, I Did. Not. Care. All I felt that day was love–love from my husband, love from our family and friends, and love from myself. My god, the love! There was so much of it in that room, and I had never imagined my heart could be so full that at times, it felt close to bursting.

The morning of the wedding was very strange for me. The Tree of Life massacre occurred on the morning of October 27, 2018, and we were watching the news while I was getting pampered and prettied-up for the wedding when the story came on. It occurred to me how small and fragile the world is in that moment, as I watched coverage of terrible anti-Semitic violence while I prepared to marry a Jewish man in a ceremony that incorporated Jewish traditions.

I celebrated Hanukkah for the first time last December, and it was a very solemn affair. Every night, as we lit the menorah in our kitchen and my husband said the blessing, I remembered the horrible thing that had been done. I cried, and then I felt that I had no right to cry, and then I realized I was crying because the world as a whole had started to feel very dark and frightening around the time of the 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself unflappable and quasi-invincible up until that point, when I was forced to face the vast and senseless cruelty of the universe.

But I remember every day, dear readers, that while humans are capable of astonishing cruelty, they are also capable of profound kindness and mercy and joy. Every day, I stubbornly choose joy.

 

We need to talk about “Dork Diaries.”

stigma

Dear readers,

I have not been this angry and unsettled about a piece of pop culture since the Fear VR: 5150 Knotts Berry Farm debacle of September 2016. This afternoon, I happened upon a post made by one of my Facebook friends regarding a book series called “Dork Diaries,” which is aimed at children (particularly girls) aged 8 to 14. The protagonist is a 14-year-old girl named Nikki Maxwell and her life as a middle schooler.

Before I get into the meat-and-potatoes of this post, I want to warn you that the following images contain extremely discriminatory language that some readers may find upsetting. All images were provided via a good friend of mine on Facebook who is also a mental health advocate and fights like hell against the stigma. I respect her deeply and am grateful to her for bringing this to my attention.

Below is the first image I saw regarding this series. 

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Let me begin by stating that I have not read any of the books in their entirety and had no idea they even existed until just a few hours ago. I also hate that by writing this post, I am giving this author more attention. However, I cannot let this issue go unaddressed for a number of reasons. For the sake of brevity, I’ve made a list:

 

  • Stigmatizing language hurts all of us, and we need to knock it off. Seriously
  • The age range AND gender at which the books are targeted is highly disturbing, given the nature of the content. I’m not talking about the whole “celebrities being seen without panties but not phones” bit that many reviewers have cited as problematic.  

 

 

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I’m talking specifically about the use of phrases such as “totally SCHIZOID!” etc. to describe the narrator’s peers. (I am also not 100% sure what the author means by “acting schizoid,” and I don’t think she does, either.)

40330498_10216748852731163_320372468285964288_n

Dropping “RETARD” (please note the caps), even as a self-descriptor, is unacceptable. Come on, people. I thought we were better than this. The sad part is, the author could have gotten rid of the problematic language without negatively affecting the rest of the content. Cutting it would have actually made the book better. I’m wondering where the editor was in this process, if there even was one. I’m wondering why we still live in a world where this kind of thing manages to slip by largely uncontested.

 

  • Where did the narrator (a 14-year-old girl) learn this language? Why does she think it’s okay to casually throw around such hateful, derogatory terms? Why isn’t this addressed in the book? And more importantly, why did the author think it was okay to write this in a children’s book without any sort of disclaimer?

Kids don’t come up with “you’re trash because X/Y/Z” on their own. They hear it from somewhere else, accompanied by the implication that it’s acceptable to dehumanize others for being different and perpetuate that toxicity ad infinitum. And this is a powerful reminder that none of us exist in a vacuum.

We can’t bubble-wrap our children, nor should we. There will always be bullies. There will always be stigma. But what we can do–what we must do–is educate ourselves and our children about the glorious range of people who share this planet with us. We must teach them accountability and respect. We must teach them that they are okay just the way they are and that the limitless expanse of diversity makes the world a far more beautiful, interesting, and magical place to live.

I am not in favor of censorship. What I am in favor of is self-awareness and recognizing when you’re about to fly off the rails and discriminate against an entire group of people in one broad stroke. Anyone who steps into the public eye has a duty to ensure that they are not causing harm to others. Context is also important. While this type of language would be a bit unsettling in a book written for adults (though I would take less issue with it given the audience and their assumed level of maturity and awareness), it is absolutely disturbing when it appears in a book written for children.

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As a writer, an advocate, and a budding therapist, this sickens me. It’s lazy writing designed for shock value, to laugh at and “other” people who are living with mental illnesses and disabilities. Rachel Renée Russell’s writing is irresponsible at best, though I would go so far as to describe it as dangerous because these attitudes are dangerous. These attitudes have gotten people killed.

The one silver lining I can see is that a parent could pre-read the book, then use it as a jumping-off point for a discussion with their child (or children) about why such language is hurtful and not okay to use when describing another living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being.

Here’s an easy way to tell if you’re about to say something awful about another person. Take whatever adjective you were going to use–let’s say “schizoid,” for the sake of continuity–and replace that word with a group that has been historically discriminated against (but that society has collectively acknowledged was abused, stigmatized, and worse).

For example, the above passage would read “OMG! MacKenzie was acting totally JEWISH.” [Or “Black.” Or literally any other group that, when used as an adjective in a negative context, would make you look like a terrible person.]

That sounds bad, right? Does it make you feel really gross? It should. We may think we’ve conquered racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, all the other -isms…but we haven’t. We’ve barely even addressed them. All we’ve done is move on to another scapegoat, another bogeyman, another substitute that is slightly more socially acceptable but still conveys the level of disdain as older, more taboo slurs and epithets.

And what about the kids reading it who happen to have any of the conditions Russell has singled out in her books as targets of derision and malice? What happens when a child who has some form of mental illness or disability? How is a parent supposed to help heal the damage done when the hatred is right there in black and white for the child to see? The message sent by these books is that it’s acceptable to make people feel less-than because of something they cannot control.

And readers, you should never let anyone make you feel like less than you are, period. You are beautiful. Your brain is beautiful. You are strong. And we all deserve better than this.

With love,

One of those so-called mentally ill “weirdoes”

— J

 

Shouting “STOP!” in retrospect (content warning: rape)

a cure for what ails you, abuse, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships, therapy

Hey readers!

I had a great, if intense, EMDR session this afternoon. I’ve mentioned X a few times before, especially in my last post, and he was the subject of today’s sessions.

I’ve mentioned before, in very vague terms, that I have a long history of sexual abuse. Those of you who have listened to the RISK! episode have heard me say it directly: I never talk about it. I’ve been to literally a dozen other therapists in the last eleven years, but due to insurance issues or money in general or whatever, I was never able to see a single counselor for more than a few sessions.

As a result, I am extremely uncomfortable discussing any of the rape-and-what-have-you in anything less than broad terms. I can vividly describe everything else–the physical and emotional abuse, what it did to me psychologically, how the effects have rippled through time and still mess with me to this day. But if you sit me down and ask me to tell you exactly what happened, to describe it? Then I clam up and can’t even say the word “sex” without looking at the floor.

I had to do that today. I had to lay out the details of a memory that I very recently had a flashback about. I had to describe how we were positioned, to talk about that rolltop desk and how I used to lean into it and stay absolutely silent because I knew if I made a sound or asked him to stop, he’d be angry. And when you’re in abuse-victim-survival-mode, avoiding that anger is pretty much all you think about. I just had to get through that moment and then things might be better. (This is called “conditional assumption” or “deferred happiness” and is extremely common in abusive relationships.)

I want to pause to make an important distinction here, since we are talking about rape and consent–by “had to,” I mean that my therapist (who we’ll call S from now on) invited me to talk about my flashback in very general terms: “Can you tell me what the flashback was about?” She never probed for details, and her sensitivity was much appreciated.

We began by identifying my negative false belief: He is raping me and hurting me but I’m not saying anything because “I don’t matter. I have to do this.”

She asked me, as is typical by now, to rate how disturbing I found that belief while I was thinking about the scene I’d described. Then, she asked what I’d like to replace that belief was (and how believable it was to me as I was sitting in her office, pre-EMDR). This is what I replaced that thought with: “I do matter, and I don’t have to do this.”

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I prefer to use the hand buzzers for EMDR–I’m migraine-prone so the lights don’t work well, and because I have that thing where sudden and/or loud sounds in my left ear trigger an uptick in the dissociation. So, I relaxed (as much as I could) into the couch, a buzzer in each hand, and willingly stepped back into that moment.

It was like entering a time capsule. I was disturbed and amazed at how easily I could reenter the memory. I saw myself, leaned against that desk, slipping my fingers, one at a time, into the grooves in the wood as a distraction. My abuser–my rapist–was not there, only a strange, smooth grey nothingness behind me. It was like my mind wasn’t even going to let me go there, to see his face. I’m actually grateful for that. I imagine my mind saying, “Okay, so you have to relive this a little so you can rewrite it and feel better, but you do not need to see his face. I’ve got your back.”

I was standing in the corner of my bedroom, just at the foot of my bed, and looking across at that girl by the desk, that girl who was me-and-not-me. I saw our dresser. I saw the window–the light outside was, as in most of my memories of X, a strange grey-blue that could have been dawn, dusk, or midnight. In my memories, it is often all three.

S. stopped the buzzers and had me draw a deep breath, as is our custom by now. She asked what I saw, how I felt. Then we started the second round.

This time, the details were clearer–the way the yellow light cast shadows at the corner of the desk, the frayed edges of the area rug behind the dresser. I began to feel angry. I wanted to scream at him to get off her, to let this girl–this child–go. To stop filling her head with bullshit and lies.

I was 18. I’m 29 now. Looking back, I was a baby. I was coming out of this intense childhood full of abuse and anxiety and no one had taught me what a relationship was supposed to look like. The only relationships I saw were dysfunctional ones; later in life, I sought out and clung to what was familiar to me. Unfortunately, what was familiar was also rape-y and weird, which are two words that could pretty accurately sum up my life from ages 17 to 19.

I told S. about my anger. We chatted for a few minutes to decompress, then jumped back in.

This time, I was furious. I was screaming at him, telling him that I am a human being, not something to masturbate into and that I do matter. That I don’t need to perform for anyone. That I am not a dog that does tricks and licks its owner’s boot even after being kicked. 

That my body is mine, and that my ownership means something.

By the end of the session, I found the false belief, the “I don’t matter and I have to do this,” disturbing for a different reason. I find it disturbing that I ever felt that way. And above all, I find it disturbing that another human being was not only capable of doing that to me, but that he enjoyed it.

We’re going to pick up again next Monday. In the meantime, S. told me to keep yelling at him in my head. I left her office with a smile.

You know how in Dogma, Alanis Morissette plays God and absolutely destroys Bartleby with her voice? That’s how the scene with X is going to play out in my head from now on. I’m also picturing the final stanza of “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

I am wishing you a wonderful week filled with ferocity, dear readers! Y’all come back, now, y’hear?

Reclaiming my body, or: ¡Viva la Revolución!

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, dissociation, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

Sometimes, EMDR can take a while.

This week, my therapist and I tried to pin down a common theme in some of my more disturbing memories of X. We essentially started freestyling at each other, throwing out possibilities and ultimately ending up…pretty stumped. She thinks it all goes back to what she calls “the rabbit hole”–dysfunctional patterns with my mother and my other relatives that began when I was a child and are coloring how I interact with the world even now, twenty-odd years later. We also had a really great conversation about body autonomy and ownership, and how I’ve been seeing myself as a commodity for so long and “going along to get along” for pretty much my entire life.

My existence has been defined by one thing: the need to protect myself at all times, to defuse all the bombs, to take all the right steps so I don’t fall into a crack or a lava pit or inadvertently provoke someone else’s rage. I make myself as pleasant and agreeable as possible because I grew up learning that rocking the boat meant someone screaming in your face.

I am a nice person, yes. The whole thing isn’t fake or some survival mechanism from long ago. I don’t see a reason to be unkind to people, when giving a stranger a compliment takes less time and brightens someone’s day. But I am gentle with others because I am so often afraid. As a child, survival meant being quiet, being kind; never confronting, never correcting.

My therapist and I have also spent the last few weeks working with my deep-seated body image issues. It’s a topic I don’t often talk (or write) about because there’s a mountain of shame that comes with it. However, I try to be transparent in my posts and other communication with you, readers, so let me bring you up to date.

My family-of-origin is weird in a bunch of ways. Even if you’re relatively new to the blog, you’re probably aware of this. But one of the most pervasive and insidious messages I received as a child was that my stomach was ugly and needed to constantly be “held in.” You know, like how you sometimes suck in a bit to zip up a new pair of jeans? Like that, except all the time.

Long story short, we were at Disney World when I was nine or ten and was wearing this cute little biker-shorts-and-crop-top deal, neon green and black. I thought I looked so cool with my white bucket hat, despite the fact that it was 95 degrees and I was wearing, well, a bucket hat. We were posing for a picture in front of some palm trees and one of the relatives who’d brought me on the trip poked my stomach and said, “Suck that in.”

Again: I was, like, nine or ten when this happened.

And I had been holding in my “gut” every day for the next twenty years. I was terrified to let anyone see me not “holding it in.” Even as a 90-lb freshman in high school, I still held it in. I was terrified of sleepovers–with friends in school, and with lovers later in life–because I knew I would not have complete control of my body and what it looked like while I slept.

It took two long, very difficult EMDR sessions, a ton of self-care, and lots of encouragement and positive feedback from my fella, but I am slowly letting go of the compulsion to suck in my stomach at all times. As I write this, I’m slouched over like an overstuffed possum* (thanks to our wedding food tasting this weekend!) and I do not care. I know no one here is going to judge me. I am comfortable that I am not some hideous trog if I’m not pretending like I don’t have organs in my abdominal cavity.

The way I view my body changes from day to day, of course, but the last week has felt effortless.

But this is only the first step. My body has never been truly my own. Over the course of my life, I have allowed others to pick at me like gulls on a whale carcass: this one takes my body but nothing else–they use my flesh and forget that I am human. That one only likes me when I’m not sad. This person takes for granted that I will always forgive them. And it goes on and on, the give-and-take-but-mostly-take that made up all but the last three or four years of my life.

Think about that for a moment. Twenty-five years of feeling vaguely “other” in my body, like I was driving a leased car. Mine, but not really mine.

And I have allowed–even willingly participated in–this parceling-out of me, of my body, of my mind, of my experiences. I have done this because submission means safety. If I don’t really care either way, I’ve long said, what does it hurt? Why not let someone else make the decision? Why even bother giving an opinion, if it will make this person happy?

It’s funny that I am just now realizing how dysfunctional this mindset is. Having those thoughts on occasion is natural. Having those thoughts form the basis for every interaction you have with another human being is probably not the healthiest way to go about this whole “life” thing.

Those patterns are why it’s so scary to have finally found a partner who wants all of it at once–even the parts of myself I find the ugliest and most shameful. I am learning that it’s okay to express my opinions, even if I’m not 100% sure the other person shares them. Wedding planning has, on the whole, been full of great opportunities for me to test out the whole “assertiveness” thing without the stakes being too high. For the first time in my life, I feel safe disagreeing with my partner because I know it will not immediately lead to a breakup or abuse.

So, my assignment moving forward is to nurture myself, to keep being me, to keep doing the things I enjoy without worrying so damn much about how it’s going to look or who’s going to judge me. I’ve been doing this, to some extent, for a while (my guy and a certain friend can attest to me publicly howling and barking like a dog through a bronze metal sculpture last summer). I vowed last year to make absurdity common in my life and to ask “Why not?” more often than “Why?” when thinking about doing something. I want to be freer. I want to feel that my body is my own. And most importantly, I want to keep being stable and happy.

Now that you know a bit more of my tragic backstory, readers, how many links have you been able to make between your early childhood experiences and the person you are today?

* This guy right here:

possum-150200

We came home from the tasting and just kinda slouched on the couch like this while the cats prowled hungrily, begging for leftovers.

 

Hormones got me like…

a cure for what ails you, bipolar disorder, endometriosis, medication, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, Uncategorized

I had laparoscopic excision surgery earlier this month for endometriosis. It was loooong overdue and my surgeon was excellent, which means no more pain! Seriously, I haven’t had a single day without some form of pelvic pain or muscle tension in years, so this is incredible.

Anyway, he popped the hood and did a bunch of stuff. In addition to removing sheets of scar tissue that had formed after my last (unsuccessful) surgery seven years ago, he placed a Mirena IUD. I was always scared of having one placed because I’d heard it was so painful, but he assured me that he could do it while I was 100% out. And readers, I feel great and am so glad I did it!

I’d been on a pretty heavy dose of Megace for about a year and a half. Megace is a heavy hitter and is one of the strongest progesterone medications out there. It’s not really meant to be taken long-term, but the gynecologist who prescribed it back in the day didn’t tell me that. She also failed to mention that it wouldn’t actually treat my endometriosis–it just stopped my periods. I mean, that’s great and all, but I was under the illusion that I was actually treating it. Instead, I was just building up some heckin’ heavy uterine lining that my surgeon had to scrape out. Ew.

I stopped the Megace cold-turkey a few days before my surgery, with the blessing of my endocrinologist. (I have a lot of health stuff going on in addition to the bipolar disorder.) He ran a fasting cortisol panel to make sure the Megace wasn’t destroying my adrenal glands. Everything came back totally normal, so boom, no more Megace. And hello, Mirena!

But, as we all know, hormonal shifts can have huge implications for people with mood disorders. My bipolar disorder has been amazingly stable for years–you all may recall way back in the day when I was first diagnosed (2013!). I’d been on more or less the exact same doses of medication since then, with minor adjustments to my lithium and a change in the type of antidepressant (from SSRI to SNRI) when I first started taking meds. It’s pretty rare for a patient to not have adjustments within a five-year period, but I was one of the lucky ones.

I saw my psychiatrist yesterday and mentioned a few things I’ve noticed–tiny bits of hypomania peeking through and depression where it shouldn’t be. Fortunately, I’ve been very tuned-in to my body and my moods for years because I have to be in order to stay healthy and sane. Being in the mental health field has also helped, because I now have more precise language to describe what’s going on with my moods. My psychiatrist, who I initially had doubts about, has been pretty awesome the last few times and worked with me to determine what meds to adjust and how much. She seems to get that she has the medical knowledge and I have the experiential knowledge, so together, we’re a treatment powerhouse.

I’ve been sleeping a lot more than usual lately and my appetite has been really weird–up one day, then down for a couple days, and so on. I slept thirteen hours the other night and eleven-and-a-half last night. I would have slept later today, but the cats were staring at me when I woke up from my third alarm and I needed to get up and feed them. Groan.

Here are my current meds, for anyone who’s interested. Please bear in mind that these are my doses and that your needs may be different (either a little or a lot!). As always, work with your doctors and make sure everyone’s in the know, especially if you see a few different specialists regularly like I do. They’re part of your wellness team, so make sure they’re up to date!

I’ve dropped the 60mg of Megace and also my 5mcg of liothyronine (a T3 thyroid medication) so far this year! My current regimen sounds like a lot, but it’s actually the smallest amount of meds I’ve taken in years. Here we go!

  • 400mg lamotrigine/Lamictal
  • 88mcg levothyroxine (T4 thyroid medication)
  • 600mg lithium
  • 112.5mg venlafaxine/Effexor

And that’s it! No more birth control pills because Mirena’s got my back. Now that I’ve more or less adjusted (a few aches and pains similar to what I remember PMS being like) to it, I’m feeling pretty good. I still have some residual pelvic achiness from time to time, but my surgery was less than a month ago and things are still healing internally.

How are your meds going, readers? Or are some of you fighting the good fight without them? Summer can be rough for a lot of us mood-wise–hypomania and mania tend to spike, so we have to be extra vigilant. Let me know how you’re doing in the comments!

 

How to feel feelings

abuse, anxiety, personal experiences, ptsd, relationships

It occurred to me the other day that I do not give myself permission to experience the full range of human emotions. In fact, I don’t think I ever have.

As a child, I learned that expressing anger, frustration, or sadness in a visible way (tears, lashing out in age-appropriate ways, and so on) meant being yelled at, often brutally. The yelling often came with personal attacks–most frequently, the dreaded “You’re just like your mother!” Since everyone in the family was quite vocal about their dislike of my mother, that phrase packed a particularly potent emotional wallop, especially for a child not even near the cusp of adolescence.

Later, when I was dating X in my late teens, I was met with the same type of response, although more overt emotional and psychological abuse was the result (and occasionally, the abuse also carried a more tangible element).

I am often described as even-tempered and “sweet.” While I do my best to be kind to others because the world is already a brutal enough place without me adding to it and want to be liked more than almost anything, these traits are due in no small part to my early experiences with learning to stifle my less-desirable emotions.

Earlier this week, I had an evening where I was feeling particularly testy–my post-surgical pain from May 4th was giving me trouble, and Sunday was Mother’s Day, which is always a rough day for me for obvious reasons. I also had an IUD implanted during my surgery earlier this month, so my hormones are in major flux right now.

I remember responding to my fella in ways that I considered “snappish,” though he has since disagreed–I tend to think the worst of myself and perceive myself as ruder or more hurtful than I probably am. Anyway, the end result was that I got massively depressed and disappointed with myself because he is wonderful and does not deserve to be hurt.

I’ve learned since that one of the after effects of being abused is the overwhelming fear that you’re being abusive to your current partner–after all, we constantly hear about the cycle of abuse and how abuse survivors often become abusers themselves. When that fear collides with my already harsh self-evaluation and my tendency to worry about my partner’s well being and satisfaction with our relationship, it creates one hell of an emotional mess.

My guy has been fantastic with comforting me when I cry–because the tears are rarely just about me being snappy and feeling guilty–and reassuring me that it’s okay, that we’re okay. I don’t often snap at others, so when I do, I feel godawful because it’s not the norm. And I’ve been doing extra little things to be thoughtful to soothe myself (and because I genuinely enjoy spoiling him).

Yesterday, I spent most of the afternoon baking a giant chocolate layer cake with Swiss meringue and homemade cream cheese frosting–all from scratch. It was delightful because it kept me occupied–I love baking–and I got to practice a few new skills (piping and making meringue!).

One goal for myself, which I will share with my therapist on Monday, is to allow myself to experience the full range of emotions and not feel bad when I do. Obviously, I don’t want to become a raging monster, but I need to learn that it’s okay to be irritable from time to time and that it doesn’t make me a bad person. I certainly need to address the root cause when it happens, but I am allowed to have those feelings.

How are you with your own feelings, readers? Can you accept them for what they are, or do you place value judgments on them (like me)?

I wish you peace and, of course, sanity and happy thoughts as we sail into the weekend. As always, stay safe, readers!

On Vulnerability

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, memories, ptsd, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

There are so many words in the English language relating to innocence and vulnerability, and most of them can bring me way down if I’m not careful. They provoke some ancient anxiety that I’ve come to realize, with the help of my excellent therapist, are linked to what she calls my “wounded younger self.” (I was incredibly skeptical of inner child work at first, but it is incredibly effective and incredibly healing.)

“Little” is an adjective that, when paired with certain words that also remind me of innocence, usually messes me up emotionally. That’s the word that got under my skin tonight.

I’ve been feeling kind of “off” the last few days. I recently blocked my mother completely on my phone–including the second number I thought she’d deleted until she used it to contact me after I blocked the first number–and was treated to some really unsettling dreams on Monday and Tuesday night.

Monday’s main feature involved me skipping my grandmother’s birthday party because my mother was going to be there and I knew she’d be drunk. Tuesday’s late-night horror show involved a healthy helping of guilt because I was hiding from her (in a Target, of all places) while she wailed and lamented that she “couldn’t believe [I] didn’t want to talk to her.”

Naturally, this put me in a pretty weird headspace today. Wednesdays are my big clinical days and I do group as well as individual client work. As such, I generally store my feelings away to deal with later and do a pretty good job of not thinking about them at all during the day because I’m 100% focused on my clients. (Side note: I adore them, and I’m bummed that I’m leaving my practicum site in a few weeks!)

On the drive home from class this evening, though, those neglected feelings reared their ugly collective heads and roared.

The anxiety and guilt were so powerful that I considered just going to bed early and sleeping it off.

Instead, I took a shower.

I focused hard on those thoughts and attempted to get a good, cathartic cry in. Nothing happened.

I turned the focus to that wounded younger self I mentioned and took the opportunity to literally hug myself while I waited for the conditioner to work its magic on my decidedly unruly hair. I decided to speak aloud because I’m home alone most days during the week and hey, I knew the cat wouldn’t judge me. (Audibly, anyway.)

I told my younger self that it’s okay. I told her I love her and that I’m sorry she felt like no one could keep her safe. I told her that I’m going to do it. This changed into me speaking to whatever hypothetical future child I’ll end up having. I promised that child to take the best care of it I can and to make sure it never feels afraid or lonely.

And I cried. Instead of stifling it or trying to be tough, I gave myself over to it completely–ugly, wracking sobs. After a while, those sobs turned into relieved laughter that I’m sure sounded like I’d finally gone completely ’round the bend.

I think there’s something to be said for having a good cry.


On Monday, I spoke to my clients in group about the concept of “ghosts”–they had all shared some intense and profound stories about their deepest wounds, their secret shames, their most painful memories. I told them that while they can haunt you, they can’t physically hurt you. You can start to let go of them.

I led them in one of my new favorite exercises, which is “HA!” breathing. Basically, you take a deep breath and push that breath out while making a “HA!” sound. I opened the group with the exercise and invited them to imagine themselves yelling at someone or letting frustration out. I demonstrated (because I am not afraid to look silly anymore), and they loved it. After the big, intense sharing session, I led them in the exercise again, this time instructing them to imagine the “HA!” on the exhale as them blowing out part of their ghosts.

I’m glad it was a hit, and I encourage you all to try it, readers. Howling into the void or, as I called it, “therapeutic yelling,” is incredibly cathartic.