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.

 

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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.

 

Archaeology

a cure for what ails you, abuse, anxiety, dissociation, memories, ptsd, therapy

This afternoon, my therapist and I had planned to do some EMDR related to X, but we started talking about my birthday (which was last Tuesday, which means I survived another trip ’round the sun, which is excellent!) and the somewhat messed-up present my biological mother sent me.

I won’t go into details on the gift because details are irrelevant. The important part is, we started talking about The Night My Mother Tried to Kill My Grandmother™.

I’ve written (and spoken) about it pretty extensively before–or at least made reference to it–but the gist of it is, there was a huge argument that culminated in my (very drunk) mother assaulting my grandmother.

(There is a brief, yet potentially disturbing description of assault below, in white; please mouse over only if you are comfortable with and prepared to read it.)

My mother knocked my grandmother’s walker away.

Side note: My grandmother had broken her hip a few years before and was still having trouble getting around. Plus, she was around 73 years old by this point. My mother stood on my grandmother’s feet and punched her repeatedly in the face.

All of this was relayed to me, years later, by one of my aunts.

When it happened, I was seven years old.


At this point, you may be wondering why in god’s name I would want to go dredging that up. After all, memories are repressed for a reason, right?

Basically, we mapped out the first few years of my life and discovered that my grandmother was my strongest attachment figure, which is kind of a no-brainer. The woman was the one constant in my life. When I was four and she broke her hip shoveling snow and had to spend months in a rehabilitation facility, I was gutted. Sure, my great-aunt was around, and I loved her dearly, but she wasn’t my Grandma. She wasn’t my mom.

Side-side note: Anyone can be a mother, but not anyone can be a mom. Also, anyone can be your mom–it doesn’t matter whether they gave birth to you.

We’re finding that a lot of my anxiety–most notably my fear that something bad will happen to my fella or someone else I care about–stems from my overwhelming terror that on that night, my grandmother was going to die.

She didn’t, thankfully. But from that point on, I was a different child. True, unfettered happiness no long existed. It was tempered by a constant watchfulness, the fear that she would be taken from me again.

I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom for a year or so after that night. My grandmother, in her infinite wisdom, noted that there were two twin beds in her bedroom–she’d previously had them pushed together and was using the space in between as a quick place to stash her books, a flashlight, tissues, and so on. However, she cleared all of that out and I started sleeping down there, which helped.

A little.

There were many nights when I would wake from a dead sleep in a panic and watch her closely to make sure she was still breathing. More than once, I ran upstairs and woke my sleeping aunt in tears, afraid that my grandmother had died.


My therapist and I also think that this whole attachment thing is the reason I experience love (and most other positive emotions) cerebrally rather than in a true emotional sense. I can’t process those feelings anymore. It’s not that I don’t want to, or that I don’t try. I just can’t access that part of myself and it’s been decades since I last could. I am, in essence, a little bit dead inside.

Our hope is that by filling this gap, by finding the missing pieces that are hidden under the fridge, behind the bookshelf, between the cushions of the couch, I will be able to begin healing and connect my head with my heart. That has always been one of my primary treatment goals. I want to be fully present. I want to feel things instead of having a general awareness that I’m having feelings (and sometimes having brief flickers of actual feelings).

I want that block gone, and I’ll pay just about any price. I’ve lived too long with my head down, shouldering through every obstacle, focused only on getting to the next checkpoint. I’m tired of surviving. I want to live. If my quality of life has to momentarily suffer for that to happen, I can live with that.

For the greater good, right?

Right?

Life as a haunted house

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

I’ve been having the nightmare again.

In it, I could be seventeen or twenty-nine. In it, I am standing in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window at the front lawn. There’s a weird unstuck-in-time feeling; it could be morning or late at night, but the sky is a flat indistinct expanse over the rooftops and trees. The lighting is confusing, too–is it dusk? Dawn? Just a cloudy afternoon?

His old, beat-up white Buick rolls up to the curb and my stomach twists in on itself, the knots fluttering like anxious birds.

What did I do this time?

He could be in a good mood, or a bad mood, or both, or neither. He could be smiling while walking up to my front door but then want to talk to me, right up close (as Stephen King wrote in my favorite novel of his, Rose Madder).

Or maybe it’s fine. Maybe he’s just going to pick me up and we’ll go hang out with friends or sit in his car down by the river, just talking for hours.

But I know damn well it’s not fine.


I am all ages, all the time. My therapist says that I need to nurture my wounded inner child, which I thought sounded stupid and New Age-y until I actually started trying it out. It’s effective–when I get anxious or depressed, I look at my younger self and pull her close.

You didn’t do anything this time, or any time. It’s going to be okay.

I wish believing was as easy as speaking.


On Thursday, the anxious snakes took up residence in my belly as I cleaned the apartment. My fiance had had a rough day on Wednesday and I knew he was feeling crappy, and also that it had nothing to do with me. He wasn’t rude or snappy with me, but he wasn’t really in the mood to spend much time talking during our nightly phone call. I knew this wasn’t my fault.

But the ghosts, the echoes, they spun a different story. As I swept and cleaned the kitchen floor (which, with two cats, is a neverending chore), the words kept flowing into my mind.

I have to do this right or he’ll be upset.

My fella? He never gets upset with me, ever. I think we’ve had maybe one argument in the entire three years we’ve been together. He is sweet and gentle and kind. We coo over the cats together, make a game out of going grocery shopping, laugh at hideously dark things that we know aren’t supposed to be funny.

But the trauma said,

Do it right, or else. Or else he’ll be mad. Or else no one will love you.

I paused many times during my cleaning spree to speak aloud to myself, to that wounded, younger part.

He is not like X. You were a baby. It was not your fault.

Sometimes, it works, but I’m pretty sure it’s just me handing a squalling child a piece of candy to shut it up. I don’t actually deal with the feelings. I invalidate and suppress and push, push, push until they go away.

My therapist and I have done three EMDR sessions now, and it seems to be a magic bullet for me. The first two sessions dealt with my childhood and centered around two specific disturbing memories and the phrase, “My mother’s anger is not my fault.”

Today, we dealt with X and the nightmare, which has been occurring with alarming frequency. I recently took an elective on domestic violence, and I know that’s what’s stirred all of this up again.


The ghosts are not happy when you call them out. They want to stay hidden and rattle the windowpanes, throw a few dishes when you’re not watching too closely.

And they expect to get away with it.


Today, we embarked on a grand journey of the hell I lived from ages 17 to 19. We worked on the phrase, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I’m mostly believing it now, but only as it pertains to that one image. I know we have more work, so much more work, to do before I’m healed.

But the most upsetting part isn’t the actual image or the memory. The worst part is how young I was, how vulnerable. X saw that. He latched onto it. He told me his tales of woe and wept insincerity, and I bought it. He took my kindness, my urge to nurture and pacify, as weakness.

I don’t often cry in therapy, but when I do, it’s because that girl back then was so young. She was a baby, even at 17, and I feel overwhelmingly protective of her, this past-me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more self-aware now or if it’s some sort of misplaced maternal instinct, but when we’re focusing on a memory in EMDR, I see myself standing beside her. By round three of EMDR*, I have my arms around her and I am holding her close. I am telling her that it’s okay, that she didn’t do anything wrong, that she is good and lovable and so much more than what the trauma says.

And as the session progresses, the frightened, anxious self–the part that believes she did something wrong–becomes defiant. It was amusing the first time it happened in our first session, when the five-year-old self in the memory we used actually kind of yelled back at my mother.

This time, the wounded self snapped, “If he’s pissy, it’s because he’s an asshole. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

This defiance, my therapist says, is a good sign. I think it is, too. Also, it makes me chuckle–I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and time and time again, I’ve seen that if I’m pushed and threatened enough, I will gain the strength and courage to fight back.

As much as I hate that I’m going to be in therapy for a while (my insurance is awesome, but the co-pays add up), as much as I hate that other people dealt enough damage to put me there, I recognize that I am fighting back. That is so much. That is everything.

I am fighting the ghosts. One day, I will drive the last of them from my house and I will finally feel the peace most people take for granted. Right now, I’m actually feeling pretty peaceful–I went into therapy feeling very tense, and as I drove home, every muscle in my body felt loose and relaxed in a way I don’t often get to experience while I’m awake.

I’m going to leave you with this thought, readers. People may have done damage to you, but you are not damaged. You can fight. And I’ll fight right alongside you.

We’ve got this.


* We typically do three or four rounds with the same memory and the same phrases. Your mileage may vary, but my sessions go like this:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how distressing is the phrase (for example, “What did I do this time?”) to you now?
  • On a scale of 0-7, how believable is the phrase you’d like to replace it with? (For example, “His anger is not my fault.”)

I use the hand buzzers because I’m migraine-prone so the blinking light isn’t great (and I find that closing my eyes helps me visualize the memory we’re using). Headphones with alternating sounds between the left and right side can also be used, but since unexpected or loud sounds in my left ear makes the dissociation spike for some reason, we ruled that out.

Bilateral brain stimulation is awesome! The brain is so amazing, how it can bend into impossible shapes, at impossible angles, and not break.

Love your brain, your beautiful “broken” brain, readers.

 

News Day Tuesday: BLOOM by Anna Schuleit

a cure for what ails you, bipolar disorder, major depression, memories, News Day Tuesday, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, stigma, three hopeful thoughts

Hey readers! This week, we’re doing something a little different for News Day Tuesday.

I stumbled across Anna Schuleit’s beautiful BLOOM project from 2003 (yes, I know I’m super late to the party). Today, I want to celebrate that project.

In 2003, artist Anna Schuleit installed 28,000 (28,000! Yow!) potted flowers throughout the psychiatric ward of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC).

Anna Schuleit’s installation project was created within the entire building of MMHC, on all floors, inviting former patients and employees, staff, students, and the general public, to re-visit the historic site once more before its closing. There was also a symposium at a nearby venue, and an open forum on the front steps of MMHC, during which the patients were invited to tell their stories. The events were dedicated to the memory of the thousands of patients of MMHC, and included as many of them as we were able to contact, as well as the doctors, nurses, support staff, researchers, students, and the general public. The project was a non-profit effort run entirely by volunteers and all of the events were free and open to all.

Source

As people living with mental illness, some of us with more than one, we know the therapeutic power of telling our stories, of having a voice when we’re so often voiceless. Mindy Schwartz Brown wrote some beautiful poetry about her experiences at MMHC, which you can read here. One poem in particular, “Asylum,” touched me deeply.

ASYLUM
(for Anna)

How did this edifice become “home” to its inhabitants-
the renowned multiply degreed,
the haplessly homeless dually diagnosed,
the walking wounded,
the worried well,
the happy go lucky who cleaned floors,
cooked lunches,
took blood pressures.

How could it contain all of the
the egos,
the disintegrated, the inflated,
occupying one space in parallel play?
MD, SPMI
Ph.D, BPD
MSW, DBT
Tell me in this soup, where does one find one’s ME?

DSM IV, Anybody going for V?
What’s the code for those who close hospitals
then open prisons for the sick?

We all feel so much better now,
knowing our brains are
faulty and we are not.
Structural errors ,
neurotransmittor deficits,
viral origins,
genomic misconfigurations.

So now can we all be friends?
Can we do lunch?
Just as we would with a diabetic?

October 3, 2003

Mindy Schwartz-Brown © 2003

The pain of not being recognized is one we know all too well. The lines “We all feel so much better now, / knowing our brains are / faulty and we are not” struck a chord with me that resonated all the way through my body and down into what some people call the soul.

We are the ones who are forgotten. We are the ones who are hiding in plain sight, not out of our own desire to be invisible, but of the desire of others to make us invisible. We make others uncomfortable, particularly when we don’t outwardly fit the mold of the “mentally ill person.” Whenever I reveal that I have bipolar I and CPTSD to someone, I am typical met with one of two reactions. The person either recoils–the discomfort in their eyes is stark and harrowing–or they tell me how “brave” I am.

I am not brave. I simply live. What choice do I have? I do not want to die, though there are plenty of people who view living with a mental illness as a fate worse than death–and I find that more disturbing than anything going on in my attic. There have been countless times when the hauntings have gotten so noisy that I feel as though my mind may literally split in two. Still, I live. Our lives have worth. We have worth.

I’d like to end by including a few photos of Schuleit’s installation. I spent a great deal of time yesterday perusing the photos and reflecting–not on my own experiences, as I have never been inpatient, but on what others’ experiences might have been like as they lived out their day-to-day at MMHC.

bloom-by-anna-schuleit-red-mums-640x920

bloom-by-anna-schuleit-white-tulips

bloom-by-anna-schuleit-blue-hallway

All images above copyright Anna Schuleit.

Tell me your stories, readers. It’s important.

Those Old-World Blues

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, major depression, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, therapy

I won’t lie, readers; I’ve been down quite a bit lately. Most of it stems from deep-seated guilt that’s been playing the long con on me for most of my 28 years–it likes to pop its ugly head up and hit me so hard that sometimes it feels like I can’t breathe.

I’ve been carrying around a back-breaking load of guilt since I was a child. Some of it was inflicted by others, some of it by myself. There were so many little things–messages, perhaps–that sneaked in and grabbed me when I was at my most vulnerable.

When my mother went to prison, one of my maternal aunts abandoned her life in Chicago–what I perceived to be a vibrant life of friends and work and independent living–to return to her hometown to help my grandmother raise me. She never tried to make me feel guilty, but the damage had been done long before her arrival. I felt that there was something “wrong” inside me, that I didn’t deserve to be treated well, that I had done something to deserve the early childhood abuse and neglect that made me into a cautious, anxious, hypervigilant kid.

It all began to snowball from there. Anytime someone would do something nice for me–even something as simple as buying me an ice cream cone–I would immediately feel terribly sad for reasons that my child’s mind couldn’t comprehend. (Fun fact: To this day, the music from an ice cream truck makes me want to cry. Brains are weird.)

As many of you know, I’m studying clinical mental health counseling at Hopkins. I never expected to get in, but I was ecstatic! (I still am, though thankfully, the disbelief has faded a bit.)

My fiance has generously offered to support me financially through this time, as it’ll be probably another year until I can land a paying gig in my field. He’s told me time and time again that he doesn’t mind doing this because he’s financially secure enough to do so and because he loves me (and I suspect it also helps that I’m incredibly low-maintenance–see above paragraphs on guilt). I trust him and try to take him at his word.

But more and more frequently, the old guilt starts to creep in, which leads to devastating lows. Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to cry but not quite knowing why. I think it’s because I’ve suppressed so many emotions. I deal with everything by not dealing with it, which I recognize as alarmingly unhealthy behavior. Once I’m added to his insurance plan, my first order of business is to find a really good trauma therapist (that isn’t based out of one of the sites I’m looking at for practicum/internship).

Today, my fella told me that he thinks I have things “more together” than I think. And he’s probably right–I feel very good most days, although there are little nagging low points on even the best days. I can usually brush them aside using a couple of methods I’ve learned, which I’ll describe below.

Tonight is a rough night. He’s at dance practice, which is awesome–I’m glad we each have interests of our own, and it gives me time to practice the piano without being embarrassed about how rusty I’ve become. It also means I have time alone to cry everything out without worrying about making him worry.

Earlier, I went out on our balcony and looked up at the sky. It wasn’t quite dark but the moon was out in full force. It reminded me of my Great-Aunt Mare and how she’d come to the house twice a day when I was young–once in the morning for coffee with Grandma (her sister) and once in the evening to watch Wheel of Fortune with us. (Side note: I was awesome at Wheel of Fortune.)

I decided that a good cry would be the best medicine, since I’ve been feeling kind of weird all day, emotionally speaking. Shortly after her death, I made a small album on Facebook of the best photos of me and my great-aunt–Halloween at a pumpkin patch, hugging me close for a photo at my eighth birthday party, holding me when I was a baby. I looked at them and I let myself cry. I let myself howl my sadness into the void. And then I sat up and said, “That’s enough; let’s go write a blog post about it.”

I find that if I don’t come up with ways to distract myself, the sadness will become endless waves of grief and shame and all of the emotions I’ve been hiding away all these years. Once it’s out of the box, it’s so hard, so exhausting, to put it all back in.

I apologize for the downer post, readers. I haven’t had a personal post in quite a while but I feel as though being open and honest about my emotions, good or bad, can make others feel less alone. There have been so many times when I’ve been endlessly Googling about a specific worry or fear and bam, there’s a blog post about it. Though it may not help right away or offer solutions, it does make me feel less alone.

I hope you’re all staying safe and doing at least okay tonight. We all need to support each other, at our best moments as well as (and especially) our worst. We’re a community. We survived horrific things, and we continue to survive. Never forget that.


A Few Coping Techniques

  • I saw this one on Reddit last week and loved it. In a nutshell, the poster’s therapist advised them to think of someone they really dislike and imagine that all of the negative thoughts and worries are being spoken aloud by [whatever person]. The person this poster chose to use is Trump.
    • The way it works: Whenever worries or negative self-talk pop up, you go, “Shut up, Trump! [or whatever person you’ve chosen].” It actually does work, and it’s great for shutting down those thoughts at the drop of a hat. Of course, it’s always good to revisit those thoughts at a calmer, more appropriate time, but it’s nice to have a method to use when you’re in a situation where you can’t fully emote.

 

  • Another method I love (and promote to others quite frequently) is Ellis’ A-B-C-D-E method of challenging distressing thoughts. It comes from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (or REBT). Here’s the breakdown.
    • Step A: Identify the activating event–this is the event that triggers anxiety, depression, etc.
    • Step B: Look at the emotion you’re feeling and combine it with the activating event. Then, try to identify the beliefs that go along with that event and examine how they cause anxiety/etc.
      • For example, someone buying me something makes me feel guilty. This feeling of guilt and sadness comes from early childhood experiences. The end result is that I feel as though I don’t deserve kindness.
    • Step C: Look at the consequences of your irrational beliefs and realize that they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because my response to kindness has been guilt and sadness for so long, I expect to feel that way every time someone is kind to me.
    • Step D: This is where you start to challenge those irrational beliefs and replace them with other, more positive ones. In my case, I need to work on building up my self-worth (long term) and thinking about the symbolism behind gifts and acts of kindness–“This person loves me and cares for me, and this act of kindness is coming from that place of love, not from a sense of obligation.”
    • Step E: This is basically the end goal and is usually called “cognitive restructuring.” At this point, you put all of the steps together and take special care to notice how the process has affected you and whether or not it has helped you to combat all the pieces that bring on the negative emotions (in Steps A and B).
      • You’re essentially re-conditioning your brain to replace negative associations with positive ones. It’s definitely a long road, but I’ve found it to be extremely helpful. However, it’s less useful to me when I’m in a crisis moment.
  • The last one is very calming to me, because a lifetime of CPTSD has led me to an incessant and sometimes self-destructive need for control. I worry endlessly about bad things happening to loved ones (because abandonment issues are fun!), so this little mantra really helps me chill out and remember that I can’t control every variable in my life.
    • Essentially, the saying goes, “If you can change something, do not worry, because you will find a way to change it. If you cannot change something, also do not worry, because there’s nothing you can do about the situation.”
      • This takes some getting used to if you’re like me and overanalyze and catastrophize everything, but once you’re there, it can be a very powerful tool for derailing anxiety before it hits its boiling point.

Adult Separation Anxiety.

major depression, memories, ptsd

P. left on Thursday evening for his three-week vacation to Australia and New Zealand (yay!). I’m excited that he gets to go on this adventure, and am eagerly awaiting his return.

However, for someone like me, prolonged absences can have some very real, very serious side effects. I’ve dealt with separation anxiety all my life; it started when I was a young child, maybe three or four years old, and would wake up alone in a fully-lit house around midnight to find the home empty–my mother would leave me by myself to go out drinking at a bar a few blocks away.

One of my earliest memories is of trying to find the bar in the phone book, only to realize I had no idea how to reach or dial the phone. Instead, I left the house and walked about halfway down our block in my pajamas, the street completely dark except for the streetlights. I felt the loneliest I ever have in my life as I stood at the top of the hill, looking down at all the darkened houses and feeling the wind at the back of my thin flannel nightgown.

There were more instances, of course. And  I, now 27, realize that my significant other is not going to just abandon me. But those deep-seated emotions and reactions from when I was a small, vulnerable child have lingered, and I’m struggling to bring them down to a more appropriate, more manageable size.

I spent the last two days home sick with the migraine from hell, then worked my half day this morning. I visited a friend for about an hour after that, then came home and got more sleep. I reminded myself to eat when I woke up around 6:00 PM, because I had put zero food in my body since Thursday afternoon, when I had lunch with P.

Right now, I’m feeling calmer (thanks to excessive sleep and the wonders of lorazepam) and am trying to devise small tasks for myself to make the long, lonesome gaps between work more bearable for the next nineteen days. I have only a few more boxes left to move into P’s apartment, though that means I’m without a piano for the remainder of his trip, which is less than ideal because that’s usually a major outlet for me.

I can also work on looking for counseling programs in Baltimore, where (spoiler alert!) we’ll be moving in a few months as P. starts a nine-month-long program at Johns Hopkins. I’ll still be starting some online courses in May, but will need to find a traditional school that will take my credits. It’s a big change, but given everything that’s going on in Maryland (and how rough the state of MHC is), I feel like I could potentially do a lot of good things there.

That’s where I am right now, readers. If you’ve ever been through separation anxiety, please reach out to me, especially if you have some tips. Let’s help each other through this–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Pain.

a cure for what ails you, abuse, memories, ptsd, relationships

My last pain doctor suggested that my history of abuse (especially sexual abuse) might be the main source of my pelvic pain, along with neuropathy. I have muscular trigger points that cause low pelvic pain, despite having had two injections and a nerve block. It’s true that my endometriosis has progressed from stage one to stage two, after essentially being “reset” by a laparoscopy in March 2011, but I’m taking two forms of birth control to at least slow the progress, if not completely stop it.

I have no more options for controlling or reversing the endometriosis. Lupron didn’t work—all it did was leave me with horrible acne scars on my left cheek and $2,000 poorer. Another surgery is out of the question, mostly because of finances but also because there’s a very good chance it could cause more scarring and adhesions and actually make things worse. All this has led me to reconsider my stance on the mind-body connection, which I’d previously scoffed at.

I was looking up information on pelvic pain related to a history of abuse and found a study on the topic from 2000 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11084180). Some highlights:

  • 22% of patients with chronic pelvic pain were sexually abused before their 15th birthdays
  • 25% of women with chronic pelvic pain were exposed to emotional neglect, especially during childhood
  • 38% were exposed to physical violence

I haven’t written as much about sexual abuse as the other forms I’ve suffered, and I think that’s probably because I still haven’t connected with any of it emotionally. Now that I’m in a functional relationship with a good person who makes me feel safe, appreciated, and generally cared-for, I’m beginning to feel better about myself and more secure and confident in my self-worth.

In short, I think I’m finally ready to talk about it, though in the interest of protecting their privacy, I’m going to avoid all but the vaguest references to abuse within my family.

I’m still not completely sure whether or not I was molested as a child, although more therapists and psychiatrists than you can shake a stick at have all told me that my partial memories, repression, sexual precocity, and general attitudes toward my body and sex are strongly suggestive (no pun intended) of early abuse. I was terrified of men until I was fifteen—I stopped crying and completely losing it around them around age seven or so, but I kept my eyes down, or at least averted, and would cross my arms over my chest and hunch over—anything to keep them from seeing me or even noticing that I was there.

My mother had a boyfriend who made me profoundly uncomfortable from the time I was five until she went to prison a year later.

I remember crying whenever she left me alone with him. They both drank, but I was especially frightened of him. He was tall and overtly masculine in a swarthy sort of way with dark eyes and hairy arms. I will never forget those arms, which I think explains my penchant for mostly hairless men with less testosterone-loaded features.

I have a memory from when I was about five-and-a-half of lying in bed in the room he’d set up for me in his house. (We frequently stayed overnight, and I’d always cry when she insisted I had to go with her.) They’d gone out on a date and had left me alone with his son, who was fifteen at the time and very kind and protective of me. He used to read me books before bed, but because he was pretty severely dyslexic and I was way ahead of the curve in terms of language and reading ability, I usually took over and read him to sleep on the living room floor before putting a blanket over him and tucking myself into bed.

For some reason, I was still awake that night when they came home, albeit in a drowsy twilight state. I remember them opening the door to check on me and seeing the dim, watery yellow light flooding in through the crack in the door. She walked away and he lingered there for a moment. I remember seeing him hesitate, then approach my bed. I remember his dark silhouette against the thin light from the hallway. I remember that hairy arm stretched over my chest, and then everything fades to black. The memory ends there.

It bothers me, not because of the implications but because I pride myself on being annoyingly self-aware and don’t like the idea that my brain, which I know so well, is still hiding things from me. I want to know. I don’t want to know. I’m curious, but I know there’s probably a good reason my brain is blocking that memory. What good would it do, anyway, knowing for sure whether or not anything had happened? I know that he was abusive toward both of us in other ways, and I feel like that should be enough.

But sometimes it’s not.

I’ve written about the other abusers—all four of them, for a grand total of five—in other posts and may revisit the topic later. But for now, I wanted to finally speak out about the one incident from when I was a child that’s still bothering me, that I still haven’t been able to untangle, in hopes that it might strike a chord in one of my readers. I don’t like to think about other people being abused, but I know it’s one of those horrible realities I have no choice but to face, especially since I want to specialize in trauma therapy.

It feels wrong to hope that someone will be able to relate, that they will reach out and that maybe we can have a dialogue and reach some sort of insight together (or at least achieve catharsis), but I feel like it would be incredibly helpful right now. I’ve learned that we need to lean on each other, because no matter how good the intentions of our friends, partners, and families might be, there is no substitute for being able to talk to someone who’s experienced what you’ve been through.

I am here for you, readers. If you need help, I will help as best I can. And if you need to howl into the void, I will be your void.

Anniversary.

abuse, memories

Today is a happy day.

Seven years ago today, at about 9:00 PM, I told my abusive ex that I was leaving him, that I didn’t want to do it anymore, that I didn’t want to live in violent cycles of rejection and acceptance. I told him, for the first time, that his behavior was abusive.

It was terrifying. I had just completed my first year of college and was living at home with my auntmom and grandmother. There had been a huge thunderstorm and the power was out, and I was sitting in my bedroom, back against my bed, staring into the flame of a candle.

I started to feel restless. My aunt-mom was reading in bed, so I wandered into her room and sat down. “I don’t think I want to be with — anymore,” I said slowly, unable to meet her gaze. She nodded and patted my hand. I left and made the phone call.

He threatened suicide several times but some weird strength had possessed me and I called his bluff. The next few weeks were miserable—he blew up my phone, told me he had started smoking and drinking because I’d hurt him so badly, and made comments that made our mutual friends uneasy.

But it passed. It always passes. And today, I am celebrating my freedom and thanking the universe for that out-of-the-blue ferocity I needed to finally make a clean break after two years of hell.