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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

An Audio Post!? 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, authoress in motion, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

Hey readers! I haven’t posted any sort of “There’s a real person in here!” content in a really long time, so here’s a quick clip of me walking you through an even quicker breathing exercise. Click below for the transcript and let me know what you think!

(Side note: I love transcribing stuff because it makes me uncomfortably aware of my verbal tics. Sorry ’bout that.)


Dichotomy

anxiety, ptsd

Is it possible to simultaneously be the most troubled and the most well-adjusted person you know? The deeper I go into my counseling program, the more this question pops into my mind. On the one hand, my demons are legion. On the other, I keep them very well-controlled and they all have little color-coordinated leashes.

Am I well-adjusted because I have to be? Does being well-adjusted look the same, or mean the same thing, for people who have backbreaking loads of trauma and those who don’t?

I used to worry a lot about whether my personal mental health history meant that I can’t be a therapist. I still worry about that, though thankfully not as much. Tonight in class, we were discussing self-disclosure and one of my classmates brought up that exact question–how are our clients supposed to trust us if they know we have our own set of problems?

I guess it’s one of those situations where what you have doesn’t matter as much as how you handle it. I get up every day and even though I do a fair amount of yelling at the intrusive negative thoughts, I still manage to accomplish everything on my to-do list. (Well…most things, anyway. I’m human.)

This has been on my mind for most of the day today, probably because I had intake with my new therapist yesterday and was thinking about the wall between my thoughts and feelings. I depend so heavily on that wall to keep it together, and I’m a bit worried–or, okay, a lot worried–that once I start really delving into the trauma and trying to merge my thoughts and feelings that there will be this monumental change and I’ll basically fall apart. I can’t remember the last time I was able to feel an emotion on an actual deep, meaningful, emotional level for more than a flash before cognition takes over and the brain reasserts control over the “heart.”

I know that’s unrealistic and that no one can do a total 180 in terms of functioning, but the unknowns are scary. As horrible as it is to know certain emotional things but not be able to feel them…better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, right?

I haven’t had self-doubt like this in quite a while, but getting the thoughts down on this little blog has helped a bit. It’s funny how writing about your troubles takes away some of their power, isn’t it? I’m also going to hit the self-care pretty hard tonight because tomorrow I have a phone interview with another prospective internship site–yay! That search is pretty terrifying, but I have a good feeling about the last couple of sites I’ve contacted, so fingers crossed.

Until next time, readers, remember to take good care of yourselves. I will, too.

 

News Day Tuesday: Acronyms! (Or: MDMA for PTSD)

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, dissociation, medication, News Day Tuesday, personal experiences, ptsd

Good morning, readers!

School started last week and there’s been a lot going on in my life on the personal side–my 94-year-old grandma, who essentially raised me as her own for most of my childhood, has been ill and I’ve once again been dealing with anticipatory grief.

Anyway, on a happier note, here’s some news for you about PTSD. (And it’s literally happy–it’s about Ecstasy!)

In a nutshell: those lovable FDA officials just granted MDMA “breakthrough therapy” status as a potential treatment for PTSD. Clinical trials will (hopefully) be easier to come by now, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Important distinction: MDMA isn’t FDA-approved, but this is a huge step in a very promising direction.

Right now, PTSD treatment options are super-limited. My brand is pretty wicked, but my only option for dealing with the symptoms is lorazepam/Ativan. I count myself lucky that I only have depersonalization/derealization, anxiety around crowds, and the occasional nightmare. It could be a lot worse. I’ve written extensively in the past about my experiences with dissociation (hence the name of the blog), but like most things, you get used to it.

But it’s not something anyone should have to “get used to.” None of us should have to accept the symptoms as our “new normal,” and for many, the symptoms are debilitating. That pretty much goes without saying (though of course, I decided to say it anyway).

I recently completed a research proposal for one of my summer classes, and while it was a painful process for someone who’s not a big research fan, it was definitely eye-opening. There has been shockingly little research done on depersonalization/derealization; most of what I encountered deals with “dissociation” in broader terms and the individual disorders are either not specified or are all lumped together in a mass that ultimately provides no insight about the actual conditions.

Anyway, that’s a post for another day. What I’m getting at is that PTSD is an incredibly complicated beast. While some symptoms are consistent, it never looks the same in two different people. Anecdotally, the symptoms can look different at various stages in a person’s life.

Seven years ago, I was having flashbacks (not the dramatic Hollywood kind where you’re literally in the memory–the kind where you sort of space out and the memory plays out in your mind’s eye while you’re pretty much unresponsive to the real world). Then, in 2012, the flashbacks stopped and the depersonalization/derealization got its hooks into me and has been hanging on for dear life ever since.

Like I said, you get used to it. The pain fades. You adjust to never really feeling “real,” to being in this perpetual dreamlike state. When it spikes, I try to welcome it as a new adventure and pay attention to what feels different without getting anxious or judging it as “bad.”

Still, it would be nice if there was something out there that could help just a little. I’ll be keeping my eye on the MDMA  breakthrough and keep you posted on further developments.

In the meantime, readers, what helps with your symptoms? Grounding exercises are one of my favorite things to do if I start to feel anxious. It’s less tedious than counting things.