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: Election Anxiety

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, Uncategorized

Good afternoon, readers! It’s that time of week again!

First of all, for those of you who don’t follow the Facebook page for The Dissociated Press (and if that’s the case, why not?), I have some exciting news to share: Last night, I found out that I’ve been accepted to Johns Hopkins’ Master of Science program for Counseling Psychology! I’ll be starting in the spring.

Now, on to the main event for this week: election anxiety. I’m sure most of us have felt it at one time or another, and for many, it’s probably coming to a head right about now. Today’s article comes from K5 in western Washington state.

Bernice Imei Hsu, a registered nurse and licensed mental health counselor, stated that around 85% of her new patients come in to discuss anxiety related to this year’s presidential election. Some of the clients began presenting with these concerns as early as May of this year.

Hsu has some great tips for helping with election anxiety:

Hsu first assesses how well her clients can handle conflict and change. She then helps them come up with a plan for how they might react to election results.

She asks clients to identify people in their lives who can help them discuss their anxieties and needs. She also encourages clients to practice “relentless self-care.”

“Maybe they need to take a little break, maybe they need to turn down the volume a bit of their social media feeds, stop screaming in all caps, or reading other people scream in all caps, turn it down, tone it down, and take care of themselves,” Hsu said.

The first time I voted in a presidential election was in 2008, and I remember being incredibly anxious. That anxiety was even worse in 2012. This time, I’m feeling oddly calm about it, though I think that’s because I’m in a better place mentally and have already set up some fun activities for tonight to keep my mind off the results (even though I’ll inevitably end up watching them roll in).

I have coloring and cross stitch on the list, as well as my ever-expanding Netflix queue, which is always a good distraction. I’ve realized that while I can vote, I ultimately can’t do anything about the results and that it’s better not to waste my energy worrying excessively about it. Whatever happens is what happens; I find this point of view very calming.

What about you, readers? Do you get election jitters? How do you combat them?

News Day Tuesday: Ohio State Mental Health Triage

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, News Day Tuesday, therapy

Good afternoon, readers! Today, we’re tackling the concept of mental health triage for university students. Ohio State University has reported a 43% jump in the last five years in the number of students seeking mental health care. Needless to say, that’s huge.

The question of how much academic demands contribute to anxiety levels among the student body is a complicated one. Parenting styles have definitely changed over the last decade or so–I’m 27 and when I was young, “helicopter parenting” really wasn’t a thing. My peers and I were allowed to walk alone to and from school and play outside unsupervised, often late into the after-dark hours. My family placed relatively few restrictions on how I spent my free time; reading and viewing choices were left up to my own discretion, with the assumption that I would make good choices for myself. As a result, I didn’t have much trouble adapting to the freedom that comes with college life, though I did live at home for the first two years of my undergraduate program.

As a non-parent, I can’t speak personally to what parenting styles are in vogue these days. However, it seems that (for very valid reasons) parents have become much more cautious and protective. This naturally leads to students feeling anxiety over the unprecedented freedom that comes with college and living away from home for the first time. Tuition and student loans are also enormously stressful–I know I’m not the only one who had a bit of a freak-out upon receiving that first scary bill after the post-graduation grace period ended. The overall “climate” of university life, combined with the myriad of complicated developmental changes adolescents and young adults have to navigate, creates a perfect storm for the emergence of mental health issues.

This brings us back to the subject at hand: mental health triage. It’s an intriguing concept and one that’s particularly timely; with so many patients in need being turned away from psychiatric wards due to lack of beds, it’s clear that we need to figure out a way to prioritize who needs what kind of help, and how urgently they need it.

Ohio State’s triage consists of determining whether students require more intensive one-on-one therapy or more general group-based therapy and seminars. The university offers a workshop called “Beating Anxiety,” which is something that I’d love to see implemented at more schools, particularly as part of the standard first-year curriculum. During my first year of undergrad, I saw many of my peers struggle with taking full responsibility for every aspect of their lives. It can be overwhelming to navigate roommates and coursework as well as meeting daily needs for the first time. Add to that a work-study job or two to supplement financial aid, and it’s not hard to see why so many students are stressed.

Another aspect of Ohio State’s program that I love is the “Recess” event:

On a grassy lawn, there are tents where students can make balloon animals, blow bubbles and play with therapy dogs and a large colorful parachute. The event is designed to help students relieve stress and to introduce students to counseling center services and staff in a fun way.

– Students Flood College Mental Health Centers, The Wall Street Journal

You can read more about the impressive range of resources offered to students at Ohio State here.

Readers who have a college background, what kinds of programs do you think are most valuable? What was/is available to you?


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