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!

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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?

I’m not afraid of anything, except feeling.

abuse, major depression, ptsd, therapy

This is something I think I’ve known for a long time, but I never fully realized it until my most recent re-reading of More, Now, Again (Elizabeth Wurtzel), where Wurtzel’s therapist tells her the exact same thing.

One of the ways I managed to survive, for better or worse, was by learning to numb myself to all the “big”/important events that would normally have provoked a lot of emotion. To this day, I can recite all the details of being abused and neglected as a child, or what it was like to visit my mother in prison, without shedding a tear or breaking out of a monotone. I can tell you exactly how it feels to be terrified by verbal abuse from a romantic partner, what it’s like to have them hit you for the first time, what it’s like to be coerced into sex (which is a form of rape), what it’s like to be sexually assaulted by someone who initially seemed like a nice guy. I can describe all of these things down to the very last, tiniest detail without feeling any of the emotions behind them because I’ve learned to store those emotions as far back as possible, but for some reason, my memories stay right up front, almost as fresh as the day they were formed.

It’s safer to feel sad about old people in general than to cry over the fact that I am terrified of losing my grandmother, who raised me and is like a mother to me. It’s safer to get upset about the minute details I remember about the days when the abuse (both as a child and as a teenager) was at its worst than to release all the emotions that pertain to the actual events.

This is why I’m so detached. I put all of my energy into feeling depressed and hopeless over seemingly insignificant things because once I open the floodgates about the really important things cluttering up the back of my mind, I can’t turn it off. Instead, they languish there, floating around like bits of shrapnel and inflicting more and more damage as time goes on.

I think this is why therapy doesn’t work for me. It’s like an ouroboros, really; we can’t get at the roots of what’s fucking me up because of my defense mechanisms, which are touchy and what’s keeping me so numb. But without working through the underlying issues, there’s no hope of ever relieving some of the numbness and the angst…it’s an ongoing process. Right now, I’m not seeing my therapist because money is an issue (but when isn’t it?).

In the meantime, I’m trying to keep myself occupied as well as I can, considering I’m unable to work. D. and I have been talking about me going back to school to finish up the last few credits for a B.S. in psychology, then on to grad school. I’m not sure if I want to go into counseling or go down the forensic/criminal psych path yet, but there’s plenty of time to figure that out.

Trying not to turn into my mother seems to be taking up most of my time these days, but I’m also trying to balance that with keeping myself alive. My coping methods really suck sometimes, but the general consensus (from friends, my husband, even my therapist) has been that even if something is problematic in the moment, if it can get me through a crisis alive, it’s okay. We can work on that bit later, but in order for any of the work to get done, I have to be alive.

I am alive. I left the house on a small errand today, and though the dissociation was a whole lot worse when I got home, I’m still relatively okay. That has to count for something.

Trigger words.

explanations, ptsd

From what I understand, it’s not at all uncommon to have trigger words— if you spend a few seconds on Tumblr, you’re likely to see tags such as “tw: rape” or “tw: abuse.”

I feel what makes my trigger words unusual is that words with negative associations don’t set me off at all; rather, words generally associated with positive things trigger the hell out of me, provoking a wave of despair and guilt so strong that it’s sometimes hard to withstand.

For years, I wondered why certain words and objects/occurrences made me feel so horrible. The sound of an ice cream truck, for example, never fails to bring on the bad feelings. Seeing an ad in a crossword book for a personalized name poem–”A special gift for a beloved child,” the ad proclaimed–made me wish I were dead so I wouldn’t have to feel so sad and guilty. I recently had to take Wite-Out to the back of a bag of milano cookies after seeing the phrase “You deserve” printed on the packaging.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I realized what all these happy, terrible things had in common, and I’m pretty sure it stems back to my inappropriate and often overwhelming feelings of guilt. From what I understand, it’s pretty common for people with PTSD to suffer from these emotions; unfortunately, it’s not something that the mentally healthy can really understand, much like my friends who aren’t depressed can’t comprehend my indifference to my own existence.

The guilt–the “dark core,” as my therapist calls it–tells me that I am unworthy of happiness, undeserving of good things—that it’s so far beyond my grasp at this point that yearning for it is pointless, not to mention pathetic.

Love, happiness, deserve, special, beloved—all of these trigger the hell out of me. Even things like ice cream can set me off because even though I know the “dark core” is, frankly, full of shit, there’s a part of me that still believes I don’t deserve good things. Years of abuse and trauma have all but ruined innocent pleasures for me, and while I’m trying very hard to correct the negative automatic thoughts, it’s a slow process and is often frustrating. Since I haven’t nailed down every single trigger (and I doubt I ever will—there are far too many of them), it’s difficult to avoid everything that triggers me, and when I’m triggered, the rush of negative emotions is strong enough to set me back and nearly undo all the progress I’ve made.

PTSD is such a bitch. Trauma is a bitch. Feeling “out of it” all the time because my defense mechanisms are operating on high-alert 24/7 is incredibly frustrating, eclipsed only by the terrible feelings that come from being triggered. I seem to be unable to handle happiness—take a moment to imagine what that must be like. But as terrible as it is, it motivates me to fight even harder to get better. I know there are so many things I’m missing out on because years of trauma have conditioned me to shy away from happiness and positive experiences (probably because I’ve experienced time and time again how fleeting happiness is). It’s easier, my brain tells me, to avoid good things than to experience them for just a moment, only to have them snatched away and replaced with heaps of horrible shit.

Can anyone relate? I hope this makes sense—it’s surprisingly difficult to articulate what it’s like to be triggered, what it’s like to live in my reality. But my hope is, as always, that writing about it (even if the writing comes out abstract and difficult to follow) will help people understand what it’s like to have PTSD, to fight against crippling depression every day.

I am trying to stay alive. That takes up most of my energy on a day-to-day basis, and trying to overcome the triggers and seek out happiness and positivity in my life is sometimes exhausting. But I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge or give up on something just because it’s hard.

Even though I’ve never thought I’d live a particularly long time (another thing that’s pretty common among PTSD sufferers), statistics say I’m going to be here for a while—I might as well try to make my world a brighter, better place. I don’t want to be miserable forever.

Is happiness a struggle for you? Please let me know I’m not alone.