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.



Strange Flavors!

authoress in motion, bipolar disorder, dissociation, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder

Hey readers!

I have some exciting news to share with you guys today. On Sunday night, I had the opportunity to hang with the crew of Strange Flavors and tell a little bit of my story about what it’s like to live with depersonalization/derealization; we also talked a little bit about living with bipolar disorder.

This has actually been in the works for a few weeks. As some of you know, I took a ton of classes during intersession, which is basically a one-month set of classes going at breakneck speed. It was madness, but I knocked out nine credits in a month, so I consider it a victory overall.

One of the courses I needed to take for my program was career/life development (something, something…the actual course title was pretty long and I’ve forgotten the rest of it). During that week, I connected with the fabulous Neha, whose brother and a few friends run the Strange Flavors podcast. She approached me on the last day of class, said I seemed interesting (which I found ridiculously flattering), and told me to shoot her a text about possibly making an appearance.

So, fast forward to Sunday. I showed up to do the podcast and was immediately welcomed by Amber and Faras, two of the podcast wizards. They made me feel incredibly comfortable and welcomed, and it was an amazing experience! We sat for about an hour while we did the standard podcast-interview thing; I found their questions incredibly helpful, because my thought train tends to majorly derail when I actually talk about this stuff.

I brought my fella with me for moral support. (He was also curious about how a podcast is made, and we planned to hit up Alewife on the way home. Spoiler alert: They were closed. At 7:30 PM. On a Sunday. Boo!)

I’d never been on an actual podcast before. I’d done the Risk! live show in 2015 and have, of course, made some really crappy-quality videos for my Youtube channel, but this was a totally different animal. They also recorded video of the session, which made me freak out a little bit because I cannot stress enough how unphotogenic I am. However, I’m looking at in a positive light and am excited to see the video once they throw it up on their channel.

Here’s the podcast–have a listen and let me know what you think!

So what’s next? I have a new video a-comin’ that I’m planning to upload probably next week, and I’m thinking of submitting another pitch to Risk!. Gotta keep that hype train rollin’, right?

Anyway, check out the rest of the Strange Flavors podcasts–they’re funny and genuine and I think you’ll really like them.

Another spoiler: The big thing on Strange Flavors is that at the end of each episode, they ask their guest to say what flavor they’d be and why. I chose violet-flavored hard candy, but you’ll have to listen to the episode to find out my reasoning behind it. Ha!

Until next time, readers, stay safe and sane. I’ll catch you guys in the very near future.

It’s okay not to go home again.

abuse, anxiety, personal experiences, relationships

For Thanksgiving, we flew back to my hometown in the Midwest to visit my remaining family–my mother, the aunt who was my legal guardian when I was a child, and another aunt who lives about an hour away from said hometown but visits regularly.

As I told my therapist this afternoon, “I don’t want to say it sucked, but…it sucked.”

I don’t want to get into any of the messy details, but I realized a few things during our brief Thanksgiving trip.

The first is that my grandmother is dead, like, for real-real. My “mom” is dead. Full stop. It’s not that I was pretending otherwise, but being in her house without seeing her there drove the point home in an unexpectedly painful way, and I had to hold it together while I was there because I knew if I lost it, so would everyone else, and then it’d be this whole terrible thing that I was just not equipped to handle.

The second is that it’s not normal to spend the week up to your flight being anxious and trying to brainstorm ways to defuse any potential arguments. It’s not normal to be five minutes from landing in your hometown and freaking out because you have no idea how many fights there will be this time or how bad they’ll get.

The third is that it’s simply not healthy for me to go “home” again. My therapist agreed with this assessment–there really is nothing there for me anymore. I’m 28 and am building my own life, my own family. If anyone wants to visit me, they know where I am. There are several large airports nearby. I never turn my phone off, though I have become more selective about when I answer calls–if I’m emotionally exhausted and have nothing left to give that day, I let the call go to voicemail.

It’s not like I’m unreachable. I just don’t want to make the effort anymore. I’m tired of throwing myself out into the wilds of my family-of-origin and hoping I come back in one piece. I’m tired of having to tell them, “Hey, I flew all the way here, can we all just get along?” I’m tired of having to put a dog into the fight. I’m tired of there even being a fight.

I went back “home,” and all I got was the flu and three days of crippling anxiety and depression.

Readers, it’s okay to set boundaries. If, like me, you’ve finally hit your breaking point, please try not to feel guilty about it. You need to take care of you first. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and life is too short to spend it with people who make you miserable.


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.

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.


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.

(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?
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.




All images above copyright Anna Schuleit.

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

News Day Tuesday: BiAffect App Links Keystrokes with Bipolar Episodes

a cure for what ails you, bipolar disorder, News Day Tuesday, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, three hopeful thoughts

Greetings, readers!

It was a bit of a challenge to find an article for this week, but I finally stumbled upon something that could make a huge difference in how we track our moods. There’s a new app called BiAffect that uses your keystrokes, frequency of texting, and social media app patterns to track manic and depressive episodes.

To find out whether a user might be experiencing a manic or depressive episode, the app tracks typing speed, how hard keys are pressed and the frequency of the use of backspace and spellcheck.

I know there are a lot of people who dislike the idea of being tracked in any sense, which is totally fine. However, I feel a bit more comfortable with it knowing that it comes directly from a research group. It’s only available for iPhone, which is kind of a bummer because I’m a die-hard Android user.

I wish something like this had been around in 2013, when I was deep in the throes of exhausting rapid-cycling episodes. I was newly diagnosed, but the challenge of finding the right combination and doses of medication, the loss of my job (probably due to my cycling), and the overall disintegration of my marriage had more or less temporarily erased any benefits or relief I found from my diagnosis.

One of my long-time friends mentioned that he noticed I was posting a lot more on Facebook when I was manic than when I was depressed. Like, a lot. Even now that I’m stable and successfully medicated, I still pay close attention to what and how often I post. When I’m more energetic and feel like interacting with others, I find myself wondering if it’s because I’m manic, hypomanic, or just…not depressed.

When you’re living with bipolar disorder, it’s a constant question of Column A, Column B, Column C, or a bit of each. You learn to analyze your moods and energy levels, and this tracking can quickly become obsessional.

I see this app as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it would save those of us who pay attention to our moods a ton of work. On the other, those of us who are prone to preoccupation and overall obsessional thinking could end up checking in a lot more often than usual.

If BiAffect is released for Android, I’m for sure going to jump on it, at least for a trial run. It seems like it could be a useful tool for mental health care providers and patients alike–rather than having to drag in pages and pages of mood diaries, we could pop open an app and have the data right there at our fingertips (literally). And, at least in theory, it seems like any sort of self-report bias would be removed, or at least mitigated. I know I’ve been guilty of fibbing a bit in my mood diaries due to the shame that comes from realizing just how sick I am.

What do you think, readers? Would you give something like this a spin, or do you find it intrusive? Let me know! I’ll be keeping an eye on this one.

Until next time, stay safe and remember to be excellent to yourself.

News Day Tuesday: Sick Days

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

Hey readers! I’ve gotten really bad about posting regularly and as we all know, structure is crucial when you’re living with a mental illness (particularly bipolar disorder). I made myself a super-nifty planner before I started school in January and am actually going to start using it to keep myself on track. What this means for you is that hopefully, I won’t disappear for weeks at a time!

Anyway, today’s article addresses the stigma against physicians taking sick days for mental health. While it focuses on doctors in Australia, the topic is extremely relevant to anyone who has ever taken or needed a “mental health” day. According to the article, doctors (unsurprisingly) feel uncomfortable taking sick days for self-care, even when they begin to feel burned out and can’t deliver their usual level of care to patients.

“I’m completely supportive, but I’ll admit I’ve never been brave enough to take a mental health day,” one doctor said, adding, “How can you dump your workload on a colleague who is going through much the same things as you are?”


I find this extremely relatable because I’ve always felt awkward calling into work or needing to leave early because my brain has decided that doing anything other than crying in bed is just not going to happen. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve always felt the need to claim another reason–usually migraines, which I used to get several times a week–because we’re conditioned to believe that depression, anxiety, and other disorders of the mind are not a valid reason for absences. We’re taught to believe that we need to suck it up and get on with our lives, even if that means hiding in the bathroom to cry or have a panic attack.

Naturally, this poses a huge problem for anyone in the workforce, but it’s especially problematic for health care providers. It’s something I’ve often thought about as my clinical practicum draws closer. How can I best serve my clients if I’m experiencing the same symptoms as they are?

I also fear that even in a mental health facility, where one would expect supervisors to be a bit more sympathetic, I’ll come across as weak or unsuitable for the job because of what’s going on in my brain. There’s an indescribable level of self-loathing and shame that comes with mental illnesses, and I’m sure all of you can relate. It’s the feeling of being less-than, the feeling that you don’t deserve to have a job because some days, you just can’t handle the world. You begin to question everything about yourself–am I being weak or overly sensitive? Am I doing this whole “adult” thing wrong? The fear of losing your job is a constant presence, which only makes things worse.

So what can we do about it? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question. One would hope that with increased media exposure, employers will become more understanding, although every boss is different and there are zero guarantees.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I loved my job. I was working as an editor at a translation company, but my symptoms were so severe that I actually had what I called my “Oh shit, I cried at work!” kit, which I kept in my desk so I could patch myself up after crying jags. Some of the items included eye makeup, because it’s embarrassing to have streaked makeup after crying (even though I became very good at crying without messing up my face). Although my employer was aware of my struggles, I still lost that job due to absences, which sent me into a horrific downward spiral that took over a year to break.

Since then, I’ve become quite anxious about divulging any information related to my mental health to anyone at any job…and that’s problematic by itself. Why should we feel ashamed of something that’s beyond our control? The answer lies in the stigma.

It’s going to be a long, uphill battle, though the fact that today’s article even exists gives me hope. Exposure and time are the only things that are going to remedy this issue. It’s an unhappy thought, but I sometimes find myself wondering if mental health issues will ever be considered as legitimate as something as simple as food poisoning when it comes to work absences.

I’d like to end on an up note with another quote from the article: “If we can’t help ourselves, how can we help others?”

Self-care is so important, readers. The Compassion Project offers a list of self-care activities that you can check out to build a plan for yourself. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Reading
  • Baking (I’m a huge stress baker, though I haven’t done it in a while)
  • Knitting or embroidery
  • Crafting
  • Cuddling with a pet
  • Going for a walk (which you can even do at work–take a five-minute break to stretch your legs)
  • Doing a crossword puzzle

What are some of your favorite self-care activities? Let me know–I’m always looking to add to my list!

As always, readers, stay safe and I’ll see you next week.

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.