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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Some thoughts.

abuse, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, suicidal ideation, therapy

It is physically painful for me when people thank me for writing, or helping them, or tell me I’m brave or a role model. I’m not a role model. I wake up most days hoping to die. I don’t know how or why I’m still alive. D.’s theory is “sheer dumb luck,” and I think he’s right.

I am a junkie. I cold-turkeyed it over a year ago, but not for noble reasons. I stopped because it was no longer taking away the physical and emotional pain in one fell swoop. It simply stopped working, so I quit. That’s all. I still think about it every day and I think I always will. This is one thing I’m proud of, however—that I was able to stop and stay clean despite all the awful things that have happened in the last year.

My therapist told me last night that I’m the toughest woman she’s ever met. She’s in her 60s, so I’m guessing she’s met quite a few people. I’m not tough because I want to be or try to be. I’m tough because of my animalistic survival instinct–in other words, I’m tough because I’ve had to be, not because I want to be.

I vacillate between strong feelings of self-loathing and guilt and equally strong moments of self-esteem where I actually feel good. But those feelings are always tempered by the fear that my meds have stopped working, that I am manic again, that I am going to ruin things and use people up like I have countless times in the past.

Right now, my pride is wounded and I feel terribly alone. I know I have good people in my life who care about me, but none of them can relate to being raped innumerable times and having people blame you for it because you were too afraid to actually say “no,” to trusting someone completely for the first time in your life and having it unravel all at once, to visiting your mother in prison as a child.

On top of it, I’ve been having horrible nightmares again and the partial memory that strongly suggests I was molested by one of my mother’s boyfriends when I was five is beginning to come into focus at a time in my life when rehashing sexual abuse is the last thing I need.

My therapist referred me to a clinic that specializes in sexual abuse and PTSD. I didn’t take it personally—as an aspiring counselor myself, I understood where she was coming from when she said that she didn’t want to risk making things worse because she doesn’t have much experience in sexual abuse or trauma. I’ve been through enough therapists to know that I wasn’t being “fired” as a patient. Therapists, it seems, are the easiest group of people for me to trust. Their motives always seem to be pure, and the confidentiality helps, I think.

I’m thankful for all the support I’ve been getting, both for the blog and in my personal life. Words cannot express how much I appreciate each message and each person who reaches out, whether it’s to reassure me or tell me how I’ve helped them. That’s what keeps me going—fighting the good fight. I want to feel strong. I want to beat this thing. I want to help people. If I can make things even a little lbetter for everyone living with a mental, I’ve accomplished more than I could have ever hoped for or imagined. If you’d told me what I’d be doing now when I was a motherless, lonely child being bullied and dealing with the prodromal phase of bipolar, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second.

My family, for all their dysfunctions and refusal to discuss the dark side (the way bipolar disorder has spread like wildfire down through the generations), has been immensely supportive. While there was a rough period when I first started my column in my hometown’s newspaper at age 19, they quickly warmed to it and realized that I was doing something most nineteen-year-olds wouldn’t be capable of and that I was taking all the pain and trying to turn it into something positive.

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother and beloved great-aunt and other aunts telling me that I was talented, that I had something special that I needed to hold onto. It’s difficult to believe some days—as we all know, knowing something and believing it to be true are two entirely different things.

But I’m trying. I do what I need to do in order to get through the day. Some days are easier than others. Some feel impossible. I’m a big believer in the “fake it ’til you make it” mindset; while it doesn’t work for everyone, it’s served me well over the years. At the very least, it allows me to save face and present as “normal,” even if I’m completely falling apart on the inside.

It’s another bad weather day in my head, which I guess is my reason for writing this. I also wanted to reach out to all of you and say that I’m here for you, too. I’ll always listen if you need to talk—all you need to do is reach out and I’ll be there. It’s the least I can do.

Affirmations.

a cure for what ails you, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

Last summer, I met a wonderful woman completely by chance. I was heading home from a nearby gas station after a cancer run and wished her a good afternoon. I wandered over to her patio, noticed she was reading a book called “Fuck It Therapy,” and struck up a conversation.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to drop by for chats, and she revealed that she’s been journaling about her life for several decades—no small feat! I was particularly impressed because I’m notorious for purchasing pretty journals in hopes of actually sticking with the one-entry-a-day plan, only to give up after a week or two. She invited me to leaf through them, and I happened upon an entry where she’d written a list of affirmations.

They resonated with me because she’d managed to put to paper the types of things I tell myself when I’m feeling particularly low—things I’m good at, things I like about myself, and so on. But her entry contained one vital piece that my own thoughts were lacking (disclaimer: I’m paraphrasing here) : I am worthy of being loved not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but because I am human.

I’ve been even more introspective than usual over the last few weeks (if that’s even possible) and have been ruminating about what’s behind these words. It occurred to me that while I may tell myself these things, I’ve never stopped to digest what they mean, particularly in the context of my life.

It’s an important thing to consider, but it’s been particularly helpful recently because I’ve been feeling pretty low and down on myself. I’ve been having nightmares about the rapes almost every night and on top of it, the formerly repressed and still-patchy memory of possible molestation that I’ve been carrying around since I was five years old is starting to come into focus.

My ex-husband is seeing someone new; this person is wonderful, but I’ve been comparing myself to vim a lot, and as a result, my self-worth and self-esteem have been taking a huge hit. Combined with my brain “thawing out” and the defense mechanisms lowering a bit, life hasn’t exactly been easy lately. We had a good chat this afternoon, the first discussion we’ve had since we split in September that’s left me feeling loved and cared-for. I’d been seeing myself as a failure, something not meant to be happy or loved because I’ve been through too much. I am spiky and emotionally cagey and, as of the last few months, unable to handle physical touch from anyone outside my family without having a mini panic attack and dissociating even more. (It’s worth noting that I still consider D. family, and vice-versa; you can’t go through what we’ve been through and not remain close to the other person, even if you’re no longer romantically involved.)

But I have bright spots most days, even if they don’t last that long. I’m starting to see my worth as a person, totally independent of the J. who survived decades of abuse and plays the piano well and is bilingual and a writer and applying to grad school to become a therapist, the J. who is pretty and funny and interesting and outgoing, even if the “outgoing” part is often affected.

Humans deserve to be loved. We need love. We need affection. Every person on this earth, no matter how objectively terrible they may be, is worthy of love and care.

This revelation makes me feel better about my decision to become a therapist, as “misanthrope” and “counselor” are a somewhat unusual pairing. But I’ve been capable of stashing my inner life away in favor of objectivity for most of my life, so I’m hopeful that my ability to compartmentalize will help me in the long run. The fact that I can think of literally every person other than myself in such a positive light seems laughable, but I guess we’re all our own worst critics.

Baby steps, baby steps. Where are you in your journey to loving yourself?

Sending love into the darkness.

major depression, ptsd, self-harm, therapy, three hopeful thoughts

I met with my therapist last night after work, and she had some very good advice for me. I told her how I’m trying to make myself believe that my body is not the only thing worthwhile about me, the only good thing I have to offer other people. She countered that statement by saying it’s the “dark core” we all have that’s sending me those messages.

“But I want to fight it,” I protested. “I want to believe that I’m smart and pretty and funny and that those things, like the depression, are just a part of who I am. Right now, I feel like sex is the only way I can atone for being so fucked-up.”

She made me sit with those feelings for a while and over the course of the hour, we broke the false beliefs down in a less judgmental way. Instead of “fucked-up,” we said I was “sick but trying to get better,” which is a lot more than most people do. She told me how brave I am for making the effort.

She also advised me to stop fighting–fighting comes from a place of violence and hatred, and the darkness will always win. Instead, when the dark place tells me that I’m useless and a burden, I should look at it and say, with open arms, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way.” If I try to counter it by saying, “Well, I’m good at X, Y, and Z,” the automatic thoughts will come back with, “No, you’re really not.” But if I offer the pain compassion, I might be able to reduce the hold the thoughts have on me in the long run.

I cried a lot during our session. I think that’s going to be a recurring pattern, but I don’t see it as a bad thing–maybe it’s a sign that I’m starting to connect to my baggage and heal.