Nine Things I’ve Learned

I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it.  For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.

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“Where do I begin?”

That works for a while–the distancing.  It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful.  It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”.  But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:

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Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us.  That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.

But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work.  I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it.  Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online.  I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people.  I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race.  I could barely reach out to my friends.  I was just trying to stay afloat.  We are talking about surviving here.  Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I lost friends in the process.  There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did.  It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving.  Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge.  You will be “remodeled”.  You aren’t the same, but you are still you.  So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?

  1. If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster.  I was in therapy for two years.  It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.  I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist.  A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
  2. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal.  When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it.  You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen.  If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them.  Your health and emotions matter little.  If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened.  That was my M.O.  When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy.  I was elated.  My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe.  I said, “Nah…no way.”  I was so wrong.  I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary.  Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die.  Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process.  So, commit to it with all you’ve got.  Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
  3. You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone.  Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize.  I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”).  I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections.  I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition.  I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are.  This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance.  Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
  4. There comes a point when you come alive again.  At some point in your healing process, you reignite.  I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior.  For me, it was when I went back to school.  That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs.  I reached a point where I believed that I could start over.  I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again.  I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered.  I started to acquire hope.  This is a very good sign.  Go with it and see where it takes you.
  5. You will love and be loved again.  This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married.  I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage.  Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do.  I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended.  I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations.  I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked.  So, I lost myself.  Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily.  I did not think that it was possible for me.  I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.”  It is true though.  It is possible for you.
  6. Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve.  This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness.  When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels.  I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life.  Ever.  This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances.  When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you.  You can’t relax.  You can’t trust.  You can’t believe.  You can’t rest.  You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee.  Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want.  Surviving is the goal.  This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life.  So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it.  The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness.  That’s okay.  Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits.  Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
  7. Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do.  Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset.  I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish.  When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed.  I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject.  But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did.  I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours.  This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points.  I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss.  It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself.  That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
  8. You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past.  This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift.  When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present.  This is useful to a point.  Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future.  What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future.  You simply can’t see it.  Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD.  I think that they’re wrong.  I rely on neuroscience for this one.  The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us.  An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient.  Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future.  Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future.  So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences.  If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances).  Never have they learned to plan.  They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances.  Planning is a skill.  Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that.  It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it.  The future doesn’t exist yet.  We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present.  You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet.  It is yours as surely as your past is behind you.  This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
  9. You will recover your resiliency.  This is a big deal.  We are all resilient creatures.  Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points.  The point here is that you can come back from that.  There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t.  Don’t believe everything you think or feel.  That is folly.  Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about.  Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road.  Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here.  For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me.  I will get up again.”  Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed.  At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled.  You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles.  No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good.  I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever.  There comes a point when you something shifts.  You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious.  You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear.  Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being.  They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that.  Joy and peace? Not so much.  Those must be cultivated and invested in.  And…fought for.  The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness.  If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.

At this point on the road, this is where I’m at.  I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now.  We can get up and move.  As always, I wish you all great peace and…

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Playing Scrabble with Life

Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible.  It was glorious.

Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality  The girls felt ready to come back.  There is a lot to do in our home city.  School is starting, and I have a house to empty out.  We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer.  It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation.  And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program.  I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there.  I’m ready to depart.  I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters.  I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.

With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago.  A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family.  It was utterly delightful.  I seldom meet such charming and warm people.  Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure.  A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup.  One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there.  After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded.  I stopped wearing make-up.  I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse.  I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing.  It didn’t work.  The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you.  The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed.  It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.

Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school.  I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment.  When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow.  When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life.  I hid from the world in school.  It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out.  I don’t recommend it.

My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this.  I never said so, and I have never believed this.  She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view.  It became almost memetic in our exchanges.  If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world.  To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school.  I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving.  I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors.  To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.

My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face.  For real.  If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him.  You can imagine how often I was slapped.

Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…

So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself.  I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair.  To hell with it all, I thought.  It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon.  Brandon is young.  He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate.  He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty.  A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences.  Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them.  That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).

On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”.  I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions.  They were happy to include me.  Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not.  There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone.  To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm.  The context for our future exchange had been established.

As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad.  The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating.  Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting.  We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers.  Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh.  One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length.  Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”.  When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.”  He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in and overly exaggerated manner.

It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung.  Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me.  He did not want me participating in the conversation.  I sipped my water and gathered my wits.  I contained myself.  I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair.  I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior.  I went home that night feeling very bothered.  I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years.  He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego.  He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question.  Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.

That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact.  It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development.  It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today.  As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me.  I’m kind.  What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently.  What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?

So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party.  Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt.  I like to think of it like Scrabble.  Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score.  Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s.  What…the…hell.  The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.

We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile.  What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon.  Address your insecurities.  Address your envy.  Dig deep and address your past wounds.  Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you.  Do authentic recovery work from past relationships.  Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them.  Address your addictions whatever they may be.  We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work.  It is not destination-based work.  There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending.  If you are breathing, then you are processing something.  You are always drawing tiles to play.  The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles.  What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak.  That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way.  This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad.  As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already.  We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.

It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small.  Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles.  Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do.  Dedicate some time in that singular area.  Whatever it is.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  Just 5 minutes.  See where it takes you.  That might sound naive of me, but it’s not.  Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small.  So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger.  Just be consistent.  That is the key.  Five minutes.  Every day.  That’s it.

With that, I wish you all a wonderful September.  If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!

Shalom and keep going…

 

 

 

Could You Give Most of It Away?

I just started reading Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

 

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Maria Kondo struck a nerve in America with her runaway hit The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  I, however, need to do more than just tidy up.  I need to purge.  Do you know what I mean?

I’ve lived in my house for 19 years.  That’s a long time to live in a singular space, and, while I make it a point to donate gently used items quarterly (or we would have nowhere to hang our hats), it’s nowhere near enough.  I have four daughters.  Children seem to amass large quantities of things.  People give them things.  They collect things.  They want to keep them forever.  I understand that.  I feel sentimental about certain things.  Children, however, seem to feel sentimental about almost everything–even that used napkin from last Tuesday when their friend came over and used it to wipe dirt off the floor.  It’s actually a testament to their wonder, I think, and capacity to be 100% present.

And if you have a basement?! God have mercy on you.

Another round of donating is not what I’m about to embark on.  In ten months, I am moving house.  Three years ago, I announced on this blog that my marriage was ending after years of back-and-forthing and writing about domestic violence and emotional abuse and, “Is it really that bad?” A year-and-half ago, I went back to graduate school, and next summer three of my daughters and I are headed West–to the Bay Area.  To live in a very small space no doubt.  It’s the beginning of another new adventure.

So, I have to examine every single thing I own and decide: Do I need this or not? And, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that.  That’s why I picked up Sasaki’s book.  I figured, hey, there must be some good advice in here.  At a minimum, maybe I’ll feel inspired or  mentored.  Sasaki, thusly, defines minimalism as:

“Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the absolute minimum you need. Living as a minimalist with the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits like the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (pp. 20-25).

Here is an example of a minimalist bedroom:

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I actually like the clean lines and flow, but it feels sterile–like a room in a high-end treatment facility.

A minimalist kitchen:

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This looks more attainable than some of the other online examples.

A minimalist bathroom:

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I see this and think, “Where is the trash bin?! Does an immortal live here?”

A minimalist living room:

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This has that lovely aesthetic appeal that one sees in catalogs, but it also looks remarkably un-comfortable.  

I have noticed that all of these images are super posh, and, in my opinion, this should be more accessible.  What does a middle-of-the-road minimalistic apartment or house look like? You know, where ordinary people reside.  Of note, this is not a movement aimed at people living in poverty.  First-world countries are heavily affected by consumerism and capitalistic expenditures, and the USA tops that list with China and Japan featuring second and third.  Americans are awash in stuff:

The USA features the highest levels of per household disposable income and expenditure. High income levels boost the capacity for discretionary spending of US households, although the country’s income gap remains large and continues to rise. (Euromonitor International)

I wonder what sort of impact those of us with too much stuff would have on our communities if we donated the items we truly don’t need and seldom if ever used and stopped using our income to acquire more goods, thusly, changing how we “consume”? Furthermore, what sort of impact would this have on our time–an invaluable resource? I imagine that owning less means having more time, too, because we have to dedicate time to caring for our stuff.  How might we spend our resources if we moved in a minimalistic direction with intention? Over the next 10 months, I intend to find this out.  I can tell you right now what my two biggest problems are going to be–whittling down the book collection, my kitchen implements because I am a cook, and tea accoutrements.  I have an unusually large number of really beautiful teacups most of which were gifted to me, and I can’t take them all with me.

Perhaps I ought to do a giveaway! One teacup a week…

Anyone like teacups? English teacups? And then there are the Yixing teapots

Oy vey…

God have mercy indeed (I’m actually sort of excited to see how this experiment turns out).

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“I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a good reason, I’m doing it for a really good reason…”

 

Further Reading:

Principles of Healing

Hi everyone!

As you all know, I’m in school studying my little heart out to become a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, then you know that I tend to write about what I’m doing in my life, and this blog has seen me through most of my major life events.  I have really wanted to write about what I’ve been learning in my program because TCM integrates with my worldview so well in terms of how humans exist.  We are not a sum of our parts.  We are so much more than that, and TCM accounts for that in its treatment modalities while also acknowledging that there are parts to consider, too.  In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but the parts exist within the whole and exercise great influence on the whole in its unique context.

So, I started another blog wherein I could write about what I’m learning in TCM medical school along with other significant topics that I’ve been asked about related to health and healing; topics that simply don’t fit well on this blog.

If you are interested in that, then you can find me wearing that particular hat in the blogosphere here: Principles of Healing.

And, once again, I thank all of you for reading.  I made it through the last three years, in part, because I could come here and write.  I can’t thank you enough.  I wish all of you every wonderful thing…

Shalom, MJ

Living with Intention

I receive many emails asking how to fix a loved one.  It might be a mother with a personality disorder or a partner or family member with alexithymia.  In both cases, I have been that self-same person on the search for solutions.  I have asked the same questions: What can I do to fix this? Is it me? Can I fix myself so that they will love me? Can I fix them by giving them books to read or directing them to resources? Maybe they had bad modeling as children and just need to be loved better, and I’m the one to do it!

I have loved someone with a disordered personality that kept them out of reach, distant from me, isolating me on a loveless and lonely island.  For years, I dove into the treacherous sea of uncertainty and swam to distant coastlines in an attempt to rescue my own mother from her mental illness.  I came bearing recommendations and suggestions that I swore would help her.  I only roused her inner demons and exacerbated her illness causing her to throw me back into the black waters which promptly washed me back onto the rocky shores of my tiny island.

I loved another person who seemed to thrive on isolation and personal inertia.  From the moment we returned from the weekend in a hotel we called our honeymoon, he holed up in a room and rarely ventured forth into the outside world.  He preferred fantasy over reality.  He disdained my presence and cultivated an impoverished sense of love and relationships while also developing a deluded and grandiose sense of self.  It did not matter how hard I tried to enter into his personal poverty or what riches I offered him.  He rejected everything.  He preferred his own distorted interpretation of the world.  He chose himself even over his children.  Whether he lacked the capacity or the will, it did not matter for he simply did not act.  He remained as he ever was.

What then? The heart wants what it wants and loves whom it loves, but then what? When the truth becomes apparent, and when will it become apparent? When you ask for it.  When you want it. And, what is this truth? It is not your job to change people.  It is not your job to fix people.

It is your job to change and heal yourself.  

It is our job to develop our personalities and our character so that we are continually becoming the kind of people with whom we would like to partner either platonically or romantically.  This is no small task.  It is so much easier and, honestly, far more fun to look at other people and pick them apart.  It’s vastly entertaining to scrutinize and judge our acquaintances and even our partners.  That smug feeling we experience when we climb onto our high horses is like taking a hit of heroine.  It’s addictive.  Why? Here is an interesting take on judgment:

“At some point in our life, usually in childhood, some external event causes us to separate from that true nature. That separation from love creates in us feelings of specialness or inadequacy, leading to loneliness and as a result, fear. So we project it outward in the form of judgment.

We know we are loving, interconnected beings, but in our separation we live in a dream state, shutting off our connection to our loving truth. This separation establishes the ego’s perception of a false self based on judgment. We grow to believe deeply in the false perception of ourselves in order to feel safe in the world of separation.

Deep down, and without realizing it, we judge ourselves for separating from our truth, leading us to feel ashamed and guilty. That unconscious guilt is so painful that we have no choice but project it outward in an effort to end our suffering. By projecting judgment onto others, we deny and repress our feelings of guilt. Subconsciously, this makes us feel even more guilty because we know this judgment is not who we really are. The guilt we feel from judging others is then projected right back onto ourselves, and the vicious cycle beings again. This the judgment cycle.

I cannot overstate this: Judgement is the number one reason we feel blocked, sad and alone. Our popular culture and media place enormous value on social status, looks, racial and religious separation, and material wealth. We are made to feel less than, separate, and not good enough, so we use judgment to insulate ourselves from the pain of feeling inadequate, insecure, or unworthy. It’s easier to make fun of, write off, or judge someone for a perceived weakness of theirs than it is to examine our own sense of lack.

 

Judgment is an addictive pattern.

 

Judgement is an addiction response to deep-rooted trauma. The first trauma is the separation from love. From a spiritual perspective, choosing fear and separation over love dissociates us from our truth. We become fragmented in this state of separation and lose our connection to our inner being. In this disconnected state, we inadvertently turn our back on our inner being and become obsessed with an outward projection of who we think we are. Feelings of guilt and sadness wash over us, because deep down, we know we’ve turned our back on love. But we can’t fully understand our guilt, so we do whatever we can to avoid feeling it. This is how the cycle of judgment becomes and addictive pattern.

When we avoid our guilt and suffering by projecting it onto others, it’s a way of numbing out. Like any good drug, judgment will anesthetize our pain and redirect our focus. It can even get us high. Gossip is a great example. Whenever you get together with friends to talk about another person in a judgmental way, you’re avoiding your own core wounds. You’re using judgment as a drug to numb your own pain and get high on someone else’s. Gossip is especially nasty because it gives us the illusion that we’re bonding with others, when instead we’re just banding together to heap all our pain onto another person.

Gossiping can give us a buzz because it provides temporary relief from self-judgment and attack. We repeat a self-judgmental story on a loop all day long: I’m not good enough. Why did I make that mistake? I’m ugly. I’m not smart enough. And so on. All these self-inflicted behaviors are just another form of addiction. We unconsciously choose to judge rather than feel the pain beneath our wounds.

But notice I said that our self-judgmental story is played on a loop. That’s because it leads nowhere! Getting on the path to healing requires us to feel the discomfort—but we’re way too scared to go there, so instead we gossip or judge ourselves as the victim feels safer than facing our wounds. This I show self-judgment becomes an addiction.

The addictive pattern is further fueled by our denial. We long to feel better but deny that judgement is the problem. In fact, we see judgment as the solution, as a way of protecting ourselves. Our unconscious belief system keeps us stuck in the judgment cycle because we’re terrified of facing our own pain and suffering. We use judgment to protect ourselves from exposing our deepest wounds.

The repetition of judgment is habit-forming. If you repeat a behavior over and over, you strengthen your neural pathways. In time that behavior becomes second nature. The more you repeat the pattern of judgment, the more you believe in it. You create your reality with the thoughts you repeat and the beliefs that you align with. When judgment is your belief system, you’ll always feel unsafe, under attack and defensive. If you’re going to change the habit of judgment you need to change your core belief system. Our aim is to find our way back home—to find our way back to love.” (From Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein)

Stopping any self-destructive cycle and engaging in a truly honest personal inventory with the intention of self-betterment is difficult but virtuous.  Asking the question: What do I really want from a friend and partner and then committing to developing those very qualities in oneself is, in my experience, the path to actually ending destructive relationships and beginning healthy ones.

Why? Well, as you begin to grow into healthy behaviors and ways of relating to yourself and other people, you will organically grow out of unhealthy patterns of behavior.  Self-destructive behaviors will ebb, and the people in your life who were attracted to those qualities in you will migrate away from you because you will naturally also move away from them.  Simply put, your orbits will change.  This kind of growth is a process, and processes take time.  It is not something that happens immediately, but it does happen when you commit to your own process of improvement and growth.  After a time, you will see that destructive people have left your life.  You may also be forced to make difficult decisions like ending relationships that were always bad for you or have become so over a period of time, but this is part of growing up and into living life with intention.

When you live your life with intention, you discover that you cannot make another person meet your needs; you cannot force another person to stop hurting you.  You can only move away from them and choose to live your life among different people who share your values.  And, this is essentially what people are emailing me about: How can I make my loved one share my values? How can I make the person I love stop valuing neglect or gaslighting or exploitation or selfishness or their own personal inertia? How can I make them see that what I value is better? You can’t.  If you don’t share the same values now, then you likely never will.  Take the temporary hit, gather your momentum, and keep going.  You will find other people in the world who do share your values and will love you, and you will love them, too.  You really will.

I don’t say any of this flippantly or without compassion.  I have done everything that I’m suggesting, and I know all too well just how hard it is.  I also know what life looks like “on the other side”.  It is worth it.

Keep going…

 

Circumstantial Alchemy

I like to write useful posts, and I’m going to try to spin this “leaden” topic into gold as it were.  I think I can do it.

I am certainly getting many opportunities to engage in circumstantial alchemy at my college. I have to confess something.  I had a rather disheartening interaction with a fellow student yesterday, and, because I process through writing, I thought I would write about it.

I’ve not written a lot about my health issues (at least I don’t think I have).  My personal view of my health journey has always been that I’m a healthy person fighting off illness rather than I’m a sick person fighting to be well.  That paradigm has kept me optimistic and positive.  Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with an unrelenting, chronic condition or many unrelenting, chronic conditions, there are trying days, and the illness(es) wins a few rounds.  Truth be told, I’ve been a healthy person fighting off illness since early childhood.  I’ve spent months that probably add up to a few years of my life in hospitals, and I carry multiple diagnoses and see four specialists outside of my primary care physician just to manage all of these diagnoses.  Frankly, I became a bit discouraged because I wondered if I actually had one unknown condition that was the umbrella diagnosis manifesting as all these other health problems.

Last year, I ended up in yet another specialist’s office seeking more help because I suspected I had stumbled upon the X factor–the unknown umbrella diagnosis.  I was, thusly, diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and it could very well be the foundational problem underlying every other health issue I have.  It is also a giant pain in the ass.  My doctor moved quickly to get the right protocols in place so that I would stop experiencing anaphylactoid reactions every few weeks, and she connected the dots between her diagnosis and the other specialists’ diagnoses.  That was a huge relief.  She indicated that it was indeed quite possible that I didn’t actually have all these other conditions; it may all be a mast cell disease at play.  I was both shocked and awe-struck.  I left her office with an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place.  I now wear my Medic Alert bracelet all the time.  Everyone close to me knows how to administer an Epi-Pen, and my very long list of allergens is up to date.  I get monoclonal antibodies infused at the hospital every four weeks, take Gen 1 and Gen 2 antihistamines daily in addition to mast cell stabilizers.  I follow a low histamine diet.  I do my best every day.  And yet, as most of us know, sometimes your best is not good enough.

Sometimes things still happen like stress or viral infections or food contaminants.  Or, a nurse doesn’t administer an infusion correctly, and a mast cell activation event occurs that leaves you in bed for 10 days sending you to the ER for fluids, Zofran, and steroids.  I didn’t know that could happen!

(Actually, two nurses mistakenly injected Xolair directly into my abdomen intramuscularly! Like they were rabies shots!!!)

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I don’t know, Liam!

It was while I was lying in bed last week feeling like I was run over by a truck and working myself into a nice, foamy lather over missing a week and half of classes that I comforted myself–“Your friends at school will get your notes for you.  It’ll be okay.  Your teachers know you.  No, you’re not a slacker.  You won’t fail out of grad school…”

So, finally, here is my confession.  Here is the lead.  When I was finally able to return to school, I greeted the people I knew and thanked them for putting notes in my mailbox.  I approached a friend I’ve spent time getting to know, and her affect clearly indicated that she wasn’t interested in talking.  I thought that she could be distracted, but then I realized that she was not interested in talking to me.  I moved to end the conversation; my final remark was a movie recommendation and she almost scoffed, “Well, at least you did something positive last week.”  Whoa.

Did you catch that? That’s shame right there.  Whether she knows it or not, she was condemning me for being sick last week.  For not meeting her criteria of engaging in “positive actions”, and embedded within that sharp retort was blame: “It’s your fault that you’re sick.”  She then went on to ignore me–to distance herself from me–a perceived sick person.  And, from an anthropological perspective, this is very mammalian–unless, of course, you’re an elephant.

“Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet.” (Scientific American)

I felt as if a stone were in my stomach for the rest of my class.  Like my heart had dropped low down into me.  I was disheartened and disappointed.  I did not understand this social interaction at all until just moments ago as I was trying to write this out, but I see it now.  There was no compassion, and I don’t say this because I feel entitled to it.  I merely observe it.

Living with a chronic illness is…weird.  It’s too easy to say that it’s hard.  For me, it’s not hard exactly.  I find it strange.  There are days in which I feel perfectly fine.  I don’t have any pain, and I’m almost not fatigued at all.  Of course, my diet is very limited.  I’m practically a vegan because I can’t tolerate most animal proteins particularly bovine meat and milk.  I have celiac disease so that means no gluten, and I’m deathly allergic to quite a few fruits and nuts.  And now what with the MCAS diagnosis, I have to pay attention to foods that are “histamine liberators”.  There are days that it feels very complicated, but, for the most part, I don’t really mind.  Every day that I don’t literally almost die from anaphylaxis, I’m truly grateful.  I’m not one to think in terms of fairness or justice because that smacks of a victimization.  Illness is part of the human experience.  Is it fair? Well, I cannot answer that.  Suffering is part of life.

What I have gleaned from my experiences with long-term, chronic health issues is empathy and compassion for people who suffer from, well, just about anything.  To quote John Mulaney, adult life is so goddamned weird.  We do not have the privilege of foresight.  We don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do have the opportunity to cultivate a better personality with a richer substance and character that allows us to meet the unknown with courage and resiliency.  And, what of this unknown? You may never get sick and stay sick a day in your life, but someone you love might.  What’s more, they may do everything right and still never heal properly.  Then what? Will you blame them? Tell them that they aren’t positive enough? Good enough? Strong enough? Dedicated enough? X enough? Will those well-meaning judgments most likely intended to spur them on to try harder actually help them? No. Why? If a person with a chronic illness could heal from trying harder to heal, then they would already be better.  Trust me.

We are all human in the end and will shuffle off this mortal coil.  Where then is the gold from this lead? I think that it is to be found in the howHow we live.  How we treat others.  How we view others.  Even how we go about experiencing our diseases and disorders if we have a chronic condition.  The one thing we are guaranteed is that we will all come to be intimately acquainted with suffering in either ourselves or other people.  What then? Compassion.  It is the only legitimate response.  It validates, legitimizes, heals, and grows connections.  Compassion mends the broken places and bridges the divides.

What of the people who blame, shame, judge, alienate, invalidate, and ostracize us for things that are no fault of our own? Well, sometimes we learn how to be better humans by observing others make mistakes.

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If I wasn’t fully present to the reality of compassion and its utter necessity in the world before, I am now.  I don’t feel angry at my fellow student.  Oddly, I feel grateful.  Her impoverished response acted as a mirror for me.  For those of us who do deal with chronic conditions whatever they may be, we need to have compassion for ourselves because sometimes it’s in short supply.  For me personally, I want to continue to develop compassion in my character and be mindful to exercise it.  Unfortunately, you can count on other people to judge what they do not understand, and many people do not understand chronic illnesses particularly people who have been healthy for most of their lives.  It is a lonely place when you are your most frequent and best advocate, but sometimes that is the road set before you until you find your tribe.

And, so, I will raise my voice today to join the other voices of compassion.  There is absolutely no shame or reason to accept judgment if you have a chronic illness.  Regardless of the overflowing fount of opinions in your life and the world at large, you deserve compassion, kindness, empathy, and a safe place to land where good friends will love you today.  Just as you are.

Keep going, MJ

 

 “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 
― Dalai Lama XIVThe Art of Happiness

Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

I have devoted a lot of space on this blog to writing about PTSD, C+PTSD, and healing from trauma.  I’ve been honest about my own journey towards wholeness.  What I share here is an attempt to elucidate the emotional experience behind C+PTSD in specific the anxiety experience.

What I can say for certain about healing from C+PTSD is that it is like a disease that remits and exacerbates.  I can go a year and not devote any time to thinking about the man who abducted and trafficked me, my time in captivity with him, or the events that happened to me therein.  I rarely think of my father or stepmother.  My mother doesn’t come to mind much either in the context of her abusive behaviors.  The domestic violence I experienced in my former marriage is no longer foremost in my mind.  It’s not the people or specific events that dog me now.

So, what is left after you deal with the details and process the events? What is left after therapy because there is something left?

I’ve had a hard time defining the quality of what remains until a friend sent me a link to this article yesterday:

We Can’t Keep Treating Anxiety From Complex Trauma the Same Way We Treat Generalized Anxiety

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

No one gets a prize for “worst” depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has Complex PTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.

For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. General anxiety can often be calmed with grounding techniques and reminders of what is real and true. Mindfulness techniques can help. Even when they feel disconnected, anxious people can often acknowledge they are loved and supported by others.

For those who have experienced trauma, anxiety comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actuallyalready happened. The brain and body have already lived through “worst case scenario” situations, know what it feels like and are hell-bent on never going back there again. The fight/flight/ freeze response goes into overdrive. It’s like living with a fire alarm that goes off at random intervals 24 hours a day. It is extremely difficult for the rational brain to be convinced “that won’t happen,” because it already knows that it has happened, and it was horrific.

Those living with generalized anxiety often live in fear of the future. Those with complex trauma fear the future because of the past.”

This is absolutely true, and most therapists don’t seem to have a clue that there is a difference.  Perhaps this will help someone reading this…

I live with a smoldering anxiety that never leaves me.  It peaks when I’m happy.  Oddly, it ebbs when I’m too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I suspect that trauma survivors try to stay so busy because it prevents them from feeling this particularistic type of anxiety.  When I’m struck with the evanescent beauty of a moment, fear creeps in like a thief and begins to steal my joy.  I do not know how to escape any of this.  It might be strange, but I’ve tried to make friends with it.  I’ve wanted to understand it in an effort to defuse it.

As Ms. Peterson has said, I don’t fear because I’m generally anxious.  I do not have an anxious personality.  I fear because of what I’ve known.  Because of my past experiences.  When the worst-case scenario has already happened to you, then who’s to say it won’t happen again? Yes, I’ve survived extreme sexual torture, a kidnapping, human trafficking, and years of abuse in my family of origin.  I was duped by my ex-husband for twenty years and sexually assaulted by him.  My former therapist told me that I could clearly survive anything.  My brain fears that I will have to do it again.  Over and over again.  This is the flavor of anxiety that belongs to trauma survivors.  This is the nature of PTSD and C+PTSD anxiety.

I do practice mindfulness, but becoming mindful does not shut down my anxiety.  It often only makes me more aware that I’m fearful and feeling helpless.  It can promote the very hypervigilance I’m seeking to escape.

The remedy for both anxiety and trauma is to pull one’s awareness back into the present. For a traumatized person who has experienced abuse, there are a variety of factors that make this difficult. First and foremost, a traumatized person must be living in a situation which is 100 percent safe before they can even begin to process the tsunami of anger, grief and despair that has been locked inside of them, causing their hypervigilance and other anxious symptoms. That usually means no one who abused them or enabled abuse in the past can be allowed to take up space in their life. It also means eliminating any other people who mirror the same abusive or enabling patterns.

Unfortunately for many, creating a 100 percent abuser-free environment is not possible, even for those who set up good boundaries and are wary of the signs. That means that being present in the moment for a complex trauma survivor is not fail-proof, especially in a stressful event. They can be triggered into an emotional flashback by anything in their present environment.

It is possible (and likely) that someone suffering from the effects of complex trauma is also feeling anxious and depressed, but there is a difference to the root cause. Many effective strategies that treat anxiety and depression don’t work for trauma survivors. Meditation and mindfulness techniques that make one more aware of their environment sometimes can produce an opposite effect on a trauma survivor.  Trauma survivors often don’t need more awareness. They need to feel safe and secure in spite of what their awareness is telling them.”

Feeling safe and secure, for me, is key.  Safety and security in my relationships and environment seem to be the cure.  I know why feelings of relief and happiness trigger feelings of fear and, sometimes, emotional flashbacks.  My father deliberately cultivated feelings of happiness and relief in me in order to overturn them and further engage in abuse.  He was a pathologically cold man.  My mother’s emotional and personality disorders caused constant instability in our family environment.  As soon as any sort of happiness was achieved, it vanished just as quickly due to her inability to maintain a consistent mood or affect.  She also attempted suicide numerous times.  As soon as any family member felt relief that she might be doing better, she would attempt suicide again or lash out in talionic rage against someone in the family.  Nothing in my family life was ever predictable.  We consistently waited for “the other shoe to drop”.  I grew up on edge.  If there were ever a moment of happiness, I knew that my mother would ruin it.  Or my father.  That has proven to be true over the years.

Consequently, when I feel this rising panic borne of this nebulous but constant fear that follows me everywhere, it isn’t generalized.  It is quite specific, and I find myself saying, “I can’t go back to that.  I can’t do that again.  I won’t do that again.”  And, I feel frozen and terrified as if an old enemy has found me.  I feel a strong urge to cut all ties and run away mixed with a terrible almost existential fear that I will live out my life completely alone.  And, yet, I know that this will all pass.  It is, as I said, like an exacerbation of an autoimmune disease–an autoimmune disease of the mind and soul.

With that said, what is to be done? Well, I have therapized, read, studied, and pursued many roads over the last twenty years in order to answer that very question, and I’ve had a fair amount of success.  For the survivor of trauma, however, consistently establishing safety and security in your myriad environments and relationships is the number one thing to do to defuse anxiety and flashbacks related to trauma.  This will always be the first and last step.  It is also the first question to ask when you feel that familiar fear rise: “Do I feel unsafe or insecure anywhere in my life or in any relationship?”

I hope that this has been helpful to you.  Ms. Peterson’s article has been very helpful and validating for me.

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ