Atonement and Forgiveness: Another Perspective

The Jewish New Year is fast approaching.  In the Jewish calendar, the month before Rosh Hashanah is called Elul.  In Jewish thought and tradition, the month of Elul is considered to be a time when God is “in the field”.  He is to be found.  The veil is thin.  Draw near.  So, what is the deal with Rosh Hashanah? It leads up to Yom Kippur.  Why does that matter? Isn’t Yom Kippur a line in that Train song? “How could you leave on Yom Kippur….” Why does this even matter? Let’s talk about it.

The subject of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is vast, but, in very simple terms, Elul is a time of stocktaking and introspection.  “Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance, showing a smiling face to them all.” (Chabad)  As a Jewish writer points out, “As the month of divine mercy and forgiveness, Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G‑d), prayer, charity, and increased ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew), in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G‑d.” (Chabad)

Christianity has a similar tradition found in Lent which precedes Holy Week and Easter, and Muslims observe Ramadan (The Muslim Lent: Ramadan Explained)  So, the idea of engaging in contemplation for the sake of personal betterment, increasing one’s awareness of our neighbor, and increasing our intimacy with God is indeed common.  To what end do we engage in this? There is a reason to be sure.

Have you ever met a person of faith, regardless of whatever faith they followed, who seemed to represent that faith beautifully? You may not have believed what they believed, but, after you spent time with them, you thought to yourself, “That was a lovely human being.  I respect that person so much.”  Conversely, have you ever met a person who made you feel sick to your stomach just by being near you? What seemed to amplify their noxious personality was their proclamation of religion.  You left their presence thinking to yourself, “Whatever they believe I feel mandated to personally oppose for the sake of all that is integrous and good in the world!”

I have had both experiences, and, in terms of faith and personalities, there may be a reason for that.  Furthermore, it’s entirely redeemable albeit unpleasant.  From what I’ve observed, it comes down to what one believes about present accountability.

I’ve written before that I grew up within Christianity.  I almost went to seminary.  I am, however, Jewish.  I can trace my family back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  We fled as conversos and maintained a secret and not so secret Jewish practice for centuries.  The tradition was passed to me when I was around ten years-old.  It is very hard to be Jewish alone, however, as there is a lot that one can’t learn by oneself.  I have learned a lot in a year since “coming out” of the converso closet.  One of the more fascinating things that I have learned has centered around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, as I have explained, is a time of contemplation in order to ponder how your year went.  How did you do? How did you treat others? Do you need to make anything right? What would you like to do better? It is a time to look to the immediate past, assess the present, and adjust one’s trajectory.  Rosh Hashanah is then the entry point into the new year complete with seder when one begins to ask to be the head and not the tail.  Victorious and not defeated.  The greeting on these two days is “L’shanah tovah” which is actually a shortening of “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” which means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”  Rosh Hashanah begins a ten day period of time that ends with Yom Kippur; this period of time is known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance:

“One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that G-d has “books” that he writes our names in, writing down who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. These books are written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d’s decree. The actions that change the decree are “teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah,” repentance, prayer, good deeds (usually, charity). These “books” are sealed on Yom Kippur. This concept of writing in books is the source of the common greeting during this time is “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Among the customs of this time, it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year. The Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.”  (Judaism 101)

This entire idea shocked me when I learned about it.  Growing up in a Christian environment, it was very foreign.  What kind of exacting accounting of my choices was this? My first response was fear.  I shared what I had learned with a friend who practiced Christianity, and their response was to dismiss it: “That’s nonsense.  Jesus covered all our sins.  We are free and forgiven.”  Is that true? Let’s look at Matthew 5.  Jesus explains very directly:

23-24 This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

Yom Kippur is referred to as The Day of Atonement in Leviticus 23.  Leviticus was written between 1440 and 1400 BCE.  Jesus was born sometime around 7 BCE.  Jesus was a practicing Jew as we all know.  He would have observed Yom Kippur, and he would have taught those who listened to his teachings how he interpreted Torah.  What is Jesus saying then? What is the greater implication?

In the words of Rabbi Moshe Brennan, “Yom Kippur is primarily about asking for God’s forgiveness. Making amends with humans is a separate thing.”

That’s what Jesus was talking about.  We can’t go to God and expect him to forgive us for something that is between us and someone else.  We have to do the work of resolving that before we attempt to resolve our personal issues with God.  Furthermore, our refusal to engage in this has a direct effect on the coming year:

“One of the ways we can demonstrate that devotion (to God), says Germantown Jewish Centre’s Rabbi Annie Lewis, is to repair the relationships in our lives, to follow not just the spirit of the law, but the very letter of it. “ ‘Yom Kippur’ comes from kapporet, which means to cover over something,” she explains. To draw on God’s abounding compassion, she says, we have to cover over the holes in our lives caused by past failings. “God will not grant us forgiveness from something we have done to another person until we seek forgiveness ourselves from the person. Yom Kippur is a powerful time to work on these relationships.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

Hence, the ten days that lie between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exist to allow us to make amends and settle accounts not only with God but with everyone in our lives.  It is a time to do the hard things.

“Atoning and forgiving is only difficult if you are doing it right,” says Rabbi Eli Hirsch of Mekor Habracha, a Center City synagogue. “Offering quick and easy apologies means that you probably are not taking responsibility for the pain you’ve caused. And it’s interesting that we can sense when an apology is insincere…But God wants us to make amends because he cares about our relationships with each other. He demonstrates that by forgiving us again and again.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

This is what was missing in my religious experiences growing up.  This is what has been missing in my religious experiences as an adult.  I would watch the people around me mistreat their fellow congregants in big and small ways with little remorse.  Sometimes quick apologies were offered, but when forgiveness was not easily granted for pain inflicted a judgmental insult was rendered, “How can you be a Christian then? God forgives me! I have grace.”  Actually, no, you don’t.  It’s very clear here that if we wrong another person, then we have to make amends.  God does not do the work of forgiving us on behalf of another person if we haven’t actually sincerely apologized to that person and asked how we can make amends for hurting them.  Going further, it’s inappropriate for us to even be in church or synagogue offering worship to God when we know someone has something against us particularly if the reason they are hurting is our fault! Even Jesus said that.  The grace of God is not unmerited favor.  The grace of God is an empowering presence that equips us to do the things in life required of us that we may never have been able to do without it.

It’s shocking, but it’s necessary to know.  We really are accountable for our actions towards other people.  In the now.  To love God well means to love others well.  In the New International Version translation of the New Testament, the word ‘sin’ is mentioned 127 times.  ‘Love’, on the other hand, is mentioned 232 times.  People matter.  You and I matter.  How we are treated matters, and how we engage others on a daily basis matters.  We cannot engage in all manner of bad behavior towards our fellow humans while engaging in religious traditions, and then expect forgiveness from God.  We actually have to find the people we hurt and do something about it.  That is exactly why we require grace.  Why? Because doing that kind of work is scary and extremely difficult.  We often find out in the reconciliation process that we might not be as awesome as we thought we were, and it can throw us for an existential loop.  Weighing our self-perception against other people’s experience of us can be quite painful, but it can often be the catalyst to immense personal growth.  This is the gift of the Days of Awe.  This tradition exists for our well-being and healing.  Not for God’s.

I want to stop for a moment and address something.  I have experienced abuse and trauma.  What if a former abuser approaches you and asks for forgiveness? I have experienced this; not only was I frightened by the experience but I was also confused.

“But some things seem impossible to forgive. As the founder of JSafe, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse, Dratch should know. How could atonement be made for those crimes? How could forgiveness ever be granted?

“Repentance is the obligation of the perpetrator and forgiveness is the prerogative of the victim,” Dratch explains. “In many cases, abusers follow the same steps as those who have committed other wrongs: admitting guilt, taking steps to make sure that the behavior is not repeated and sincerely apologizing to the victim. Those three things can take a lifetime to accomplish. Many abusers will not even admit their crimes and so can never earn forgiveness.”

Whether or not the abuser asks for it, victims often try to forgive as part of their healing process. “Jewish law does not oblige a victim to forgive,” Dratch clarifies. “But when you hold on to hurt or anger, you hold on to the crime and allow it to define you. By forgiving, people who have been controlled by others take control over their minds, bodies and self-images. They say, ‘I will not allow your actions to influence me any more. I will be the person that I want to be.’ ”

Forgiveness is very different than consequence, Dratch says, and one of those consequences is punishment. “Someone may hurt you and you may forgive, but perhaps you don’t want that person in your life anymore, or perhaps not in the way they were before,” he says.

Lewis also believes that forgiving is the key to Yom Kippur, even if there can be no concomitant forgetting. “What happens in the past doesn’t go away,” she says, “but we find a way to integrate it into the new people we become through the work of teshuvah, seeking to repair our relationships with ourselves, with God, with other people.”

The cycle of forgiveness has been constant for thousands of years, and has applied to all Jews, regardless of their importance. God loved Moses completely and forgave his sins, but that forgiveness did not mean that Moses was allowed to go into the Promised Land. That exclusion was the result of the wrongs he committed.

That’s the other purpose of Yom Kippur, Hirsch believes. “It is a cautionary tale that we carry with us,” he says, “because when it comes to forgiveness, God has the final say.” (Understanding Yom Kippur’s Focus on Atonement and Forgiveness)

It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the end, we are not intended to be victims.  We are supposed to be active in our lives.  We make choices.  We make amends.  We approach God.  We interact.  We engage with ourselves and others.  It makes sense.  We have options, and we exercise those options.  You don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of the spirit behind Elul and the Days of Awe.  Doing a self-inventory, engaging in contemplation, engaging God, and checking in with the people in your life with humility and openness may be a practice you find rewarding and catalyzing.

Further Reading:

 

Understand Your Brain, Understand Yourself

To begin to get a solid grasp of where I’m headed in terms of changing your narrative and healing yourself in experiential ways so that you can change your trajectory in tangible ways, I highly recommend that you watch this documentary on the brain–“Automatic Brain: The Magic of the Unconscious Mind”.  It’s a little under an hour long.  It’s fascinating, and it will give you insight into how and why you function as you do on a daily basis.

You can also find it on Amazon Prime.

If you want to take it one step further, then watch this as well–“The Brain that Changes Itself” (also found on Amazon Prime in addition to YouTube).

Your Narrative Brain and Trauma Recovery

I’ve been thinking about the idea of catastrophizing and feeling suspicious.  Both of these fall under the larger heading of hypervigilance.  Bear with me as I explain this because it’s very important.

What is hypervigilance? It’s “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.  Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.”  (online source)  It is common for those who experience PTSD to also experience hypervigilance.  People with anxiety disorders are often hypervigilant.  People who suffer from chronic pain or chronic illness can also experience hypervigilance.

The two things that interest me here are the two states of mind that can often characterize, or add specific flavor, to a hypervigilant experience–existing in a suspicious state and/or consistently anticipating negative outcomes.  These two states of mind are often what make living with something like PTSD, for example, next to impossible because the suspicious, catastrophic free-flowing thoughts and tale-spinning seem impossible to manage.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind the startle response.  Feeling suspicious of others all the time and consistently anticipating a thoroughly negative outcome? I would rather be rid of those two altogether.

So, how do we do this?

I have and continue to study trauma and the latest research and clinical approaches to healing it.  My latest therapist, whom I chose based on his PhD in neuroscience, specializes in extreme trauma and trauma recovery.  I’ve put in years of work around recovery over the years, but I have never been able to shake this sort of hypervigilance.  None of the clinicians I’ve seen has addressed it adequately.  Frankly, that’s not good enough for me.  I don’t want to manage this.  I want to cure it.  So, how?

Let’s start with a premise.  I postulated that PTSD (and even C+PTSD) is an adaptation that enables survival.  It is not a disorder in terms of a mental illness diagnosis even though it exists in the DSM-V.  It is an expression of a human’s ability to adapt and survive even the most extreme circumstances.  After all, all people with PTSD have one thing in common–we all survived.  That is nothing to sneeze at.  That is actually a very big deal.  My therapist agreed with all of the above.  This is a point of view that is emerging in the clinical field.

There are people who can become very protective of the idea of hypervigilance and any other PTSD experiences as a pathology, and that is understandable.  Chronic PTSD can be disabling and create a strong feeling of “otherness”.  It can be the cause of extreme ontological alienation.  I’ve been there.  If it’s viewed as a pathology, however, which is what a disorder is, then it can’t be fully healed in a meaningful way.  We develop coping strategies in order to manage pathologies.  The Western Cartesian model of viewing and treating human beings and their pathologies doesn’t function from a “cure” paradigm.  I am, however, very tired of coping with hypervigilance.  I want a more elevated life experience.

I’m going to be blunt for a moment to prevent any accusatory emails.  This blog is almost seven-years old.  I can’t expect anyone to know what I mean by “trauma” in terms of my personal experiences because who has time to read all the contents and therein my background? At the same time, I don’t think that anyone should have to take out their Trauma and Suffering CV in order to gain credibility or gravitas, thus, permitting them to contribute to the larger discussion.  At the same time, I understand the urge to desire that.  People find it difficult to listen to another person’s opinions on something so personal as recovering from trauma without epistemic trust.  I thoroughly relate to this. I don’t like to be lectured on how to manage my fear by someone who has never been through anything terrible.  You need the epistemological connection.

So, for the record, I know trauma.  I’ve experienced incest, a childhood of systematic and ritualized sexual, verbal, emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse.  I was abducted and trafficked across the country.  I have lived most of my life in fear of someone.  Being found.  Being killed.  I have survived a highly unusual set of highly traumatic circumstances all of which represent extremes.  I should not be alive.  I know all about law enforcement. the realities of not getting justice, and keeping secrets.  So, when I write about recovering from trauma, what it looks like, how to do it, what’s hard about it, stalling out, and the next steps, I do not write about it from a removed, academic place.  I write about it from the arena.  I’m down there with you, taking ground and keeping it.  Sometimes I’m just trying to keep the ground I’ve got.

A few months ago, I set about to read about catastrophizing and suspicious thinking, and I haven’t found much.  It’s all very “Calm down to calm down.”  For real.  I was once told by a clinician that in order to calm down I simply needed to calm down.  Brilliant! Can I generalize that? “To stop bleeding simply stop bleeding.”  In other words, what currently exists in the therapeutic mainstream is the Band-Aid approach:

“Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion.  Change your cognitive approach.”

The cognitive behavioral approach can be effective, but it does not address the cause.   Let’s look at the cause then, and to look at that we must look at the brain and its actions:

“Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disparate elements all the time: one of the things we are best at is telling ourselves just so stories about our own behavior and that of others. If we’re not sure, we make it up – or rather, our brain does, without so much as thinking about asking our permission to do so.” (Our Storytelling Minds)

This is a very true statement.  This is something that my therapist discusses with me.  The brain does not rest.  It is incessantly active, forming memories, making connections, and reinforcing neural connections while pruning others.  It doesn’t need your permission to do this.  This is simply what it is designed to do.  You will find yourself making connections based upon how your brain fills in the blanks for you, not based on facts or truth.

“Consider a famous problem-solving experiment, originally designed by Norman Maier in 1931: A participant was placed in a room where two strings were hanging from the ceiling. The participant’s job was to tie the two strings together. However, it was impossible to reach one string while holding the other. Several items were also available in the room, such as a pole, an extension cord, and a pair of pliers. What would you have done?

Most participants struggled with the pole, with an extension cord, trying their best to reach the end while holding on to the other string. It was tricky business.

The most elegant solution? Tie the pliers to the bottom of one string, then use it as a pendulum and catch it as it floats toward you while you hold the other string. Simple, insightful, quick.

But very few people could visualize the change in object use (here, imagining the pliers as something other than pliers, a weight that could be tied to a string) – unless, that is, the experimenter seemingly by accident brushed one of the strings to induce a swinging motion. Then, participants appeared to spontaneously think of the pliers solution. I say spontaneously because they did not actually remember the stimulus that prompted them to do so. It was a so-called unconscious cue. When subjects were then asked where their insight came from, they cited many causes. “It was the only thing left.” “I just realized the cord would swing if I fastened a weight to it.” “I thought of the situation of swinging across a river. I had imagery of monkeys swinging from trees.”

All plausible enough. None correct. No one mentioned the experimenter’s ploy—and even when told about it in a debrief session, over two-thirds continued to insist that they had not noted it and that it had had no impact at all on their own solutions – even though they had reached those solutions, on average, within 45 seconds of the hint. What’s more, even the third that admitted the possibility of influence proved susceptible to false explanation: when a decoy cue (twirling the weight on a cord) was presented, which had no impact on the solution—that is, no one solved the problem with its help; they were only able to do so after the real, swinging cue—they cited that cue, and not the actual one that helped them, as having prompted their behavior. Explanation is often a post-hoc process.

Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disparate elements all the time: one of the things we are best at is telling ourselves just so stories about our own behavior and that of others. If we’re not sure, we make it up – or rather, our brain does, without so much as thinking about asking our permission to do so….Split-brain patients provide some of the best evidence of our extreme proficiency at narrative self-deception, at creating explanations that make sense but are in reality far from the truth. But we don’t even need to have our corpus collosum severed to act that way. We do it all the time, as a matter of course.”  (Our Storytelling Minds)

Apply this paradigm to your catastrophic and suspicious inner experiences, and, suddenly, it starts to make sense.  The brain is filling in the unknowns in your life with what is known–making estimations for you.

We humans don’t live with uncertainty well.  in order to make plans, you must fill in the blanks with some kind of anticipated outcome.  In order to get up in the morning and cultivate willingness to approach life, you have to have a sense of what daily outcomes might look like.  This is exactly how human beings have survived for thousands of years.  How will your brain solve for your unknowns then?

Well, if your childhood was catastrophic and subsequent relationships have been full of betrayal and abuse, then your brain will solve that equation for you–the outcomes will be catastrophic.  It’s not a question of values per se.  The brain is acting as the actuary.  According to your life experiences, it creates the most plausible outcomes within a template unique to your life, presents it to you, and then lists out a series of potential outcomes.  For example, what if you’ve experienced few positive outcomes in your life? What if your most recent outcomes were damaging and painful? Your brain is seeing to it that you survive, but, take note of this:

“W.J. (a man who had his corpus callosum severed to treat his epilepsy) came into the Sperry lab from his home in Southern California to find Gazzaniga waiting with a tachistoscope, a device that could present visual stimuli for specific periods of time—and, crucially, could present a stimulus to the right side or the left side of each eye separately. The patient had no problems identifying objects in either hemisphere and could easily name items that he held in either hand when his hands were out of view. Gazzaniga was satisfied. W.J. went in for surgery, where both the corpus collosum and the anterior commissure (a thin tract of white matter that connects the olfactory areas of each hemisphere) were severed. One month later, he came back to the lab.

The results were striking. The same man who had sailed through his tests weeks earlier could no longer describe a single object that was presented to his left visual field. When Gazzaniga flashed an image of a spoon to the right field, W.J. named it easily, but when the same picture was presented to the left, the patient seemed to have, in essence, gone blind. His eyes were fully functional, but he could neither verbalize nor recall having seen a single thing.

But he could do something else: when Gazzaniga asked W.J. to point to the stimulus instead of speaking, he became able to complete the task. In other words, his hand knew what his head and mouth did not. His brain had effectively been split into two independently functioning halves. It was as if W.J. had become two individuals, one that was the sum of his left brain, and one, the sum of his right.

W.J. was Gazzaniga’s patient zero, the first in a long line of initials who all pointed in one direction: the two halves of our brain are not created equal. And here’s where things get really tricky. If you show a picture of, say, a chicken claw to just the left side of the eye (which means the picture will only be processed by the right hemisphere of the brain), and one of a snowy driveway to just the right side of the eye (which means it will only be processed by the left hemisphere), and then ask the individual to point at an image most closely related to what he’s seen, the two hands don’t agree: the right hand (tied to the left input) will point to a shovel, while the left hand (tied to the right input) will point to a chicken. Ask the person why he’s pointing to two objects, and instead of being confused, he’ll at once create an entirely plausible explanation: you need a shovel to clean out the chicken coop. His mind has created an entire story, a narrative that will make plausible sense of his hands’ discrepancy, when, in reality, it all goes back to those silent images.

Gazzaniga calls the left hemisphere our left-brain interpreter, driven to seek causes and explanations—even for things that may not have them, or at least not readily available to our minds—in a natural and instinctive fashion. The interpreter is responsible for deciding that a shovel is needed to clean out a chicken coop, that you’re laughing because the machine in front of you is funny (the explanation given by a female patient when a pinup girl was flashed to her right hemisphere, causing her to snicker even though she swore she saw nothing), that you’re thirsty because the air is dry and not because your right hemisphere has just been presented with a glass of water (another study in confabulation run by Gazzaniga and colleagues). But while the interpreter makes perfect sense, he is more often than not flat out wrong.” (Our Storytelling Minds)

What this evidence has demonstrated is that our brains are often wrong.  

Our brains are performing a task, but those stories that seem to intrude on us when we find ourselves engaging in our daily lives, relating to others, trying new things, or surmounting obstacles are seldom true.  They exist within the template that our brain put together based upon what it interpreted as correct at the time.  Those interpretations may all be wrong.

In order to take control of that, we have to change that template.  Is it hard? Yes.  Why? It’s hard because you don’t have the neural connections to support a new template.  Yet.  Your current traumatic template is well-developed and functioning on autopilot.

So, where do you start?

That’s the next post.  Knowing, however, that catastrophizing and suspiciousness are functions of your brain attempting to interpret your experiences and environment might be the glimmer of hope that you need to be willing to keep going.  It can and will get better.

Further Reading:

Our Storytelling Minds: Do We Ever Really Know What’s Going on Inside? by Maria Konnikova

 

 

CBD, Endocannabinoid System, and PTSD

My last post was about PTSD.  I tend to jump around topically a bit simply because I’ll wake up in the morning sometimes with an idea in my head and think, “Oh, that would be interesting to write about.”  The topic of PTSD, however, is germane to this blog because I have written so much about it not to mention I carry that diagnosis.  I’ve had PTSD since childhood.  In my case, it is a chronic experience in which the general PTSD experience ebbs and flows.  Under high stress, it returns.  When life eases up a bit, all systems slow down, and I feel much more at ease.  It is practically a way of life at this point.

Life experiences have reinforced the PTSD experience as is the case for many.  Childhood trauma can set it in motion.  A later trauma will not only reinforce the biology behind PTSD but add additional symptoms to the overall experience.  Abusive relationships or even one primary abusive relationship continue to reinforce post-traumatic stress responses that interfere with activities of daily living and quality of life and relationships.  There is nothing new here in terms of a narrative.  Many, many people experience this.  How do we get out of it?

I have spent the last year inundated with post-traumatic responses and an equal desire to stop them.  It has ruled my brain and body.  Knowing why it’s there (leaving an abusive marriage) has not buffered the blows.  I have still had to “ride the waves” of the extreme emotional experiences caused by PTSD.

What do we do?

Enter an adjunct therapy…

My state has recently legalized medical cannabis.  No, our program is nothing like California’s or Colorado’s.  Only pills and oil.  There will be no recreational usage here say our legislators! At this point in the process, I don’t care about recreational usage.  I care about treatment.  So, let’s discuss cannabidiol (CBD).  What is CBD?

Cannabidiol—CBD—is a cannabis compound that has significant medical benefits, but does not make people feel “stoned” and can actually counteract the psychoactivity of THC. The fact that CBD-rich cannabis is non-psychoactive or less psychoactive than THC-dominant strains makes it an appealing option for patients looking for relief from inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis, seizures, spasms, and other conditions without disconcerting feelings of lethargy or dysphoria.” (ProjectCBD)

So, it’s actually helpful then?

“CBD may have therapeutic benefits in the treatment of various conditions, including chronic pain,anxiety,nausea,rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia,diabetes,PTSD,alcoholism,strokes and cardiovascular disease,cancer,and other ailments.

CBD has been shown to suppress colon cancer tumors in mice and to kill breast cancer cells in lab studies by Dr. Sean McAllister at the California Pacific Medical Center. However, cancer specialists caution that the efficacy of CBD for cancer remains to be demonstrated in actual human studies.

CBD also has anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective, and antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are thought to fight degenerative diseases and aging. CBD has also been shown to stimulate bone fracture healing in laboratory animals.” (CANorml)

THC, the component of cannabis that causes the “high”, is therapeutic as well:

“Scientists at the Scripps Research Center in San Diego reported that THC inhibits an enzyme implicated in the formation of beta-amyloid plaque, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s-related dementia. The federal government recognizes single-molecule THC (Marinol) as an anti-nausea compound and appetite booster, deeming it a Schedule III drug, a category reserved for medicinal substances with little abuse potential.” (ProjectCBD)

I was recently certified for medicinal cannabis in my state.  I sat down with a doctor who went over all my symptoms, and he recommended two blends.  A THC dominant blend for pain and nausea and a THC:CBD blend for other health issues.

A happy accident occurred.  While I was tracking my symptoms I noticed that my PTSD-related anxiety was decreasing.  I found the most relief with the THC:CBD blend.

I’m fascinated by this and naturally want to understand it.

Enter the endogenous cannibinoid system aka endocannibinoid system (ECS).  What is that? Well, it’s this:

“The endocannibinoid system is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment…

Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the body’s various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types. At the site of an injury, for example, cannabinoids can be found decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, stabilizing the nerve cell to prevent excessive firing, and calming nearby immune cells to prevent release of pro-inflammatory substances. Three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types for a single purpose: minimize the pain and damage caused by the injury.

The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system we begin to see a mechanism that explains how states of consciousness can promote health or disease.

In addition to regulating our internal and cellular homeostasis, cannabinoids influence a person’s relationship with the external environment. Socially, the administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity. By mediating neurogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and learning, cannabinoids may directly influence a person’s open-mindedness and ability to move beyond limiting patterns of thought and behavior from past situations. Reformatting these old patterns is an essential part of health in our quickly changing environment.” (Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System)

Phytochemicals like CBD and THC, for example, are then known in the context of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) as phytocannibinoids because they are plant-based cannibinoids.  Our body already produces cannibinoids.  It has been postulated that homeostasis cannot be maintained when there is a lack of natural cannibinoids in the body, hence, disease processes begin and other syndromes like Fibromyalgia appear.  Other brain-based disorders like anxiety, for example, of which PTSD is one appear on the scene.  The brain cannot engage properly in neurogenesis and loses some of its neuroplasticity.  Reintroduce cannibinoids to the body in the form of phytocannibinoids like CBD and watch the body return to homeostasis.

Months ago, I wasn’t sure what I thought about medical marijuana.  To be honest, I didn’t think about cannabis at all.  A close friend of mine, however, had a daughter with intractable seizures who finally found relief in the form of CBD oil.  I had never heard of CBD.  I was then faced with my own biases around the idea of cannabis.  What did I even know about marijuana aside from having grown up watching Cheech and Chong films along with my not too recent viewing of “Pineapple Express”? Honestly, I only had second-hand knowledge at best.  I knew absolutely nothing about medical cannabis.  Surely, James Franco would not be the one certifying me for medical cannabis, right?

I have learned more about medical marijuana in the past year than I ever thought I would.  I have also learned that it is practically impossible to recover from certain conditions if the body lacks what it is naturally supposed to have.  I can do all the right things in the way of therapy (which I have done and continue to do).  I can follow the right diet (which I do), and I can take even drastic steps to make my life better (which I did).  But, if your body doesn’t have what it naturally requires to heal and maintain its ideal state of health, then those steps feel like walking through setting cement.

My conclusion? A 4:1 THC:CBD oil is highly therapeutic for neuralgia, nociceptive pain, migraines, and the symptoms of anxiety and perseveration that are comorbid to PTSD.  This is, however, not a legal alternative for many people as medical cannabis is not available in many states.  So, in the meantime, let me refer you to Dixie’s Botanicals CBD Hemp Oil Products.  It’s legal.  It’s CBD-based.  Check them out!

For further reading on PTSD and CBD, I recommend ProjectCBD‘s list of studies on CBD and PTSD: PTSD and CBD.  I also recommend ProjectCBD in general for further education on medical cannabis.

If you really feel like getting your feet wet, then I recommend this book:

 

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Click image for link

The world is changing, and I think that it’s changing for the better.  There are options for achieving relief, recovery, and, ultimately, healing.  We just need to expand our vision and take an honest look at our biases and their origins.

Further Reading:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-Traumatic Stress…Disorder?

Eric Maisel proposed a few years ago that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t actually a disorder nor should it be labeled as such.  It should just be termed post-traumatic stress response or something similar.  Others are starting to agree with him.

Why?

Well, if we step back for a moment and take a look at why PTSD develops in people in the first place, then you might see that Maisel et al make an excellent point.  Let’s use the example of a war veteran.

After experiencing the inexplicable and nightmarish realities of war and its inherent violence and atrocities, how does one imagine a healthy individual to respond afterwards? One could anticipate flashbacks, avoidance, isolation, nightmares, and hyperarousal reactions including anger outbursts, tension and hypervigilance.  One would expect somatic symptoms as well like migraines, tension headaches, and other physical symptoms.  This isn’t unusual.  In fact, it was asserted that a healthy person would return from war with some kind of post-traumatic response in place, and this very response reflects their prior mental health.

What does that mean? Everyone has a different level of tolerance for trauma.  What one person can tolerate may vary wildly from what another person can tolerate.  Someone may be able to return from war and integrate into society and family life with greater ease than another person, and this is almost certainly to do with the resiliency factor.  Everyone has their own resiliency spectrum.  For those with a lower tolerance for trauma then,  it is completely normal and to be expected even that they would return from a war setting experiencing a post-traumatic response.

Labeling a completely normal human response to trauma a “disorder” stigmatizes trauma survivors.  Anyone who has been through trauma and admitted it to the wrong person knows all about this.  It also keeps people away from the very environments that would allow for healing.  Many trauma survivors already struggle with that uniquely depersonalized feeling that causes them to feel like they are on the outside of their lives looking in.  Adding stigma to the emotional experience amplifies that ontological isolation–the Outsider Experience–and perpetuates the anxiety that a good future is for other people.

PTSD is a brain-based experience.  Studies have shown that the size of the hippocampus is a factor in the development of PTSD.  This is why two people can go through the same trauma while only one develops PTSD.  Those with a smaller hippocampus may be genetically vulnerable to the development of PTSD after trauma.  The emotional experience of PTSD is an expression of an experience originating in the brain, and your brain believes that it is doing its job.  Even the post-traumatic response lies on a spectrum.  Some people experience it acutely while others endure a chronic experience.

Much of what has been labeled as “disorder”, in my opinion, isn’t that disordered at all.  It’s an expected response.  In fact, it’s the brain adapting to fit an extreme environment–even if that extreme environment is very short-lived.  The problem that exists is retraining the brain.  Telling the brain to stand down.  Adapt again.  The environment has changed yet again.  I think, hence, that PTSD is an adaptation, not a disorder.

The good news is that there is help for that.  We adapted to a situation in order to survive it.  We can adapt again in our lives in order to do more than survive.  In order to really live and regain a sense of control.  Discover our options.  Create happiness.

EMDR and doing therapeutic work with a qualified therapist will get you there, but, in case you can’t pursue that yet, this book will get you started:

 

 

 

 

Saying No is Good

Saying ‘no’ is good.  I seem to rarely do it, but I’ve heard other people tell me this.  I am kidding.  Sort of.

I really find out just how good saying ‘no’ is particularly when I said ‘yes’ but really wanted to say ‘no’.  Do you know what I mean?

If you are addicted to doing the “right” thing and making everyone happy, then I am certain that you know what I mean.

Case in point:

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Aspic.

Someone made this on purpose! And some poor sod said ‘yes’ to eating it even though they would rather have endured a root canal without novacaine.  There they are, smiling at the creator of this disgusting delicious creation, mouth full of cool, gelatinous edibles, and all they can think to say as something slime-like oozes through their back molars is, “Wherever did you find this recipe?”

I agreed to having lunch with my ex-husband.  I should have said no.  I ate the metaphorical aspic.

He was not mean to me.  It was simply too triggering.  It took me a week to process a two-and-half hour lunch.  That’s not okay, but it’s informational.  After a year of post-separation therapy, it was an unexpected means of taking my own temperature in terms of post-traumatic healing.  I’m simply not there yet.

I thought I was.  I overestimated myself.  I don’t think it’s bad to overestimate oneself.  That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning sometimes, but, when it comes to having lunch with a former abuser, it might be good to be prepared.  Funnily enough, I thought I was.

What was my takeaway after the dust settled?

  1. Know your triggers.  I know his methods and wiles, but there is one thing that he does that triggers me.  His victim persona is a punch to the gut every time.  I didn’t realize it until we had lunch.  When he plays the victim, I want to take a sledgehammer to something; or, go into my room and cry for a week.
  2. Have at least one person in your corner who can remind you of what is true about your identity and your circumstances.  This will make it so much easier to come out from under those post-traumatic triggered responses particularly if a run-in with a formerly abusive partner is the cause.
  3. Take care of yourself.  Do what it takes to practice self-care and self-soothing.  The feelings will pass.  They will! I promise.  In the meantime, do what it takes to bring consolation and comfort to yourself.
  4. Look out for ANTs (automatic negative thoughts/thought distortions).  I got caught up in a slew of these last week, and it sucked.  Your brain will always tell stories.  That’s what it does, and, for whatever reason, it’s never an awesome story.  It’s always a catastrophic story involving abandonment, sharks, plane crashes, and some sort of plot from Law & Order:SVU.  Our job is to develop a mindfulness practice (I know, we are starting to get sick of that new buzz word) in order to stop the brain’s sordid and scary storytelling.  This is one of the primary points of mindfulness.  It is to learn to become aware of the brain’s latest plot twist, stop it, and then take control of it in the form of non-judgmental observations and containment.  With practice, this becomes a skill, and we are no longer held hostage to the Stephen King/John Grisham/James Patterson/Nicholas Sparks writing collective in our brains.
  5. Imagine saying no and then put that into practice.  If you are not up to doing something because you know that it will cause you to have a setback or cause a triggered response, then consider saying no.  I’m pondering this myself.  I say yes to a lot of things even though I know that I might be triggered.  I feel obligated, but, frankly, my distress tolerance might not yet match the occasion.  It doesn’t mean that I won’t one day be able to engage in the proposed situation.  It just means that I’m not there today.  And, that is okay.  After I had hip surgery, I couldn’t run for four months.  I couldn’t even walk for six weeks.  So, saying yes to a 5K two months after surgery would have definitely caused a setback in my healing process.  It’s not so different when we’re healing emotionally and psychologically.

That’s what I learned last week.  I sure hope it sticks because the idea of using aspic as a metaphor for anything again is…well…I’ll just say ‘no’ to that.

Further Reading:

 

Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

I wrote this post, The Male Borderline Waif, a year ago, and it gets a lot of daily traffic.  For as much research that’s been accomplished over the decades around borderline personality disorder (BPD), there are still few answers to be had particularly for men who may be on the borderline spectrum.  Mental health and healing should not be pie in sky for any of us regardless of our diagnosis.

What do we do?

There is also a great deal of stigma for those who carry a personality disorder diagnosis particularly borderline.  The psychopath CEO or even pastor is let off far more easily than the borderline woman (TIME).

Let me be clear.  I’m not a personality disorder apologist.  I don’t, however, feel that anyone should withhold empathy from a population of people simply because there is little true understanding  around the etiology and ultimate course of their condition.  In the case of personality disorders, there are working theories.  That’s it.

Both my parents have personality disorders, and both my parents are dangerous people.  For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down.

Yesterday, I did.

How?

Firstly, my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment.  He refused to go to the doctor for anything.  He refused to seek mental health treatment as well–even when an ultimatum was on the table.  When I asked him why, he would tell me that he knew more than any doctor.  Was my ex-husband a physician? No.  Did he believe that he knew more? Yes, I think he did.  Is there a name for what he was expressing? Yes, there is.

Grandiosity.

Secondly, over the years I noticed that my husband had different personalities depending upon the situation, and sometimes they were wildly different.  He was a chameleon, and I wouldn’t even recognize him as the same person particularly at work functions.  What was creepier is that he had borrowed my self-image in terms of how he talked about life in general.  He used my language and knowledge base as if they were his own.  This is called mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Definition:

Mirroring – Imitating or copying another person’s characteristics, behaviors or traits.

Borrowing a Self-Image

Mirroring occurs when people with Personality Disorders have a vacant or distorted self-image, which can manifest itself as an imitation of another person’s speech, mannerisms, behaviors, dress style, purchase preferences or daily habits.

In more extreme manifestations of this behavior, the person doing the mirroring might begin to believe they actually are the other person, to the extent they might call themselves by their name, claim to be them or ‘borrow’ elements of the other person’s life such as relationships, past experiences, career or family history and claim these as their own.

Mirroring can be a form of Dissociation, where a person’s strong feelings create “facts” which are less than true.

A dramatic case of mirroring is portrayed in the movieSingle White Female, in which the character Hedra Carlson (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) begins to imitate her new room-mate Allie in the way she looks, dresses and behaves, imitating her haircut, wearing her clothes and ultimately seducing Allie’s boyfriend. (Out of the Fog)

What it Looks Like

  • A man switches accents to mimic a colleague.
  • A woman wears identical clothing to her friend.
  • A mother wears her daughter’s clothing.
  • A teenager makes phone calls in which she pretends to be her sibling or parent.
  • A secretary wears her boss’s wife’s perfume in an attempt to seduce him.
  • A man writes letters in which he forges his boss’s signature. (Out of the Fog)

My mother mirrored me frequently.  It was obvious.  It wasn’t as obvious when my ex-husband was doing it until he started therapy.

He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there.  I was shocked, but I played along.

“Why does your therapist think that you don’t need therapy?” I casually asked.

“I told him that I was looking to create more ’emotional mindfulness’ in my life, and he was really impressed with that.  He had never heard that term before, and he really liked it.  Anyone who would even come into his office and use such a term probably didn’t need much therapy,” he said smugly.

STOP!!!!!! That’s MY term!! I used that term! That is what I was trying to create in MY life! 

He mirrored my therapeutic process in his first therapy session to get out of therapy! What kind of person does that?!

That is a very good question.  What kind of person indeed!

I kept this behavior in mind as I proceeded, and this weekend’s antics with my daughter settled it for me.

Between his mirroring, chameleon-like behavior, grandiosity, entitlement, apparent lack of a solid sense of self as well as his belief that others do not have a sense of self that requires fencing in (boundaries), protecting, and respecting, displays of rage and violence, and consistent need to be the victim in our relationship when he was actually participating in victimization, and his reported self-loathing, I am going to go with my initial assessment of borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.

I know that pathologizing people isn’t necessarily the way to go, but it helps me get a proper handle on how to adjust my expectations and behaviors.  It helps me think in terms of what I can expect from someone in terms of personal safety, too.

Mirroring behaviors are not discussed enough in the context of personality disorders particularly if you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in them.  You may feel “creeped out” by them, and that’s legitimate.  It is a bit alarming.    Why is this even a thing? I found a very brave blog post written by a woman with borderline personality disorder who explains why she engages in mirroring behaviors:

“One of the biggest and most challenging aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or ‘mirroring’. This is the constant, unconscious change in the person’s ‘self’, as they struggle to fit in with their environment, or the people around them. It is, essentially, a fluctuating identity. It is the manifestation of a basic inability or difficulty in establishing a stable sense of self.

The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it affects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also effects and masks the way in which BPD intersects with other disorders that may have developed in connection with it – creating a complex web of behaviours that can be hard to untangle. The irony is that, without diagnosis and treatment, most are unaware of The Chameleon, and it is only through awareness that The Chameleon can be managed.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

She goes on to explain very succinctly what the mirroring is all about:

“Now that I am acknowledging the presence of my Chameleon, I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the key to everything. The whole kit and caboodle. The crux of the issue. From what I can see, everything stems from this lack of a stable self. Borderlines instinctively ‘mirror’ to fit in, because without that behaviour, we have no idea what will happen. We have little or no sense of our own identity, so we can’t know if that will be acceptable to others. Without acceptance by others, we risk abandonment, which is often an intense fear for Borderlines. Why do we have this intense fear of abandonment? Because if we are abandoned, we have nobody to ‘mirror’. The fear of abandonment is a fear of being alone. It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

This is such a courageous thing to write, and it explains the inner movements of the emotional life of people who struggle with borderline personality disorder in a way that is very understandable.

My ex-husband and mother refused to confront themselves or their highly abusive behaviors.  There was no happy ending, but perhaps we can all gain better insight into the vast spectrum of human experience through the depth of our own.

Further Reading:

Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’