Therapy in Pictures

Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my therapist of two and half years.  I didn’t know he was leaving until three weeks before his final week.  He just dropped it on me during session: “So, I will be leaving.  I will no longer be practicing in the state.  Had I been simply leaving the practice I would ask you to follow me.”

Admittedly, I was somewhat stunned, but I thought it might be a good opportunity to take stock of the process.  Should I continue therapy? Where exactly did I stand in terms of recovery? Am I recovered from the psychological warfare and domestic abuse that ultimately ended my marriage? Are the past issues like family of origin abuse, for example, that kept me blind to some of the abusive elements in my marriage appropriately processed? Did the EMDR address the maladaptively processed trauma that was lingering?

I liked to think so.  But, was I in the clear? I didn’t want to run a great race and then fumble at the finish line because of self-judgment: “You sure do need a lot of therapy, MJ.  Just how fucked up are you?” That judgmental accusation is probably not new to most of us.  Stigma is often what keeps people out of therapy or keeps them from meeting their goals.  Or fear.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow commented on therapy after describing herself as possibly bipolar:

“Have you had psychotherapy?”

“No.” (Maddow speaking)

“Are you afraid of changes to the psyche it might produce?”

“No. I’m just not interested. I’m happy to talk to you for this profile, because I’m interested in you and in this process. But, in general, talking about myself for an hour—it’s not something that I would pay for the privilege of. It just sounds like no fun.” (The New Yorker)

Well, no.  Therapy is no fun.  It’s not supposed to be fun.  I do not enjoy therapy at all.

In my last session, my therapist introduced me to the only other PhD in the practice with neurocognitive training.  His name is Jack.  Jack is new to the practice.  My therapist suggested that Jack and I meet.  Should I want to continue or check in from time to time, he thought Jack would be a good person for me.  I made a face.

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While I am a huge advocate of psychological flexibility, I don’t seem to always want to practice it.  Change is hard.  On the inside, I was pouty and begrudgingly agreeable.  On the outside, I was agreeable and happily shook Jack’s hand although I think he saw right through me.

And then, I hugged my therapist goodbye.  And, that was it.  I’ll never see him again.

I saw Jack yesterday for a trial run.  When we chatted after my therapist introduced us, he had some words of wisdom that I couldn’t ignore.  He suggested that I consider not abandoning my process yet.  If I had come back to therapy to address an acute problem like abuse, then it is often much easier to do core work once the acute suffering has passed.  He is correct, but I was just getting used to the idea of “being done”.  I liked the idea of having my Tuesdays free.  No more therapy! What should I do?

So, when I sat in his office yesterday, he asked me if I had any issues with “right brain” stuff? I rephrased it for him.

“If you’re asking me if I have dissonance between what I know to be true and what I feel to be true, then my answer is a resounding yes.  You have just met the poster girl for cognitive dissonance.  Let me shake your hand.”

His proposition? Let’s start focusing on that then.  I know what is true, but my “distortion machine” often gets in my own way.  He wants to address that so that both my right and left brain unite and function together rather than fight each other.

Well, shit! Yes, please! Let’s get on with it then.

He asked me what to look for in terms of how I might evade during session.

“Do you check out, intellectualize, use humor….that kind of thing?”

O sweet fancy Moses, where do I begin? If only I could do an entire therapy session in Anne Taintor postcards:

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This one is a magnet on my fridge. 

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I think it’s obvious how I deflect in therapy and in life.

You know, this isn’t a bad idea. ::she says with hopeful sarcasm::

Painfully setting my snark aside, I’ll say that I don’t know another way to get better with efficiency than to find a well-matched therapist and get to work.  There are ways to do work on your own, but it takes longer; and the process is often more painful and cumbersome.

As always, keep going.

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All images are courtesy of Anne Taintor collection and annetaintor.com

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Thought for The Week

 

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Image Credit: Mike Taylor – Taylor Photography

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ”    –Brené Brown

Rebooting for the New Year

One of the broader topics on this blog is mental health and how mental health is defined and experienced in different contexts.  The DSM-V has divided and sub-divided the human experience into so many diagnoses that I imagine that every human could find an aspect of themselves somewhere within it.  Some of that feels legitimate.  Some of it feels less so.

Within one area of that broader diagnostic context you will find the personality disorder and its many “flavors”.  What is a personality disorder (PD)? What is its origin? Is it genetic? Is it chemical? Can it be treated? Can it be effectively “cured”? Is it a spectrum “disorder”? When is it safe to diagnose a person with a PD? At what point in human development does one’s personality become disordered? Why does one person become narcissistic and another express as borderline? What about the antisocial personality or the schizoid?  These are important questions that I won’t attempt to answer here.

I have written extensively about Borderline Personality Disorder on this blog as my mother’s personality expresses as borderline and growing up with a borderline mother affected my development in profound ways.  I do not directly blame my mother for my abduction twenty years ago, but, at the same time, I doubt I would have been taken had I been raised by a different parent.  I don’t say that with self-pity.  It feels factual at this point.  As they say today, it is what it is.

Why bring this up? My mother wrote me a letter.  Again.  It arrived a few weeks ago.  I haven’t seen my mother in almost ten years.  I think.  That is my best estimate.  She has sent me very weird letters over the years.  Some of them have been vitriolic.  Some of them have been strange and full of darkness.  Some of them have been full of blame and desperation.  My response has remained steadfast.  “Tell me how you are safe.  Tell me how you have changed.  Tell me how you have learned to control yourself.  Tell me how you have learned to respect boundaries.  Tell me how you have learned to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Tell me how you have learned to be accountable for your actions.  Then, we’ll talk.”

Never has she addressed these requests.

Until her most recent letter.

This letter was different.  For the first time, she tried.  She talked of realizing that she had been self-centered.  She had never known that about herself, but she had come to see that she had been.  For her whole life.  She talked of her recklessness.  She admitted that I would have to live with the consequences of her actions for the rest of my life.  She knew that now.  She recognized that her behaviors were abnormal.

I think she must have finally gone to therapy which is what I have been recommending rather strongly.  We none of us can make it without help.

She asked if we could meet for coffee or lunch.  I am considering it.  Not from a place of smoldering hope.  I suspect I am considering it because she finally tried.  She did what i asked.  It took her ten years to do it, and it cost her a great deal.  It may cost me something to see her.  I remember what she was like.  She may reduce me to a bloody mess, but, then again, she may no longer have the power to do that.  I’m not the same person anymore, and I’ll tell you why.

At some point during my marriage, my mother saw how my my ex-husband was treating me.  He was very neglectful and self-centered.  Sixteen years ago, we moved into a new house.  I was six months pregnant.  I had packed up the entirety of our old house singlehandedly.  My mother and her husband drove in from out-of-state to help us.  On the day of the move, my ex-husband received an invitation from a friend to attend an outdoor concert.  One of his favorite bands was playing, and he was stoked about it.  As we were moving boxes into the house he left.  There was a concert to see! “Sorry babe, but Frank Black! I gotta go!”

And that was it.  I was pregnant.  My mother and her husband were helping.  And, there I was.  Alone.  My mother was shocked and hurt on my behalf.  Reasonably so.  She told me, “Leave him.  Just bring the girls and live with us.  I’ve been divorced twice.  There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

“There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

Her words reverberated through my mind,  Nothing wrong with being like her? She was the last person I wanted to be like.  There was everything wrong with being like her.  So, I internally vowed in that moment never to be like my mother, and I stayed in a very bad marriage so much longer than I should have, in part, to prove a point.  I could not be like my mother.  I could not have failed like her.  I imagined her rubbing my face in it should I ever see her again.  I imagined myself feeling defeated, humiliated, and small.  Judged.  My mother standing over me smugly saying, “See? You and me? We are the same.”  The thought of it cut into my viscera.  

There came a moment towards the end of my marriage when I realized that I didn’t care anymore about what my mother might say to me or even think about me.  I wasn’t my mother, and my mother wasn’t me.  I wanted a second shot at life, and I didn’t care one iota about what anyone thought of me least of all my mother.

I think that this realization and moment of actualization are the insights that allow me to venture forth into even imagining sitting in front of my mother after a decade of virtually no contact.

Why speak of this? Well, I see in retrospect that I made certain choices from a deficient identity.  I was trying so hard not to be someone (my mother) rather than building out who I really wanted to be.  I would not have tolerated quite a bit had I seen that sooner.  Thankfully, I did.

In honor of gratitude and changing our lives, I want to introduce you to 10Q.  The Jewish New Year is upon us, and it is a time of reflection, return, and making changes.  There is a very cool app of sorts that helps you do that called 10Q:

Every year between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is a 10-day period of reflection – an opportunity to look at your past, present and future. 10Q makes this digital and social.

  • For ten days 10Q sends you a question a day to answer.
  • Answers are entered in your own secret online 10Q space and then saved to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping.
  • After the ten day period the vault is locked.
  • One year later, the vault opens and your answers land back in your email inbox.
  • You can also choose to share your answers anonymously with other 10Q users, and can also scroll through other people’s answers. (Becoming The B Boss)

You do not have to be Jewish to do this.  Just willing.  Here is the first question:

Q01: DESCRIBE A SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCE THAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST YEAR. HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU? ARE YOU GRATEFUL? RELIEVED? RESENTFUL? INSPIRED?

I love this! It is a wonderful reminder that the best time to change your mind, your circumstances, or yourself is always now.

Happy New Year!

Resources:

How to Grow Up Again

I walked into my therapist’s office in March 2015 with a mind to figure out what was wrong with my marriage and, thereby, me.  I told him that I knew something was happening to me that was probably not good, but, seeing that I was in the center of it all, I could no longer discern what was true and false.   I needed an objective point of view to understand the situation.  I knew I needed help.

It is now mid-September 2017, and in two weeks my therapeutic relationship with my therapist will end.  Two and half years of therapy.  Wow.  It only feels like a few months, but my life is completely different now.

When I started the therapeutic process I decided to record the process here on my blog.  My blog was already well-established in terms of therapeutic topics, and I thought that it might be helpful to provide a look behind the curtain particularly for people who were suspicious of therapy or couldn’t find a therapist.  What do people actually do “in therapy”? Why go? Does it actually work? People like to say, myself included, to “go to therapy” when life becomes a shitstorm, but does it really matter? For the love of baby owls, why won’t people stop suggesting it? It seems as if we all know someone who has been in therapy for at least a decade, and they are almost worse now than before they started.  I’m not exaggerating on that point.  I do know someone who has been seeing a therapist for over ten years, and this person is no better now than when they started.  It’s…unsettling.

So, let’s get down to it then.  Let’s be real about it.  Why go to a therapist? Why pay for it? Why put in the time and effort when we all seem to know people who have done it and gotten nothing out of it?

I’ll start off by saying that you must find the right therapist for you if you expect success.  There must be a good chemistry for the work to be meaningful otherwise you won’t build trust and take risks in your disclosure.  Also, you won’t take their suggestions or comments seriously.  They will lack credibility.  You’ll stay entrenched in a defensive and suspicious posture.  I’ve experienced this numerous times with my daughters’ therapists.  There are myriad children’s and adolescent therapists in the world, and most of them seem to be mediocre.  I have observed them talking down to kids or simply pushing their own worldview onto them.  They start off sessions with their own agenda and expect the client, the kid, to adhere to their expectations.  They can treat kids like pets who must obey commands rather than like people with rights and personalities of their own.  It is a rarity to find a therapist who works with kids who treats a kid like an adult in the making.  When you do, you’ll find that the waiting list to see them is long.  A good therapist is recognized, and people want to work with him/her.

This process of finding the right therapist is the same for adults.  You have to interview a potential therapist.  Do your research.  Look at their CV.  Where were they educated? What is their certification? How long have they been working? I chose my current therapist because he had a PhD in neuroscience, and I thought that this PhD would pair very well with his therapy work particularly as it related to the profound trauma in my past.  I was right.  His knowledge was extensive, and I gained a far greater understanding of my brain and trauma than I ever had before.  Additionally, he had a great therapy bedside manner.  We worked really well together.

Once you’ve got the therapist, then you must have an idea of what you want out of the experience.  This is one of the most important aspects of having a successful therapeutic experience.  I’ve made a career out of going to therapy.  If you have complex PTSD, then you have to get to know the therapeutic process.  It is one of the primary highways out of the complexity of that diagnosis.  In “therapy speak”, a therapist will ask what your treatment plan should be.  This means, “Why are you here? What do you want? What do you want to accomplish when you’re working with a therapist?”

Even for me, a seasoned client, I find those questions daunting.  So, to get to the answer, I imagine how I would like my life or my inner life to look at the end of therapy.  If I’m coming into therapy an emotional mess completely incapable of handling conflict, then I might say, “I can’t tolerate distress.  I would like to increase my distress tolerance particularly around _______________.”  If I’m coming into therapy because I’m being abused by a partner or because I’m trying to put boundaries down with an emotionally abusive parent, then I might say, “I need help in figuring out what is happening with X person.  I feel confused, scared, and helpless, and I don’t want to feel like that anymore.  I want to get my personal power back and learn how to say ‘no’, learn how to put boundaries down, and then how to enforce them without feeling so afraid all the time.  How do I do that? And, if this is abusive in nature, then what do I even do about that? Also, how did it get to this point? I need help figuring out how I didn’t see this happening until it got so bad.” Essentially, what you are doing is giving a therapist a map.  You are starting at A and pointing to M on your personal map.  Your therapist will then help you create a roadmap using their training to get you there.  The condition is that you must show up on the scheduled dates and do everything that your therapist suggests.  You must do the work.

Therapy homework.  This can be the hardest part.  Talking to a therapist can be unpleasant, but it is the homework that matters more.  Whatever work you are told to do  you must do because this is what creates momentum.  This is what actually progresses you along your roadmap.  Every single person I’ve ever met who has succeeded in therapy does the homework.  They suspend their egos and submit to that process.  If they have to do a workbook, then they do it.  If they have to write “dead letters” to people who hurt them in the past, then they do it.  And they do it with 100% effort.  You will get out of therapy what you put into it.  This is why trusting your therapist is vital.  You have to believe that the work you’re being given matters particularly if it feels aversive to you.

Does it work? What are the results? I can speak for myself.  Almost fifteen years ago, I set out to do a deep and meaningful work with a therapist.  I thought that I had addressed past trauma and abuse involving both my parents, but, as it turns out, my past efforts had not been sufficient.  I was still stuck on the All-Good/All-Bad Child rollercoaster with my mother who has a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis, and I couldn’t get off.  I didn’t know what was healthy in terms of a mother/daughter relationship.  I worked with him for three years.  That work was one of the most significant therapeutic experiences of my life.  I am a changed person because of those years and no longer victimized by either of my parents.

Today, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago.  I believed that I had hit a dead end.  I believed that I had invested the best years of my life in a marriage that had become abusive, empty, and miserable.  What’s more, I believed what my then husband had told me about myself: I was a liability and no one would ever want me.  So why bother even attempting to build a better life? I was useless and worthless.  Knowing me was like walking through a minefield.  Truly.  I believed this, but I didn’t want to believe this.  I fostered hope that he was wrong.  That is what motivated me to find a therapist.  I had a kernel of hope inside myself that he was, in fact, lying to me.

Hope.  This is probably the most important factor in terms of why you find and stay in therapy.

Lastly, you finally get to grow up again and expand your emotional education–properly–when you go to therapy:

Therapy is our gateway to growing up.  When we find a therapist who we like and trust, we can actually do the work of maturing and growing into the adults who we have always wanted to be.  How?

  • A good therapist walks with you through those memories that are holding you back in order to help you resolve them so that you no longer carry them, and they no longer define you.
  • A good therapist helps you learn to talk about your feelings so that you can communicate effectively within your relationships.
  • A good therapist validates you and your life experiences.  This is key because we need validation to feel safe and sane.
  • A good therapist teaches you how to self-validate so that you are no longer beholden to others for your validation and sense of self.
  • A good therapist models empathy which, hopefully, will teach us how to do the same.
  • A good therapist teaches us how to be empowered in our relationships forsaking victim thinking, codependency, and caretaking.
  • A good therapist provides a reality check and tough love when necessary so that we learn what true accountability in relationships looks like.
  • A good therapist guides us into learning distress tolerance so that we can give up maladaptive coping strategies that harm us and our relationships.
  • A good therapist provides insights into what motivates us so that we learn to become curious about ourselves and why we make certain choices.
  • A good therapist legitimizes separation, individuation, and differentiation from our parents which is so often the root of our suffering.
  • A good therapist teaches us a better way to think and shows us where we are believing negative things and, thusly, how those negative beliefs manifest in negative behaviors.

Therapy is the environment in which we continue developing as humans except that we have the opportunity to develop into better humans.  Therapy is meant to teach us so that we are equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.

Who do you suppose does better in a crisis? The person who trusts themselves or the person who is rootless, anxious, and doesn’t trust anyone? Part of becoming an educated person is receiving an emotional education as well.  One of my favorite college professors once told a group of women that her goal in teaching us was to create educated women.  When asked what that meant, she replied, “To be truly educated means that you are critical thinkers.  It means that if you don’t know the answer to a question, then you know how to go about finding it.”

This is what it means to be emotionally educated.  It means that you are a critical thinker when it comes to yourself.  You are self-aware.  You understand your motives.  You know what you need.  You can self-advocate.  You can trust others.  You trust yourself.  You know how to ask for what you want, and you are not beholden to others for your sense of worth or sense of calm.  If you find yourself in difficult situations for which you are not equipped, then you know how to go about equipping yourself.  You know the skills you have, and you know the ones you need.  Lastly, you take responsibility for yourself–your actions, your feelings, your desires, and your needs.

This is what therapy can do for us.  All of those inadequacies that we see today? Those deficits in our personalities that we try to hide out of shame? Reframe them.  They are just opportunities when you put them in a therapeutic environment.  What if you simply need to learn a new skill? We will all be developing and maturing until the day we die, picking up more wisdom as we go.  Engaging in your own emotional education is not something to be ashamed of.  It should be celebrated.

Remaining emotionally illiterate because someone somewhere once said that only weak people see shrinks? I think that’s the least educated view of all. (Empowered Grace)

Find a Therapist

 

 

Big Ideas in A Little Poem

When you are a parent, partner, and all-around Make It Happen person, it can feel like there is no room for “flow” or peace.  When the buck stops with you, you never stop running, anticipating, planning, deciding, problem solving, observing, fixing, and repairing.  That’s me.  I’m the Make It Happen person in my life.  In my home.  In my domain.

Does anyone relate to this?

If there’s a problem, then you have to fix it.

If anything needs to be done, then you do it.

If anything needs solving, then you solve it.

This was generally clear to me when I was married.  This is now crystal clear to me now that I am not.  If I even see a potential problem, I can’t just let it be.  I am compelled to fix it before it becomes a real problem.  I define hypervigilance.

I never shut off.  Burnout, anyone?

Consequently, I have little to no hobbies.  I don’t read for pleasure.  I’m studying, but I used to almost solely read nonfiction because I was, once again, attempting to solve some health or circumstantial riddle.  Any free time I might have my children manage to sniff out and find creative ways to fill.  I don’t know how they manage to do that.

So, when I came across Rev. Safire Rose’s poem, I had to read it more than once.  Twice.  Ten times.

She Let Go: A Poem

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go.  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.

– Reverend Safire Rose

Let go.  Let go? Let it be? Let it all be? That just sounds anathema to me, and yet it also sounds appealing.

How do you feel when you read this?

What comes to mind for me is that hypervigilance is adaptive when you’re living in an intense environment.  It works well.  It helps you survive.  Being a troubleshooting go-getter is a good quality.  Knowing how to survive the most complex of circumstances is great.  But, at some point, we either bring that adaptation down from DEFCON 2 to DEFCON 4 or even 5 so that it doesn’t become maladaptive, or we continue to live our lives as if we are consistently under threat–even when we are not.  This destroys relationships, jobs, health, and hurts the people close to us.

So, what about that “letting go”? What would that look like? What about just stopping? Giving up the need to control everything? No consulting friends.  No journaling.  Just…doing it.  Well, that sounds unappealing, but it feels freeing at the same time, doesn’t it?

At the moment, I’m not sure what it would look like, but I can tell you that I will be thinking on it.  And if the idea of letting go feels too hard, then perhaps change the idea to something like this: “Loosen your grasp on things that you are trying to control.”

How does that sound?

Doable?

Maybe?

Shalom…

Claude and Me

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people knowing about my deeper, darker trauma history.  I don’t like people knowing that I ultimately ended my marriage because of domestic violence.  It goes without saying that I don’t like people knowing that I was trafficked when I was 18.  Yes, that was twentysomething years ago, but there are aspects of it that still feel like now.  That is how trauma works.  Unprocessed and maladaptively processed trauma remain in the “still happening” box in your brain.  This is why those memories pack such a punch when you recall them or re-experience them.  Your limbic system activates when you think about them.  You sweat.  You have gastrointestinal symptoms.  You might experience a migraine.  You might feel a sudden need to run.  Maybe you get belligerent.  Or, perhaps you lose your words–you can’t speak.  You can chalk that up to that very basic survival reaction called fight or flight (or freeze).  We can thank acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, for a lot of those symptoms.  It’s all very real.  You are not making it up or wishing yourself ill.

Me? Sometimes, out of nowhere, I have a sudden urge to move house, leave town, and start over with a new identity.  I’ll panic and think, “People know too much about me.  I’m too vulnerable.  I must leave.  Must…run.”  I’ll want to cut off all relationships and flee.  I don’t do that, of course, but it happens from time to time.

I had that experience when I was in California.  I wanted to leave the country.  A gulag in Siberia started to sound pretty appealing to me.  Why?

It all started with this guy…

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Claude the Albino Alligator

I didn’t know that his name was Claude until I started writing this post! That somehow makes this seem funny in a sinister Loony Toons sort of way.  So, I had just walked into the California Academy of Science.  I saw a lot of people gathered around a large open air exhibit.

“Ooooh, what’s that?” I thought.

I sauntered over, and that’s when I saw him.

Claude.  A very large alligator.

An alligator!

I am extremely afraid of alligators.  It all began when I was a very small child.  I was convinced that a gator was living under my bed, and this seemed perfectly reasonable to me because there was a bayou directly behind my house.  Sometimes alligators would emerge from their natural habitat and awkwardly drag themselves down my residential street.  So, every night I had to be careful not to let any of my extremities fall over the edge of my bed lest that under-the-bed-alligator bite them clean off!

Fast forward to my 18th year.  Was I over my fear of alligators? I liked to think that I was, but I wasn’t.  I was fascinated by them, but I maintained a strong fear of them.  It remained visceral for me.  I left Texas after I graduated from high school, and I figured that I left alligators behind for good.

I was wrong.

Human trafficking for the purposes of sex work is talked about today.  Shows like NCIS, Law&Order:SVU, and Criminal Minds use the topic in their plot lines.  The most accurate on-screen portrayals of an abduction and sex/human trafficking scenarios that I’ve seen are represented in the movie Taken.  The auction at the end? Those are very real.  The buyers? Real.  Girls being closed up in rooms, drugged, and raped? Real.  That was very close to my experiences in the early 90’s.  Not much has changed.  What is not discussed or used as fodder for entertainment is the torture aspect of trafficking.  Torture is a very important part of human trafficking because psychologically “breaking” an abductee is important in order to gain compliance and destroy hope.  My perpetrator used alligators.

Alligators.

Do you remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy opens up the ancient Egyptian crypt where the ark of the covenant has been hidden for millennia only to discover that the entirety of the interior is creeping and crawling with snakes–his greatest fear?

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That was me.  “Alligators.  Why’d it have to be alligators.”  In retrospect, my perpetrator was a lot like one of those unintelligent Bond villains thinking up creative ways to torture and kill people.  Instead of using something reliable like a gun or knife, he had to try to be showy and egomaniacal and threaten me with being eaten alive by alligators.

Until a year ago, I never talked about the alligators.  I survived the experience and compartmentalized that particular aspect of my time in captivity.  Until last Sunday, I have not come face to face with another alligator since I was 18.

So, how did I do upon meeting Claude?

I froze.  I started sweating.  My stomach clenched.  I almost started crying.  I had no thoughts.  It was entirely a limbic response.  Pure trauma.  So, I decided to just stand there among all the strangers oohing and aahing over this white, prehistoric reptile and let it flow while I told myself the truth.

“I am okay.  I am safe.  That alligator is not going to eat me.  There is no perpetrator here now who is going to throw me down there.  I will never be thrown to alligators.  An alligator does not live under my bed or behind my house or anywhere near where I live.  I am no longer being threatened.  I can look at this alligator and know that I am safe at the same time.”

And then I moved on with the rest of my day.  That was it.  No one knew what I was experiencing.  Just me.

What is the point of sharing this?

Well, the longer that I engage in the healing work (and it’s been a lifetime work at this point), the more that I realize that I have to be my own biggest support.  I have to be my biggest fan.  I am not trying to say that we become self-reliant Teddy Roosevelts who white-knuckle it on the open tundras of life’s hardships.  What I am saying is that we must learn to coach ourselves through the unexpected scenarios that trigger us because sometimes very powerful healing opportunities arise at inopportune times, and we have to take hold of them quickly.  Sometimes our allies are not around, or they are wrapped up in their own healing work.  We must experience and know our strength, and we do have it.

It isn’t romantic.  It will look nothing like it does in the movies.  The theme from Chariots of Fire will not start playing.  No one will high-five you or lift you up on their shoulders.  Most people won’t even know just how hard you’re working.  Just you.  You will probably be judged.  At some point, you’ll feel like a total failure.  You’ll become disillusioned with yourself and life in general.  It will feel like you’re working twice as hard as everyone else just to be average.  Sometimes you might feel like an outcast.  Like you don’t belong anywhere.  You’ll feel ontologically different, and that creates a devouring kind of loneliness that can almost make you feel cold inside.

This is what healing from trauma feels like.  I describe it as such because I have found that when I discover that my experience is common, then I am consoled.  I am not alone.  Maybe I am okay, and in that sense of being potentially okay I find momentum to keep going.

This is why I will always say, “Keep going.  Never give up.”  It gets easier, and it gets better.  There are bad days, but there are good days, too.  And, at some point, the good outnumber the bad, and life starts to feel worthwhile again.  Even when you’re facing down your fears.

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Look how big he is! 

Keep climbing.  Keep going.  Shalom…

 

The Betrayal of Disengagement: Reloaded

I wrote this post for another blog a little over a year ago, but I want to post it here, too, because I continue to get comments on this post–Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage.  Out of hundreds of posts, that post is by far the most read and commented on, and the crux of the comments seems to be founded upon relational neglect and the subsequent emotional and psychological fallout.  I thought that a more personal narrative along with a fresh description of what often underlies the pain of specific relational problems might be helpful in terms of elucidating why we often get in our own way.  If we can’t name it, then we can’t regulate it.  Once we know what’s actually going on within us and within our relationship, then we’ve got a shot at progressing.  And, that produces hope.

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You can’t end a nearly 20-year relationship and not feel it.  There is fallout.  I don’t miss him.  I am actually incredibly thankful for that.  When I ended it, I no longer felt love.  I wanted to move on with my life.

Moving on, however, happens in fits and starts, and, for me, it is due to personal pain.  I am not looking back with nostalgia because I don’t feel nostalgic.  What I do feel is fear.  I am anxious about the future based upon my past experiences.  I sat down today and began a functional analysis of myself.

I therapized myself.

“Tell me, Jules, what triggers this fear in you?”

I have suddenly become very anxious and fearful at night.  It just happens.  Almost panicky.  Sometimes the panic carries over into the morning.  So, what is the function of my panic?

I sat at my table and pondered it.

“Well, I acutely feel alone at night.  It’s just me and Busheen.”

Who is Busheen? This is Busheen.

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Busheen is a knock off of Pusheen.  This is Pusheen.

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Busheen sits on my bed.  Eadaoin gave her to me to keep me company.  Everyone talks to Busheen like she’s sentient.  Even my boyfriend.  When he’s here he’ll say, “Get out of my spot, Busheen,” and Busheen goes flying.  My daughters come into my room and cry on Busheen.  The little girl next door knocks on our door, runs into our house and straight to my bedroom just to grab Busheen and carry her around the house.  Busheen’s got somethin’, but Busheen is no substitute for human interaction.  I feel alone at night, and Busheen doesn’t help me with that.

As soon as I got in touch with that distinct flavor of “aloneness”, I was overcome with the power of that emotion.  It was sheer pain.  I couldn’t even coach myself through it.  I just started sobbing.  I did, however, remember this:

“When we think about betrayal in terms of the marble jar metaphor, most of us think of someone we trust doing something so terrible that it forces us to grab the jar and dump out every single marble. What’s the worst betrayal of trust you can think of? He sleeps with my best friend. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me (an act of emotional treason that causes most of us to slam the entire jar to the ground rather than just dumping the marbles). All terrible betrayals, definitely, but there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust.

In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement.

When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.

We may tell a disengaged partner, “You don’t seem to care anymore,” but without “evidence” of this, the response is “I’m home from work every night by six P.M. I tuck in the kids. I’m taking the boys to Little League. What do you want from me?” Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!

With children, actions speak louder than words. When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children feel pain and fear (and not relief, despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking, This will get their attention.

Like trust, most experiences of betrayal happen slowly, one marble at a time. In fact, the overt or “big” betrayals that I mentioned before are more likely to happen after a period of disengagement and slowly eroding trust. What I’ve learned about trust professionally and what I’ve lived personally boils down to this:

Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture—it’s a growing marble collection.” (Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.”)

This is exactly what happened to me in my marriage.  In retrospect, he never was truy engaged, but over the years it grew worse until he may as well have been completely absent.  I kept asking him what I could do.  “Nothing.”  What had I done wrong? “Nothing.”  Why did he not like me? “You’re fine.”  Why did he find me so unattractive?  “I don’t.”  Why did he stop paying attention to me? ::insert blank stare::  I felt positively unlovable and invisible.  I tried everything.  I tried to be perfect in all things.  I diminished until there was nothing left.  Until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.  And I felt so alone.  All the time.  I wanted to understand what I had done to cause him to want to have nothing to do with me, but I was afraid.  I was afraid that he would tell me, “Well, it’s you.  It’s not that you’ve done anything.  It’s just that you are definitively unlovable.  You can’t do anything to fix what is true.  You are impossible to love because there is nothing in you that merits it.  This is why I ignore you.  This is why I don’t like you.  You’re just…you.  You don’t deserve love.”

That was my fear.  I was trying desperately to disprove what I feared but what his actions seemed to emphasize.  As Brené explains, “Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!” This is how I felt in my marriage: “Tell me you love me.  Tell me you hate me.  Just tell me something so that I know you remember I live here.”

A profound ontological insignificance began to take root and bloom in me spreading throughout my psyche like an invasive botanical species.  It is very hard to uproot.  It is very hard to fight.  It is completely natural to feel alone from time to time.  Loneliness is part of the human experience.  What I have noticed, however, is that when I feel lonely, I feel ontologically invisible.  As if I could disappear existentially and leave no footprint.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t matter.  This is a learned response.  A triggered response.  And, I can unlearn this.

Brené is right: “Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable.”

If you have experienced anything like this in your life, then I would encourage you by telling you that you’re not alone in your experience.  Knowing this, connecting the dots, is how we heal.  Gaining insight into why our emotional experiences are so powerful is how we develop momentum and progress after major life events like break-ups and divorces.  It’s also how we retrain our brains to think differently.  Just because someone else stopped showing up for us doesn’t mean we are not worthy of showing up for.  Trust and vulnerability are hard.  Understanding how to recover and heal after we are betrayed is necessary so that we can go on to be vulnerable and trust again.

And, because I think this is helpful and promotes vision:

What does full and loving engagement involve? At the risk of minimizing an engaged relationship to a list, here’s a list:

  • understanding and embracing the other’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • helping and supporting the other to grow beyond those and feel safe and loved;
  • a willingness to share your own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and pain;
  • active and reflective listening;
  • emotionally mature communication and conflict resolution;
  • physical and emotional presence;
  • proactive efforts to reconnect through fun, play, shared interests;
  • proactive efforts to stay connected when physically separated;
  • consciously placing the relationship in high priority over work, hobbies, and other life distractions;
  • a willingness and desire to grow as a person, to seek personal evolution, and to invite the other person to grow and share with you in this
  • a willingness to forgive and ask for forgiveness. (The Insidious Poison of Disengagement in Your Relationships)

Resources: