Migraines and Anxiety

I want to write something on the more practical side.  I’ve written before about the fact that I have migraines.  Sweet fancy Moses, do I.  Before I was treated by a neurologist, I had roughly twenty migraines a month.  My quality of life had plummeted into the Laurentian Abyss.

It is natural to ask if I was contributing to a lifestyle that caused migraines.  Nope.  I was slammed into by a drunk driver one morning no less than seven times.  The injuries I sustained from that crash left me with a very irritated brain, so says my neurologist, and I now have chronic migraine disease.  I have done and continue to try to do everything I can to prevent and treat this condition.  In the meantime, I want to share some information that might be helpful to you should you take the most successful abortive medication for migraine on the pharmaceutical scene–triptan medication.

The triptan class of drugs is a miracle worker in terms of stopping migraine.  One injection of Imitrex into the thigh, and your migraine is halted in about fifteen minutes.  For those of us who have endured the seven-day, transformed migraine, this is nothing short of touching the hem of Jesus’ prayer shawl.  A year and half ago, I had a major surgery.  Between the intubation, anesthesia, and narcotic drugs administered for pain management, I developed a severe migraine in the hospital.  Triptans were not administered due to hospital politics and a failure to contact my neurologist.  Instead, high and repeated doses of a drug stronger than morphine were administered to me, and it did nothing except increase the migraine pain.  Twenty four hours later, after a seizure and repeated projectile vomiting due to the migraine, my surgeon wised up, called my neurologist, and prescribed IM Imitrex.  Fifteen minutes later? The migraine was abating.  That’s how effective triptans are.

Triptans, however, have a dark side.  Think of them like your friendly Shoulder Angel and Devil.  They are angelic in that they stop your migraines very effectively.  They are positively diabolical in that they do other rather nefarious things, too.  What might that be?

Imitrex, known generically as Sumatriptan, increases anxiety levels in people:

“There is evidence suggesting that Imitrex (Sumatriptan) can induce anxiogenic effects in humans.  In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 15 patients diagnosed with panic disorder, it was discovered that Sumatriptan significantly increased anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo.  While it is unclear as to whether the drug increases anxiety among those without preexisting anxiety disorders, many would speculate that it could.

Results from another study noted that Sumatriptan increased fear of simulated speaking compared to a placebo.  Researchers noted that cortisol concentrations increased, vigilance increased, and prolactin levels decreased.  It is hypothesized that Sumatriptan exacerbates anxiety by lowering serotonin levels in the synaptic cleft, thereby facilitating opposite serotonergic effects compared to SSRIs (which reduce anxiety).

Additionally, Sumatriptan causes the phenomenon known as “brain fog” wherein you just can’t think clearly, or, as I describe it, you can’t get your shit together inside or out:

“An unfortunate side effect that you may experience while taking Sumatriptan is “brain fog” or inability to think clearly.  As the drug kicks in, you may have a difficult time thinking clearly, organizing your thoughts, and may feel as if you’re in some sort of twilight zone – your thoughts are clouded.  There are numerous potential mechanisms that may be responsible for inducing brain fog among Sumatriptan users.

Sumatriptan increases blood flow velocity, modulates serotonin receptors (and serotonergic neurotransmission), and alters trigeminal nerve activation.  The culmination of these effects may facilitate the induction of brain fog for certain individuals.  This brain fog may linger even after the anti-headache effects of the drug have faded due to the fact that your neurotransmission will need to reset itself to a homeostatic baseline.” (Online source)

My personal favorite of all the side effects of taking triptan medication would be the “I’ve become a dumb ass” side effect aka “cognitive blunting”:

“In addition to the already-mentioned side effect of brain fog or “clouded thinking,” you may notice cognitive impairment from Sumatriptan.  The degree to which your cognitive function suffers may be based upon the dosage of Sumatriptan administered, your baseline neurophysiology, and genetics.  For certain individuals, serotonergic modulation at 5-HT1B and 5-HT1D receptor sites has a noticeably deleterious effect upon cognition.

You may find that after taking a Sumatriptan pill, your ability to stay productive in a cognitively-demanding occupation and/or academic pursuits – is significantly hampered.  Fortunately, most cognitive deficits associated with Sumatriptan are transient and normative cognitive function is restored after Sumatriptan is eliminated from systemic circulation.  However, some users may notice that it takes a day or two for complete cognitive recovery after experiencing drug-induced deficits.” (Online source)

What does all this mean? Well, what I have observed is that whenever I use triptans now I feel very anxious afterwards for hours.  I feel like crying, and my thoughts become negatively distorted.  Because I’m so mentally foggy, however, I struggle to mentalize or reframe anything.  I just feel stuck or paralyzed coupled with deeply anxious and generally upset.  In the middle of this “wave”, I can tell myself that this experience is due to the migraine medication, and it will pass.  It’s cold comfort.  It still sucks, and I still feel terrible.

If you experience something similar when treating your migraines with triptans, then you are not alone.  Many, many migraineurs suffer similarly.  I bring this forward because if you struggle with anxiety or any form of it like PTSD, for example, then you might feel something akin to being triggered since you are experiencing a resurgence in anxiety symptomology.  We experience anxiety somatically, in our bodies, as much as we do in how we think–cognitively.  Rest assured, however, that the cascade of anxiety and depressive symptoms that you might experience while treating a migraine with triptans is actually due to the side effect profile of the drug.  It will pass as will the migraine.

In the meantime, I just discovered this book written by Dr. Carol Bernstein of Harvard Medical School.  She is the founder of the Women’s Headache Center near Boston and a migraine sufferer herself.  She is a practicing neurologist, too.  Perhaps you will find this helpful, too, should you struggle with migraine.

Profound Trauma and EMDR

I have been writing about EMDR and the process of therapy for a few reasons.  I often tell people that therapy is good.  Go to therapy! But then I’m met with this common response: “Why?” That’s legit.  Why indeed.  Providing documentation of the actual process, I reasoned, might help people understand why one chooses the therapeutic process over white knuckling it through daily life, stoic and independent.

EMDR is a modality of treatment allowing for the adaptive processing of trauma vs. the maladaptive processing of trauma or repeated compartmentalization of traumatic memories when they arise.  We can process our trauma to be sure, but the important thing to note here is whether or not we have adaptively processed it or maladaptively processed it.  Doing sound cognitive work with a therapist to address core beliefs followed up by learning what healthy boundaries look like in various normal life situations and relationships as well as internalizing what true validation looks and feels like lay a foundation for the work of EMDR.  I have suggested mindfulness as a way to practice developing and rooting new and healthy core beliefs because it puts us in the driver’s seat of our own cognitions rather than in the “washing machine” of every movement, distortion, and whim of the brain and its chemistry.  You cannot control the content that your brain puts out.  Learning how to respond (or not respond) is entirely up to us.  When something like PTSD is at work, however, reacting to the brain’s propaganda and cognitive distortions is habitual and feels necessary.  Unlearning this in order to heal and find peace in our own bodies and selves is vital for recovery and eventual flourishing.

Doesn’t that sound nice on paper?

I’ll be truthful with you here.  The process is grueling.  I have grown to despise EMDR, but it works.  My brain is fully committed.  I leave a session feeling hollowed out only to feel unsettled and ill-at-ease soon thereafter.  Something is coming forward.  Something I compartmentalized and didn’t want to deal with.  Something I really don’t care to look at now.  And then, lo, it’s in the forefront shouting, “Hey! Look at me! Deal with me next!”  Must I? Yes.  It’s time.  Thank you, brain.

The phenomenon that I experience now is one of memories without context or content first.  Then the content and context follows.  Initially, I will not understand what is happening to me.  I will suddenly feel strong emotions usually at an inconvenient time and place.  The emotions and thoughts associated with the memory will play out, and my present self will observe the event with great confusion.  I will often feel panicked over what is happening.  It will almost feel like a panic attack or flashback as the unfolding of the emotional and cognitive memory peaks, and then it will diminish.  This has happened a few times, and this usually happens around extremely bad events in my past where there has been torture of some kind.  The emotions and cognitions around the event emerge first before the event itself will come forward.  I suspect that this is my brain’s way of being helpful–a slow introduction.  It in no way feels helpful because I don’t have a clue as to what is happening when it does.  Sometimes I think I’m having a hypoglycemic event.  I feel like I am the last one to the party every time this happens.

For example, I experienced this last week, and I was caught up in the emotional onslaught very quickly.  I eventually retired to my room to attempt to regulate and “get to the bottom” of whatever was overtaking me.  I was truly panicking–out of the blue.  And there was something else, too.  I was suddenly afraid for my life.  I felt trapped and utterly despairing.  The phrase, “No one is coming for you,” was repeating itself in my mind.  I pushed against the entire thing for about twenty minutes until another thought emerged.  What if I just leaned into it? What if something beneficial was happening? That felt abhorrent to me, but fighting this experience was producing suffering.  So, I tried speaking aloud and saying the one thing that frightened me the most about the entire experience: “No one is coming for you.”  Suddenly, it was all there.

My father.  His wife.  One of their long interrogation sessions inspired by his Special Forces training.  Theirs was a folie à deux relationship.  She told him what to do, and he did it.  She watched and smiled while he remained steely.  Most of the time.  She was outwardly sadistic.  He was internally so.  Not this time.  He blatantly told me that he was going to kill me via torture using implements that I’d seen around his house.  I was very young.  They were both into psychological torture.  This, more than anything, terrified me.  And he punctuated his threats with, “No one is coming for you.”  What I find so interesting about this is that this very same phrase was used when I was trafficked.  That’s why I fought so hard to escape.  Fear of torture.  Not death.  Torture.

I rarely share details of my past experiences because I find that the sharing itself contributes to a culture of morbid curiosity or even narcissism which is so pervasive on the Internet.  Keeping my own experiences generalized allows you, the reader, to tie in your own life experiences as you read which is my goal.  So, why would I share this? Torture isn’t exactly the most common of life experiences.  I share this particular example because 1) this is my most recent experience with EMDR 2) because I want to elucidate the power of EMDR to aid in healing from trauma–even profound trauma.

Why does something like this matter really? Well, you can’t have an emotional bomb like this in your psyche.  You have to diffuse it.  You must adaptively process this.  This is, by all accounts, a horrible thing, and no person will do as well as they could in life if they don’t heal after it.  There is something else though that matters perhaps more.  Whenever I find myself in a perceived no-win situation, I panic in an extreme way and begin to feel despair which often paralyzes me.  Eventually, I will fight to win, but I can’t problem solve well.  I am usually overcome with dread and fear of death.  This past torture situation is why.  This is most likely the root of it.  Many of our present self-sabotaging behaviors and character flaws are rooted in past experiences.  No amount of will power will change them particularly if its your past self sabotaging your present.  By the way, that’s another reason to go to therapy.

Our brains are designed to do the problem solving for us.  Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that produces strong feelings in us, our brains attempt to solve the problem.  One way in which our brains do this for us is by looking back over past experiences in order to see how any previous experiences were similar and how they were solved.  For those of us with extreme backgrounds, some of our past experiences were deplorable.  When our brains go searching for past experiences evocative of the present, we may find ourselves caught up in a renewed traumatic experience.  This very reason is why EMDR is vital for living in the present and developing a more meaningful life.  Once a trauma is adaptively processed, should the brain draw on a past memory that was traumatic, it won’t pack the traumatic punch.  Perhaps it will even be off the table in terms of past experiences that the brain will draw on for present and future problem solving, and we will be less presently influenced by it.

What I must note now is this: You cannot do profound trauma work alone.  When I fully assembled this past experience–the emotional, cognitive, and visual memory–I was distraught and devastated.  I was in the middle of it and re-living it.  I felt in the present what my 7 year-old self felt in the past.  I was under the covers in my bed weeping, and I honestly didn’t know what was true in that moment.  Was anyone coming for me? Was that true? Had anyone ever come for me in my life? I was plummeting into the emotional-dysregulation-cognitive-distortion-pit-of-despair.  Fast.  I could see my father’s face so clearly.  And his wife’s.  Her sadistic grin.  His cold eyes.  It was all too real.

Then my phone rang.  It was him.  My boyfriend.  Gotta get myself together.  Clear the throat, but he knew as soon as I answered.  I spilled it all, but I didn’t want to.  This? This is too dark.  I felt too vulnerable.  To be honest, I am sick of myself.  I am sick of my process, and I am very afraid that everyone around me is sick of it, too.  Who wants to stick around for torture and suffering of this magnitude? I don’t! I want to be done, but he said everything opposite to how I felt.

And this is what you need.  People who will believe in you and your healing process when you have grown tired of yourself.  When you are afraid.  When you don’t like it.  When you fear that everyone will leave.

When you’re afraid that no one will come for you.

You must keep going.  At all costs.  This work is the most important work you will ever do.  So, I will say what I always say, keep going.

Mindfulness and Your Thoughts

Here is a powerful idea:

Your memories and damaging thoughts are like propaganda.  They are not real.  They are not you.

To quote Rhett and Link from Good Mythical Morning, let’s talk about that.

Why is it so hard to get a hold of our own minds? Why are we run over by our emotions, moods, and thoughts? Why are cognitive distortions such a problem? This is why:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  •  the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

“When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Let’s stop here.  In the process of trying to solve our emotional distress, thoughts emerge.  Recall what I’ve been posting about core beliefs.  This is when those core beliefs come into play.  Let’s look at an example.

When I was living in France, I lived directly next to another American named Liz.  She was the most even-tempered person I think I’ve ever met.  We became fast friends and traveled everywhere together.  She was never in a bad mood.  She always seemed happy.  I have rarely met anyone like her.  One day, however, she returned with a test in hand and tears on her face.  She had failed an exam, and the teacher in characteristic French fashion had shamed her with one eloquent sentence on the test: “Il faut essayer un peu,” meaning “You have to at least try a little bit.”  Ouch! I waited for her to explode or lie in bed for days questioning her existence or capabilities.  She had studied.  I took the same test.  We studied together.  Nope.  It never happened.  Why?

She didn’t have any negative identity-based core beliefs.  She had a good childhood and adolescence.  She didn’t have abuse in her background.  She didn’t really tie performance to identity.  She hadn’t experienced trauma.  She was very fortunate.  She felt the sting of the shame and the immediate failure, and then, lo, she moved on.  She self-regulated.

The idea that we can experience an emotion and not fix it but simply allow it to pass might be a new idea.  You can wake up in the morning with mild anxiety and simply allow it to exist without asking repeatedly, “Why am I anxious? When did I feel this way before? What is this about?” but instead begin to recognize that you are not your anxious feelings might feel like a non-option.  Aren’t we supposed to chase down every negative emotion and solve them? Well, as studies are beginning to reveal, we aren’t actually solving anything:

“We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you’re even aware of it. It’s a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It’s incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.

The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be colored by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What’s wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?

Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop.  One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next … Soon, the original thought—no matter how fleeting—has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you’ve become enmeshed in your own sorrow.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

I relate to this on so many levels.  I don’t generally attack myself, but, in a millisecond, my mind provides me with ways of escaping when similarities in the present line up with similarities to the past.  My mind will generate thoughts like, “Do you remember the last time you felt like this? Your ex caused you to feel like this.  Your mother did this.  Your father did this…”  Ad infinitem.  I will find a pattern and draw conclusions so quickly.  I won’t even know that I’ve done it.  Suddenly, I’m in tears or panicking or wondering if I’m safe.  I will begin to wonder if anyone in my life is trustworthy.  All because one thought was generated in my mind and I had to figure it out!

What can we do about it?

“You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, self-critical thoughts and judgmental ways of thinking—but you can stop what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the next cycle of negative thoughts. You can stop the cascade of destructive emotions that can end up making you unhappy, anxious, stressed, irritable or exhausted.

Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognize memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real. They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Ah yes, we are back at mindfulness again.  It seems that there is so much more to it than coloring books.

For Getting Your Mindfulness On:

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World

The Eight-Week Mindfulness Plan

I’ve written about mindfulness before.  Everyone is talking about mindfulness.  It is the cultural buzzword at the moment.  All those coloring books abounding in bookstores and even garage sales? They’re taken from the ancient tradition of the meditation Mandala practiced by Buddhist monks:

It sounds like a pretty concept.  Mindfulness.  It’s even a pretty sounding word.  Say it.  Miiiiiiindfulness.  Why is it emerging into Western culture with such force? Well, this is why:

According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman, “Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average.  These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Williams and Penman state with evidence:

  • “Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.
  • Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.
    Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.
  • Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence.
  • Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Here is what mindfulness meditation is not:

  • Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practice meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are avid meditators too.
  • You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practice bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing on planes, trains, or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
  • Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
  • Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about “success” or “failure.” Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus will have benefited psychologically
  • It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving toward important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things that need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.” ( Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Now that we’ve established that, what is it then that we are all about? Well, honestly, I’d like to be happy.  This is what I am building.  A happy life.  Sure, we can wax philosophical until the end of the age about the true nature of happiness.  Is it external to us? Is it an internal state? Is it a mere evanescent phenomenon and, therefore, a wasteful pursuit that we should abandon altogether in place of contentment? For the sake of the current discussion, I am leaving that discussion aside because it distracts us from what I really want to discuss.  Mindfulness.  And how we sabotage our own attempts to progress in life.  How exactly do we sabotage ourselves? What are we doing wrong when we are trying so hard?

Williams and Penn explain:

“Our moods naturally wax and wane. It’s the way we’re meant to be. But certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional well-being into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a “bad mood” that colors a whole day or far, far longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression. But, more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more “centered” person, by showing that:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  • the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

As soon as we understand how the mind works, it becomes obvious why we all suffer from bouts of unhappiness, stress and irritability from time to time. When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Does this sound familiar to you? I see myself in this.  So, what will a mindfulness meditation program actually do then?

“Mindfulness…encourages you to break some of the unconscious habits of thinking and behaving that stop you from living life to the full. Many judgmental and self-critical thoughts arise out of habitual ways of thinking and acting. By breaking with some of your daily routines, you’ll progressively dissolve some of these negative thinking patterns and become more mindful and aware. You may be astonished by how much more happiness and joy are attainable with even tiny changes to the way you live your life.

Habit breaking is straightforward. It’s as simple as not sitting in the same chair at meetings, switching off the television for a while or taking a different route to work. You may also be asked to plant some seeds and watch them grow, or perhaps look after a friend’s pet for a few days or go and watch a film at your local cinema. Such simple things—acting together with a short meditation each day—really can make your life more joyous and fulfilled.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

It is with the spirit of moving forward and truly building something better that I recommend Williams and Penman’s 8-week mindfulness plan.  Get this book.  Get the audiobook.  Do the exercises.  Their book is full of scientific evidence that will knock your socks off.  You will get to know yourself and your brain better.  You will understand why you do what you do and experience self-acceptance along the way rather than self-judgment.  It will come as a huge relief rather than another reason to feel inadequate.  It is in no way hard, and it will introduce you to a better way of thinking, doing, and being.  I will be writing posts as I follow the plan for the next eight weeks, but wouldn’t it be fun to do it together? Send me your stories! I’ll post them!

Imposter Syndrome in Trauma Survivors

Here’s a story.  I’m sharing it because it might elucidate something for you.  I’ll open with a question.

Have you ever felt something like a fear of discovery? Like if people found out who you really were, then they would abandon you because, deep down, you’re really just a fraud?  As if you are not legitimate in some way?  You might even be broken or incapable.  You don’t really have a right to be here.

It’s called Imposter Syndrome.  Here’s a quick and dirty definition: “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” (Wikipedia)

Does this ring true for you?

This internal experience used to rule my life.  I didn’t even know that it was a “thing”, but it is.  The American Psychological Association discusses it, and the New York Times published an article elaborating on it (Learning to Deal with Imposter Syndrome).  It’s a very real phenomenon.  For people with profound trauma in their backgrounds, it’s even more relevant.

Why?

Here is my experience…

A while ago, when my oldest daughter was quite wee, I was getting to know a woman with a son close in age to my daughter.  She was asking me the typical “Let’s Get to Know Each Other” questions.  I was young and naive, and I had no problem engaging in social niceties.  I did not realize that people rarely wanted truthful answers.  So, when she asked me about my familial background and I answered truthfully, I was unprepared for her response which went something like this:

“I do not want to hear terrible stories about your life.  I can’t tolerate things like that.  Please don’t share such things with me.”

I was gobsmacked.  I had only said that I had a difficult relationship with my mother.  She had a history of depression and multiple suicide attempts.  I didn’t describe in detail how she did it.  I wasn’t reliving trauma in front of her.  Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of such a reaction, but I felt a very particular sting.  I couldn’t name it, but I respected her boundaries all the same.  Whenever I saw her after that I simply smiled and said, “I’m fine.  How are you?”  That was what made her feel happy.  I felt like a phony, but I get it.  I grew up within the trappings of the nouveau riche country club crowd.  Authenticity isn’t exactly a welcome guest.

A few years later, I met and became friends with another woman who, as our friendship deepened, pressed me for more intimate details about my past and present life.  I was wary.  I had never quite felt like my past life circumstances were my fault before, and I was beginning to feel under the microscope–judged.  It wasn’t my fault that my mother was mentally ill.  It wasn’t my fault that my father was a sociopath.  Admittedly, I came from unusual circumstances, but I didn’t see myself as taking the blame for their bad behavior.  Their problems did not originate in me.  All the same, when I began to share some information, this woman responded in much the same way as the aforementioned woman.  Remarkably, she, too, could not bear to hear that children were abused and mothers attempted suicide.  She didn’t want to hear that fathers could be bad, and young women could be trafficked.

“I don’t like this story.  I don’t want to hear it.  It’s so negative.  Tell a different story.”

Well, shit, I don’t like it either, but she asked.  I was attempting to be authentic while, at the same time, not go “too deep” as it were.  How does one form meaningful relationships with people when the past is so full of terrible stories? And why was I starting to feel so, for lack of a better word, broken? So rejected? As if I were the one who had done something wrong? I started to feel like I had to redact my own history in order to be socially and interpersonally acceptable.  So, I did just that, and I was not quick to reveal myself to anyone.  I adopted a persona, and it worked because I was raised to “try harder” in order to earn acceptance anyway.  Not approval.  Approval was The Dream.  Acceptance, on the other hand, felt attainable.  If your efforts passed muster, then you were found to be acceptable.  Tolerable.  Adequate.  Lacking in interest, and that was a very good thing because if you weren’t of interest, then you weren’t open to criticism and a potential target for abuse or terroristic threats.  These new experiences with social rejection felt eerily similar.  Suddenly, approval was off the table as was a chance at intimacy and connection.  Social acceptance and invitation became the options.  Not inclusion.

I was learning quickly that many people were not interested in anything profound and meaningful particularly if it challenged their worldview, and suffering challenges paradigms.  This is why so many people grapple with theodicy.

Years later, in a small group, I revealed truth about my past.  Again.  With disastrous consequences.  My greatest fear at that time was that if I told the truth about past trauma I would be seen as inherently tainted–illegitimate–and, henceforth, at fault.  I feared social alienation and rejection.  That is essentially what happened.  It was a devastating betrayal, but it was the greatest catalyst to healing I’ve ever experienced. Good ultimately came from that circumstance.

Sometimes wisps of this dynamic appear even now in statements like this: “Tell me something about your childhood, but don’t tell me something about your father.  I don’t want to hear about how he killed an animal in front of you or something awful like that.”  Yes, this is a boundary.  I don’t want to violate anyone.  People do have a right to determine what they do and don’t want to hear.  For example, someone could say this: “Tell me a story about human connection that you’ve experienced, but don’t talk about sexual connection.  I don’t want to hear about past sexual encounters.”  That’s a boundary.

What is the difference between the two boundaries?

My sexual encounters were by choice but trauma is not.  Generally, unless there is a kink at play, people don’t require a witness to the sexual narrative in order to experience validation, acceptance, and approval in the context of relationships.  In the context of developing relationships, however, people do, at some point, need a witness during the process of narrative exposure in order to feel minimally acceptable, and optimally approved of, particularly if there is trauma within their narrative.  Being told that their narrative is not tolerable is, in part, stigmatizing because it casts a pall on the personal experiences of people causing them to experience less authenticity within their relationships and even within their self-perception.  Necessary deletions of one’s personal narrative made in order to survive socially in different contexts affects the healing process.  We cannot integrate properly after trauma if we can’t even talk about what happened to us because other people find our stories unpalatable.

Yes, the stories are bad.  That’s why trauma survivors suffer so terribly.  Part of being compassionate people is listening and acting as witnesses to those who are suffering in silence and solitude fearing that no one will ever hear their entire truth and still want and love them after disclosure.  This is one of the unbearable curses of living with trauma.

This is why the variation of Imposter Syndrome in survivors of trauma needs to be addressed.  The ontological loneliness is real.  The fear of being discovered is real, and it’s legitimate.  The way out is telling our stories.  All of them.  To very safe people who will sit with you while you lay them out.  They won’t judge you.  They won’t blame you.  They will act as witnesses to everything you have heard, seen, and experienced.

And, they will accept you as you are today.  They will approve of you no matter what you did in the past.  And, why would anyone do that, you ask?

Because your past self got you to where you are today, and that’s something to be very proud of.  Regardless of your past experiences, you’ve made it this far.  That’s a story worth telling.  Shamelessly.

 

 

Deep Programming and Core Beliefs

I have discussed core beliefs on this blog (Core Beliefs and Double Distortions, Gridlock and Core Beliefs, Core Beliefs) .  After my “career” in therapy, I thought I’d covered all the ground until I landed on core beliefs.  I learned that after putting in the time and energy along with all the blood, sweat, and tears I could be cognitively intact, mindful, self-actualized, burgeoning with insight and self-regulation and still influenced by these almost subconsciously held “core beliefs”.  EMDR, in part, addresses these core beliefs so that we can change them and adaptively process trauma in order to heal and ultimately move on free of negative, internal influences.

That’s a mouthful.  What does this look like in terms of recovery because it sounds relatively easy on paper? I’ll use my journey and process as an example to further elucidate the premise.

My father was a member of a certain military branch’s elite special forces unit.  It was just yesterday that one of my daughters commented on him and his participation in military operations as a member of this unique special forces squad.  She had been reading a book in one of her university classes wherein this unit was described by another member of the military–a soldier who had direct contact with my father’s unit.  In an interview, he described them as barely human.  They kept to themselves and exhibited no emotion.  They were so intimidating that other soldiers instinctively avoided them.  They exuded danger.  They were feared.  They were the assassin’s assassins.  They were the group that trained other soldiers on torture.  They made sure that everyone knew just how expendable they were ensuring that the most questionable orders were followed.  They were the men hired to be mercenaries after discharge from military service.  No one fucked with these guys.  Ever.

I told my daughter that this book’s description described my father perfectly.  It was validating to hear it particularly in the context of a book about war from the perspective of other soldiers.  It explained him somehow.  His actions and treatment of me had little to do with me.  Cognitively, I have finally learned and internalized that.  He was acting in accordance with his nature, and yet I was still left with old programming.  I had to get rid of it even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had to get rid of.  Something lurked in my subconscious.  A dark and misty fear.  Untenable.

Whether or not it was intentional on his part, my father did participate in programming and torture techniques that were used in the military when I spent time with him.  Was he re-living his military days as a civilian? Was I viewed as the enemy? Is this why he did the things to me that he did? Perhaps he couldn’t help himself.  Maybe he liked it.  He was a sadist.  It doesn’t matter.  When you’re stuck with “programming”, which is what core beliefs are, it’s vital to search it out and delete it.

How do you do that? How do you even go about finding it?

All of my old and deleterious programming/core beliefs emerged while I was trying to fight against abuse in my marriage and during the first year after my ex moved out–during the initial trauma processing.  I do not recommend engaging in this process alone.  It is excruciating in every way, and my therapist warned me that it would come for me.  My circumstances might be viewed as unusual.  I am not the only person raised by a borderline mother.  I have written extensively about her and what healing from that kind of childhood looks like.  It’s painful and difficult, but it can be done.  My father, on the other hand, was a highly training killing machine to put it bluntly.  His humanity did not survive his time in the military nor did it survive his own childhood.  His father, my grandfather, was also a member of a specialized military unit with ties to certain alphabet agencies in the government.  He grew up under inordinate emotional and physical deprivation, and he continued that tradition with me.  It is what he knew.  It was our family’s tradition.

As is the case with family traditions, belief statements go along with them.  For some families, those statements of belief might be, “We always vote Democrat,” or “We are a Christian family with traditional values.”  Sometimes it’s whimsical–“We love Christmas!” or “We always eat Swedish meatballs on Easter!”  Sometimes it’s dangerous–“We hate Jews,” or “We don’t go downtown at night because those people are everywhere and might hurt us.”  Every family has their belief system much like a statement of faith in a church.  Sometimes it is implicitly stated.  Other times it’s not, but everyone understands what is believed based upon attitudes and actions.  Family culture is often the first place to look when attempting to root out core beliefs and/or programming.

The foundational core belief that almost all of the other ones in my father’s home were founded upon was this: “You are expendable.”  It is entirely appropriate considering who my father was.  It would only emerge in me when I was attempting to assert myself under extreme pressure, and it was always followed by profound feelings of extraordinary despair as if life were meaningless.  Death seemed like a welcome option.  I found myself thinking, “Why bother?” Why bother trying to do anything? If I am expendable, then my hopes and efforts to affect change in my life were utterly futile.  To quote the Borg from Star Trek, resistance is futile.  Why not just fall into the warm ease of the collective and give up my distinctness? Why not just be assimilated into whatever I am attempting to fight and give up? And yet I never could.

This type of thinking goes against everything that I believe as a person which is often your first clue that you are dealing with a core belief or trauma-induced programming.  When you find yourself behaving and making choices that go against your own set of consciously held beliefs, then you might be dealing with core beliefs/deep programming.

Those “thoughts” are “programming” at its finest.  How are these core beliefs/programming fortified and glued in place? Through trauma.  And, sometimes the trauma is extreme, but it doesn’t have to be in order for it to be effective.  For example, a child may witness a parent physically abuse the other parent.  It is traumatic for children to witness abuse in their families, but imagine that there were words spoken as well.  In addition to the physical abuse, perhaps one parent saw the child crying at seeing the abuse.  Suddenly, the abusive parent shouts at the child while raising a fist, “You better stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

What belief might have been planted here in this moment? There may have been many fears and insecurities related to safety and an emerging belief that one parent is an all-power perpetrator.  What about something else like, “If I show weakness or emotion, then I’ll be hurt,” or “If I attempt to stand up for myself, then I’ll be threatened and possibly hurt.”  There are other possibilities in terms of parentification or even failed parentifcation.  Helplessness.  Powerlessness.  Ontological fear.  Fear of death.

The now fallen Bill Cosby once joked in a stand-up routine that his father told him when he was a child that he could take him out of this world just as easily as he brought him into the world.  What’s more, he could make another one who looked just like him.  So, as if his father were the great Santa Claus in the sky, he better watch out.  He better not cry.  He was watching lest he be “taken out”.  His late 1970s delivery of this joke was humorous in its extremity, but it was funny because it was true in the sense that children actually believe their parents when they say things like this.  Parents are as God to their children for a long time.  What we see and hear from them as young children roots itself in our subconsciousness and influences us for years.  It does not matter if it’s the embodiment of deception.  It doesn’t matter if we cognitively and consciously disagree with it.  If your emotions believe it to be true, then you will be a house divided prone to self-sabotage and fumbling your way through myriad missed opportunities.  This is the power of deep programming aka core beliefs.

So, what did I do with that deep core belief that told me at key moments in my life that I was expendable? Eventually, I had to sit with it.  It rose to the surface numerous times at the tail end of my marriage.  After the last sexual assault, I truly felt expendable.  Worth nothing.  When my doctor told me that I needed pelvic floor corrective surgery due to years of sexual violence, I felt…broken in a distinct way.  It was so profoundly personal.  I sat with that belief.  I sat with all the emotions that came with it, and, truthfully, I wanted to die.  Throughout most of 2016 I wanted to die.  I looked back over the landscape of my life, and I felt inordinate anguish.  How did I get to this point? What the hell happened?

But then my therapist said something to me.  He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of captivity after I was abducted.  He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of my marriage once I realized it was not good for me.  Why did I leave both my parents behind? Why did I make those decisions? I didn’t want to answer.  I felt too vulnerable to speak about any of it.  Frankly, I was tired of discussing my weird life.  I have lived a weird life, and I grow tired of it sometimes.

After much prodding, I finally answered, “I fought and continue to fight because…I’m just not going out like that.  I won’t let these bad people get the best of me.  I just…won’t.”

“So then…you don’t honestly believe any of it then, do you? You wouldn’t fight so hard if you truly believed that you were expendable.  You fight so hard to prove that you are, in fact, the very opposite.  The anguish you feel then is because the people who were supposed to love and support you have never seen you for who you are.  For the girl and woman you see yourself to be, and that is the heart of your pain.  You know the truth, and they only know the lies.  You feel such pain because you don’t know what it’s like to be truly seen, and the invisibility is too much sometimes.”

And there it was.  My father’s core belief that I was expendable because he was expendable never truly settled into me.  I fought so hard to prove him wrong because I wanted what everyone wants from a father.  If I couldn’t get love from him, then I, at the very least, wanted acceptance.  Please, just see me! I couldn’t even get that.  I would always be disposable, and, in a way, that was true for my mother as well.  If I did not meet her needs and make her happy, then I was worth little to nothing.  This was reinforced in my marriage repeatedly.  Being ignored for almost three years tapped into that latent belief that I was expendable and resurrected it.  I felt like the walking dead.  A ghost.  Present but never seen.

This is why it is imperative that you stop running from what pains you and learn to tolerate your own personal distress.  It is within your inner turmoil that your answers lie because that which you fight in terms of your own inner demons may be the very thing that is saving you.  We may feel a certain thing to such a degree that it pushes us beyond our perceived limits, but our inner fight is there, too, attempting to prove to us that what we feel isn’t true at all.  We are, in fact, worth something.  We are, in fact, worth knowing, loving, accepting, and fighting for.  The anger we feel that is often internalized and experienced as depression and desolation screams this out at us.

If this resonates with you at all, then I encourage you to do the hard thing and explore the darkness.  Don’t do it alone.  Have someone on stand-by at all times who will, at a minimum, check in with you.  But, dare to go into your own dark corners and unopened boxes.  Therein may lie your redemption.

Fight for the life you want and deserve.  Never stop.