Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ

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Becoming Strong

Today is a momentous day.  I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years.  At least I think it’s ten years.

I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal.  I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation.  To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression.  I have always had great compassion for her.  I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.

I was a non-entity growing up.  I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have.  I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*.  My role changed according to her momentary whims.  I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself.  I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.

What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse.  How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap.  While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger.  Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones.  Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma.  So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.

A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother.  They know the stories of her past behavior.  They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up.    For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here.  For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious.  Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype.  My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.

So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?

I made a career out of going to therapy.  While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging.  She was in my head.  I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence.  My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me.  It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good.  She was a bully.  So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people.  Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.

I practiced being assertive.  This is still very difficult for me.  I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents.  I recall saying no to my mother only one time.  She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back.  My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam.  You just didn’t say no to him.  Ever.  I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary.  I will stand up for myself and other people.  So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.

I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature.  What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person.  Believe me, they won’t.  We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature.  It is, however, worth nothing that women  have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.

“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I was definitely raised like this.  It wasn’t a choice.  It was a necessity.  For survival.  There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that.  I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son.  They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family.  The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women.  This spans the gender gap.

I also thought that this was the way of the world:

“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind.  There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:

“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.

Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries.  And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any.  I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin.  After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.

What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:

1. Ask for what you want and deserve.

Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.

2. Say no.

People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.

3. Speak up.

If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.

4. Stand your ground.

There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.

5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.

Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)

My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing.  Some things stick around in our minds.  We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things.  It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength.  Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand.  So, we cannot forget.  You are resilient today because you were once hurt then.  And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today.  I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me.  I’m still me.  There is no power in that place anymore.  That is why I remember.  Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories.  The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.

May you forge new victories as you keep going.

Further Reading:

Choosing the Healing Path

To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother.  My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders.  When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies.  In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:

 Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.

 Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.

 It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.

 The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.

 Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).

 Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,

 Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,

 Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),

 Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)

 Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),

 Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.

 is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with.  What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control.  With my mother, it was both.  It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment.  Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.

She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment.  I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror.  It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious.  In her worst rages, she could become homicidal.  To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party.  No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors.  They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.”  If only it were that easy…

So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually.  I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children.  That was over ten years ago.  It’s funny how something starts.  She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business.  She decided not to speak to me.  That was her M.O.  Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow.  The kowtowing was very important.  She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again.  If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode.  Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway.  This time, however, I didn’t call her.  I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script.  I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me.  I am her daughter after all.

She never did.  For years.  In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics.  I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was.  I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother.  I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage.  Anything.  I lacked any distress tolerance for it.  I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger.  My first response is to run away as fast as I can.

My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry.  I’m not now.  So, how are you? I want to visit.”  Four years.  I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement.  I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong.  I then ended the conversation.  Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving.  Usually in December.  Some of them are twisted and strange.  Some of them blame me for her misery.  Some of them plead with me.  The 2017 Letter was different.

This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy.  She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior.  She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way.  She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life.  She apologized.  My mother doesn’t say things like this.  I was shocked.  She asked if we could talk.  I thought about it for six weeks.

I decided to send her my email and cell number.  She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year.  After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her.  I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always.  Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.

I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn.  It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends.  It is hers.  Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls.  No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process.  Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call.  But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people.  It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.

I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore.  I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her.  I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing.  I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person.  And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation.  It could be almost anything really.

I don’t feel angry towards her anymore.  I feel at ease.  I do, however, feel disappointed.  So much was possible and went unrealized.

My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD.  She is herself.  My experience with her is unique unto itself.  So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing.  What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood.  It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.

You heal you.  Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals.  Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you.  Staying willing.  Pushing through.  Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships.  Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love.  This is what heals you.  And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you.  You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life.  Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward.  That’s the definition of survival.  That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.

That is something I have learned along the way.  As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.

The Prison of Maladaptive Behaviors

I am an independent person by nature.  I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11 years-old suddenly making me the youngest of three girls.  My developing personality came to a grinding halt.  I didn’t know my place in my family anymore nor did I like my new stepsisters.  They didn’t like me either.  I look back and cringe particularly if there are family photos involved.  I did not make that transition gracefully.  As I got older, however, that new family became my family; I learned all sorts of things in that family, and then my mother and stepfather divorced a few months before I graduated from high school.  And, I left for the East Coast never to return to Texas again except for a funeral and to visit one of my stepsisters years later.

I learned that remaining independent–fiercely independent–was a good thing.  Self-reliant.  Literally.  I learned to rely on myself first and foremost to get things done.  My mother was too unstable and self-involved to count on for legitimate help.  My stepfather was too beholden to her for his emotional stability and sense of self for any kind of authentic help.  When the dreaded Choose-A-College time came around, I picked a women’s college and handled all the financial aid on my own–tax documentation and paperwork included.  I drove to college by myself.  I drove across the country numerous times alone, and it didn’t seem that dangerous or odd to me.  I spent days in hospitals alone.  Endured painful medical testing.  Alone.  As a teenager.  In my mind, I had to normalize this.  This, for me, had to become a social and emotional norm in order to be tolerated.

I once got into a serious car accident in an ice storm in Pennsylvania on one of my solitary cross-country road trips returning to college.  I remember knowing that it was serious.  I remember realizing that my car had fallen into a ravine and was not visible from the road.  I also realized, at the time, that I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t get out and go for help.  I have so many stories like this, and I’ve met many, many people who do as well.  You learn, by force of circumstance, that you must take care of yourself because there is no one who will do that for you.  You are on your own in the world.  Rely on yourself because you can always count on yourself.  You won’t betray you.  This becomes hard-wired.  It is the truth for you.  It has to be.  There is no other way to survive your life if you believe otherwise.

Then, long-term relationships enter the picture.  People expect to be trusted.  They want to be trusted and feel needed, but I’ve got this hard-wired belief that backs certain behaviors: “Trust myself.  Depend on myself.  Rely only on myself.”  I have saved my own ass countless times! I also have good evidence from past significant relationships and experiences, mostly from my family of origin (FOO), that my inner prosecutor can whip out anytime to prove that people are untrustworthy and not to be counted on.  People will fail you and even hurt you when you count on them.  Worse, they will attach strings or conditions to their help if and when they give it.

So, how does this work out? I either end up in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and happy not to be needed, thusly, enabling my extreme self-reliance, or I am challenged to discard my maladaptive extreme self-reliance and begin trusting people by asking for help while also offering help.  An even, reciprocal exchange and trust-building, relational exercises.  It feels aversive and gives me emotional hives.

This type of extreme self-reliance is, of course, a conditioned response.  It is an adaptation made to fit into and survive a particular environment.  I was very self-reliant when I got married, but I had expectations that I would be able to relax into a different kind of relationship once I was married.  I asked my husband for help quite often.  He rarely gave it to me.  Initially, I thought it was immaturity.  It wasn’t.  It was personality-based, and it remained a consistent problem throughout our relationship.  A year and half before our marriage ended, he refused to go with me to a diagnostic mammogram that involved an impromptu biopsy because he “felt unwell”.  He did, however, go to work.  On the morning of the appointment, I actually summoned the courage to ask him for help.  I asked him to go with me because I was nervous–a rarity for me.  I asked him for help often enough in terms of tasks, but this was different.  Admitting to someone that you’re scared is different.  Asking for their presence to offset fear is showing vulnerability.  I wasn’t asking him to take out the trash.  I was asking him to be my partner.  To be an emotional support.

He acted predictably.  He was unwilling to support me.  When he was willing to be helpful, he helped but on his terms putting me in the position of beggar.  That kind of disempowerment became intolerable.  I finally stopped asking and fell back into my previous position–it is better to be completely self-reliant.  At least one gets to keep one’s dignity.  That was my default mode, and that is my struggle today.

Asking for help is my Achilles’ Heel.  I don’t value extraordinary self-reliance as a measure of character.  I’m not a pioneer or Ralph Waldo Emerson.  For me, depending upon other people for just about anything has led to punishment.  Relying on others=hot stove experiences.  Or some sort of humiliation.

Does this ring anyone’s bell?

Now, this is where I get to be my own therapist.  This core belief and “stance”, if you will, only successfully works if I’m interacting with my ex-husband or my family of origin.  I adapted to living with them both, and I survived both experiences.  I cannot, however, take that particular adaptation, or psycho-emotional template, and apply it to other relationships.  Suddenly, it becomes MALadaptive meaning that it will not work outside the environments in which it was developed.  It will wreck my other relationships and potentially hurt other people.

The opposite of this would be trusting untrustworthy people.  If I had a healthy approach to relationships in which I could ask for help, depend upon people appropriately while also relying on myself, too, then would I practice this kind of relationship approach in, say, the prison system? Or, would I be far better off using the “extreme self-reliance” approach? The latter, yes? The former would be maladaptive in a prison environment while the latter would be highly adaptive in an exploitative and violent setting.

The term “maladaptive” when applied to a behavior means that the behavior was adaptive or worked successfully in the original environment, but it does not work successfully outside of that environment.  A very concrete example of adapting our behaviors to environments would be speaking softly in libraries.  As soon as we enter libraries, we speak softly–for four reasons.

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  1. Social contract
  2. Respect for people reading and studying
  3. Fear of librarians who use shushing to warn and socially embarrass us
  4. Social embarrassment

When we leave the library, we resume speaking at a normal volume.  If we continued to speak at “library volume”, no one would understand us.  We would have failed to adapt to a new environment.  Our continued use of “library volume” would then be maladaptive.

In its most simplified terms, when we take behaviors that only serve us in abusive environments, be they extreme or not, and continue to use them in other environments where they do not work or are in no way understood by others, they lose their adaptive qualities.  We are the ones who are failing to adapt.  Often, we fail to adapt because we have come to believe something about people, the world, or ourselves based upon our experiences with a small group of people who were very important to us (our family and friends), or we had a very bad experience with a random person and developed beliefs about that event that we have generalized to every other random stranger (a random stranger mugged me on the street ergo all random strangers on the street might mug me at any time).

What is to be done about this? Maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are some of the primary reasons people go to therapy.  People survive abuse and continue to survive their lives because of these maladaptations, but they don’t often go beyond mere survival.  Maladaptations become a prison.  This I know a helluva lot about.  I have been asked to trust people and reach out when I need help.  You may as well ask me to drink poison.  That is how hard it is for me.  I have been conditioned from a very young age to solely rely on myself.  I have tried for years to overcome that, but I was met with such disdain and displeasure for even asking as if my need for companionship and aid from another human being was a sign of a character defect or congenital weakness.  It was used against me repeatedly and caused inordinate suffering and humiliation.

I resorted to what I knew.  I know that I did that.  It is harder now.  What eases the effort is viewing this as conditioning because that is what it is.  If I can be conditioned to rely on myself, then I can be conditioned through repeated positive experiences to rely on others in addition to myself.  The rub? You have to put yourself “out there” and ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable, and that can feel existentially terrifying.  It can lead to feelings of real panic particularly if the very reasons you are defaulting to extreme self-reliance have not be addressed or resolved.

This is what I know for certain.  You cannot grow beyond the point of survival and experience real intimacy with other people if you remain in the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and desolation.  It is impossible.  You must break that cycle, and one of the first ways that you do that is by reaching out.  Is it often anathema to you? Well, yes.  Who do you reach out to if you have zero safe people in your life? Get a therapist.  For real.  This is exactly what they are for.  They are there for practice.  They act as models for healthy human interactions.  They teach you how to adapt to new and healthy relationships, thusly, showing you where your maladaptive behaviors are, and they help you move from the maladaptive behaviors into new and better ones.

This is not pie in the sky.  This is all very real and possible.  It is hard and painful, but it is what must be done on the road towards healing and recovery.

The Significance of Being Seen

After almost a year of grad school perhaps one might expect to feel like this:

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Sometimes, however, I swear the doctors are looking at me like this ::cough::Dr. Hong::cough::

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I suppose it goes with the territory.  Humility and feeling completely inadequate are better traits to have in a would-be medical professional than hubris and arrogance.  In the midst of raising teenagers, trying to keep my household running–and doing it very poorly I should add, I’m still riding the therapy train.

When I went to my regularly scheduled Tuesday appointment with the FNG, Jack, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I really require this in my life anymore.  I’ve been at this now for over two years.  I feel okay.  I really do.  I’m nowhere near where I was when I started in 2015.  My life is completely different now.  I’m different.”  So, I walked into his office open to talking but unsure of where to begin.  He is new.  My former therapist is gone, and I miss him.  He knew my history.  All the stories of my family of origin.  It feels exhausting to try to catch Jack up on all that shit.  I sighed internally.  Maybe I don’t need to!

I sat on the couch and stared back at him.  He’s using that approach with me.  You know the one.  They just stare at you, waiting for you to begin blathering on about something.  It is unnerving.  So, I told him that I didn’t know where to begin, and he responded:

“How do you feel about how our sessions are going?”

I answered honestly.

“Well, it’s hard to say because you don’t know my history.  When I say, for example, that my mother sent me a letter, you don’t know what it means.  People who know my history know what that means.”

“Did your mother send you a letter?” he asked.

“Yes, she did, and it means a lot.  My mother is a dangerous person, and I’m not sure how to begin to describe that, but I’ll give you a sense.”

I presented “postcard” views into my experiences with my mother.  Scenes that would capture her best and worst selves.  The utter terror and absurdity of her personality and emotional expressions.  The betrayals.  The abuse.  The distortion campaigns.  The violence.  The gaslighting.  The moments of lucidity.  He responded:

“What you describe is in line with borderline pathology.”

“I know.”

“She sounds fragile,” he observed.

“She can be, yes.”

“She also sounds like she has a lot of rage.”

“Talionic rage, and yet no one in the family believes me.  She is like this behind closed doors.  She presents very differently to the outside world.  But, go home and shut the door? She can become homicidal if triggered.” I said.

I then moved onto my father.

“Look, I don’t even know where to start with him.  I know that you know some things about him because you confabbed with my former therapist during my transition, but I think I’ll tell you this.  Aside from the obvious offenses like his sexual abuse of me during my preverbal years and his preference for military-like violence and torture, he did something else that I think neatly represents his psychology.

He had a book.  A kind of photo album of pictures of me from infancy to childhood.  Photos he took.  Photos of me crying after he had abused me.  Like a set of trophies.  Some of the photos I remember him taking, and I remember what he had done before he took the photos; and I know that he had this album because I found it when I was visiting him.  I was young.  I took it out and looked through it, and I felt very confused when I looked through it.  I brought it to him and asked him what it was.  My father was a steely, cold man.  I had never seen him lose that composed veneer–until that moment.  He looked angry when I brought that to him, and I felt scared seeing him look like that.  Scared because his response was not predictable.”

Jack is not a high affect man.  I, on the other hand, express myself like a Muppet.  I struggle sometimes when I am faced with low affect expression because it is so opposite to my mode of expression.  This is, therefore, the time when words matter.  He leaned in and said:

“This is positively evil.”

I never characterized the album or my father as evil before.  I just thought that there was something deeply wrong with him.  Oddly, I never characterized him as anything.  Evil.  Huh.

Jack went on to tell me that he had spent time in his post-doc research studying psychopathy and psychopaths.  It is hard to describe how relieved I felt.  I grew up with a psychopath.  I knew that for sure.  I was abducted by a psychopath.  That was a certainty.

“So, you’ve seen some bad shit then?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen some bad shit. I’ve studied it.  I can take it,” he said, looking into me.

I started to feel better about disclosing, and that brought some relief.

The thing about all this is that I’ve disclosed all this before.  There was nothing new about any of this.  Did I need to do this all over again? It could simply be re-traumatizing.  In the middle of my rumination, Jack leveled a question at me:

“Who knows you? What is it like to have had these kinds of life experiences and be who you are? You’re not sadistic.  You’re not cruel.  You don’t even express borderline traits.  You’re not even that angry.  So, to carry all this personal history with you–all this personal contact with, frankly, evil, who gets to know that about you?”

I must have looked like a deer caught in a meadow in the dark of night while a hunter aimed his spotlight at my face.  He landed on something, and I was completely caught off guard.  I stumbled.

“Who knows me?” I asked trying to buy time.

“Yes, who gets to know you? Who knows all this about you? Who do you tell your stuff to? And who gets to share this pain with you? No one can go through life carrying all this by themselves.”

I started laughing.  Tears were starting to stream down my face, but all I could do was laugh.  The question was legitimate, but I just couldn’t fathom the idea of sharing all that shit with people.  It was laughable.  I felt like I was about to cross over into some kind of mania.  Can you relate to this? For anyone who has ever seen some serious shit in life, can you imagine sitting around with people or even one person and trotting out some of your worst pain? What do you think would happen based upon your past experiences with people? Awkward coughs and stares? Quick subject changes? Being treated differently? Stigma? Judgment? A game of The Trauma Olympics (“You think your pain is bad? Well, at least you don’t struggle like I do!”)? The idea seemed impossible to me.

My mother losing it and punching holes in walls or ruining family holiday parties is one thing.  The kind of violence and abuse that characterized the relationship I had with my father is simply too personal and shocking as was what I experienced in the trafficking environment not to mention that it could very well cause secondary trauma.  The people hearing it could be adversely affected.  The people I include in that very intimate circle matter.  Boundaries matter–for both sides.

And, I think that these reasons are why people who have experienced profound trauma struggle alone and don’t often know how to change it.  The result of this is an ontological feeling of desolation that comes and goes–for me anyway.  A deep and hidden fear that one will never be truly known.  I felt this keenly when my mother’s second husband died.  He was a witness to my mother’s most violent cycles of abuse and rage.  He knew her when she struggled the most, and he understood the consequences in a way that few did.  He knew where I came from.  When he died, I felt a grief I never expected.  I heard a thought drift through my mind, “There is no one left in the world who knows me.”  I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now.  There is no one in the world, aside from my stepsisters, who were witnesses to that nightmare.  We know each other’s histories, and there is great validation in that knowing.

In being seen.

I think, therefore, that what Jack was really asking me is, “Who sees you?”

Who sees you and loves you after having seen you?

Whoa.  That gets me.  I don’t even like that question.  This is a question about belonging and significance.  And vulnerability.  So, I’m going to let the queen of vulnerability and belonging provide some kind of round-about answer:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brené Brown, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”

This is where I was after my session with Jack.  Well, this is what therapeutic hubris will get you–a realization that I really do need more time in the Hot Seat.

This is the work of a lifetime.  I’m all in.

I highly recommend Brené’s new book.  It is so timely for so many people struggling with existential questions of belonging, vulnerability, and finding their place in a world divided.

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.

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.