Life Is A Highway

Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.

That’s descriptive of me right now.  I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer.  Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider.  We are all in the mix.  I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…

It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together.  But…

There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question.  When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question.  As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately.  And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.

The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore.  She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water.  Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet.  Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened.  Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”

Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful.  Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him.  I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.

So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process.  It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances.  In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision.  I wanted the strongest sense that it was right.  So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be.  Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track.  Remember? You saw that sign.”

Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods.  I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see.  It didn’t have to be that day.  Just…soon.  I’ll confess that I felt silly.  Asking for a sign.  P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back.  I don’t do things like that.  But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it.  I slowed down my car to take it in.  A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM.  I was shocked.  “Did that just happen?” I thought.  It did indeed.

My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are.  What is a sign?

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Quite literally, these are signs.

When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention.  We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs.  Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not.  How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose.  They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go.  The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.

Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too.  We need to know when we are on the right road.  We need to know where the next rest area is.  We need to know where we should not turn and where we should.  What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?

For me, this is why I asked for a sign.  I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.

So, how does one recognize a sign?

  • Many signs directing us are dismissed as coincidences, but the longer I’m alive the more I’ve come to believe that there are few coincidences in life.
  • Stay present to your circumstances and surroundings.  Pay attention to the interactions you have with people.  Just as in driving, when we fail to see crucial signage we often miss exits we intended to take, get stuck in traffic, or get lost.  This is analogous to our lives and our journeys.
  • Learn to trust your intuition and insights.  For example, a few weeks ago I was at a crossroads.  I needed to decide if I was going to continue taking classes next trimester in my medical program.  I have the support of everyone around me to discontinue at my current school and continue at the program in the Bay Area, but I still feel anxious about it.  I woke up last week wondering if I should just enroll in classes next trimester even though I don’t really want to do it.  Then, the mail came.  The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found my college guilty of discrimination based on sex–a violation of Title IX.  I read through all the provided documentation and the OCR’s mandated corrective actions which will cost the school thousands of dollars into six figures.  I knew then that I could not enroll again.  My original decision not to continue my medical education with this college was the right one.  The documentation and guilty verdict were a sign or sign post, if you will, that I was on the right road.
  • Don’t feel afraid to ask for a sign.  Why? Well, traveling outside of the spaces in which you feel safe requires taking risks, and humans don’t like uncertainty.  We like to know where we are going and what to expect.  While it’s not possible to know the outcomes of everything, it is possible to get into the driver’s seat of your own life and gain a sense of personal empowerment.  There is paradox in here.  The people who do their best to avoid risks are generally the ones who are bound by anxiety.  There is a strong link between risk aversion and anxiety and depression.  Leading a narrow life never lessens the anxiety.  It just forces one to become an emotional and physical shut-in preventing one from experiencing the happiness and fulfillment so desperately desired.
  • Cultivate trust in yourself: “How do we leap and trust that it will all be okay? By cultivating a practice of self-trust, which connects us to the well of our deepest knowing where the answers to the unanswerable questions live. And these aren’t answers so much signposts or hints at the paths we want to walk, the decisions we want to make, the risks we’re willing to take. Because death exists life cannot be anything other than risk. Because loss exists relationships are the ultimate risk to our hearts and how can we do anything other than forgive our ego – that part of us that desperately attempts to safeguard against pain – for trying to protect us in the only way it knows how? 

    But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)

     

Further Reading:

What Happy People Do Differently

One of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that the key to satisfaction is doing things that feel risky, uncomfortable, and occasionally bad.

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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

Easing into The Season

For my non-American readers, Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the States.  It is a big deal.  It marks the beginning of The Holidays–a season of high stress, joy, high consumerism on display, dread, meaningful religious observations, turmoil, GERD, Mariah Carey on loop, and so much more.  I sound cynical.  I’m not.  It’s the truth though.  As soon as Thanksgiving hits, people start grabbing the Tums off the racks, eating too much to cope, maxing out their credit cards in order to buy gifts to make all their family and friends happy, and figuring out ways to avoid family conflict.  It is a rough time of year for almost everyone I know.  And now that there is political polarization to the extreme in America, one wonders if tapas and finger foods should replace foods requiring forks and knives.

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“Well, I’m sorry! I didn’t know that he could make a shiv out of a stick of butter! I tried, okay!”

I have panic attacks every Thanksgiving.  For real.  For the past seven years, they have hit me hard.  They start around 10:30 in the morning, and, every year, I don’t seem to know what they are.

“What is happening to me?”

The first time it happened, I took a Xanax at 11 AM.  I passed out on the kitchen floor and woke up around 1 PM.  So, that would be a ‘no’ to the Xanax then.  The second year, I took half a Xanax thinking it was a dosage problem.  The same thing happened except at least I was on a couch. Throw the Xanax away.

To me, anxiety is like being nauseated mentally.  It is a plague.  I am anxious to some degree almost all the time.  My mind is perpetually on edge.  It has been this way since the domestic violence started in my former marriage.  I have not fully calmed down from that.  The last episode of domestic violence was over three years ago, but I am still hypervigilant at times.  I know that this will subside.  I was anxious for years after I escaped the trafficking environment.  I was easily kicked into “survival mode” by any number of triggers.  The sound of a car backfiring was a trigger.  It sounded like a gun shot.  If someone yelled at me, held eye contact too long, deliberately tried to intimidate me, or touched me in a way that I perceived as threatening, I froze.

What about Thanksgiving sets me off? I’m not sure.  I tried to solve it on Thursday when I realized that there was a pattern.  Here are some things that I did observe.  Maybe you will find it helpful.

Thanksgiving has always been a day that I work my ass off.  I really like entertaining and cooking for everyone, but, historically, my ex-husband would never help me.  For him, it was his day off.  He would go in the bedroom and play games on his laptop while putting his feet up.  He would ignore his children and me.  I felt like his servant, and that feeling started to degrade and erode me.  It permeated the entire relationship and culminated in the sexual violence that put me in an operating room–twice.

Almost all the traumatic experiences I had growing up in my father and mother’s homes were centered around my accepting “my place” as an object, and that objectification felt eerily similar to how I felt in my marriage.  My father spent his energy trying to convince me that I was not a person but merely property–his property.  I was to express my acceptance of this at all times by calling ‘sir’ and obeying him at all times.  I could never do that.  I obeyed him because I was afraid of him, but I argued with him about calling him ‘sir’.  In Texas and the rest of the South, we call our elders, strangers, and people outside the family ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ out of respect, but I simply could not understand why I should call my own father ‘sir’.  It made no sense to me.  So, I refused.  This enraged my father.  What did my defiance cause? Well, I endured hours of military-like torture–the sort that Navy SEALs endure in an attempt to break me.  I, however, got to keep myself.  I never called him ‘sir’, and this might be why I survived intact.  My ridiculously stubborn nature saved my innate personality.  I always told my mother that it would serve me one day!

My mother’s house was different.  She ran a military-like household as well in terms of order and cleanliness.  She was obsessed–literally–with cleanliness.  She lined things up, dusted weekly, and vacuumed in straight lines.  If I moved a tchotchke out of place, she would notice–and have a fit.  If I didn’t vacuum the carpet in perfect lines, she would notice.  God forbid I leave a footprint! I would have to vacuum the carpet all over again.  I had to organize my closet by color and season.  Oh, and no wire hangers.  My mother and Joan Crawford were one and the same person.

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My underwear and sock drawers had to be perfectly arranged.  If they were not, she would dump out their contents on the floor and insist I arrange them all over again.  She would go through all my drawers every Saturday in order to find my personal journal.  Sometimes she should would read it out loud to me and mock the contents.  I had to hide every personal item from her.  I was not allowed privacy–ever.  She would bounce quarters off my bed to make sure it was perfectly made, and she would run her fingers on the surfaces of all my furniture looking for dust while I stood against the wall watching her inspect everything.  She reveled in her own power over me.  I was not a person to her.  I was an extension of her or nothing at all depending upon her needs.

She began this process when I was old enough to clean–around 7 years-old.

This isn’t an uplifting read.  Why recount it? Well, in my experience, when we have strong emotional experiences that increase to panic when there is nothing in the present to panic about, then we are panicking over something in the past; and, there is a cue in the present that is activating our “survival” mode.  I recount this to offer up an example of what could possibly activate that “survival” mode.

I grew up, as so many people do, being treated as less than a whole person.  Thanksgiving also marked the beginning of the worst time of year in my family as my mother was prone to suicide attempts during the holiday season.  Some of the worst violence I witnessed was during the holidays.  I was also often forced to see my father during the holidays which bred inordinate terror in me.  I have resolved most of my feelings around that past trauma, but recall that recent trauma can often kick up old trauma.  This is why new traumas re-traumatize.  That which is settled and adaptively processed gets re-activated with new traumas.  I was brutalized in my marriage.  There was no way that I wasn’t going to have to face down old abuse again.  It would all have to be looked at again because this is what brains do.  They make connections: “Oh, this looks just like that.”

What do you get then? Panic attacks that come out of nowhere coupled with fear and dread.  Emotional flashbacks.  They are confusing.  Annoying.  Inconvenient.  What is the strategy?

First: They will pass.  Know this.  They will pass.

  • The fastest way to get through them is to talk to a person who loves you.  Seriously.  Talk to a person who loves you.  Love has a way of helping you discharge fear, and discharging fear is the fastest way to ease panic.
  • Engage your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  Remember it like this: “Rest and digest”.  You have to slow down your breathing and bring your digestive system online.  Most people instinctively know this which is why emotional eating is so common.  Eating counteracts the fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system-SNS) because it brings your digestive system online.  I suggest drinking a non-caffeinated beverage like a mint tea.  Mints are cooling herbs.  It cools and eases the stomach.  Believe it or not, it helps. (Look for a spearmint tea if you have hormone problems.  Spearmint clears up estrogen-related skin issues–chin acne– on the face and helps the intestines clear excess estrogen)
  • Smell some lavender and frankincense essential oils.  Engaging your senses is part of how you engage your PNS, and frankincense actually does quite a bit in the body.
  • Exercise.  Go for a walk.  Move.  80% of your neurons (not your neural connections) are in your cerebellum.  The cerebellum is the part of the brain that governs movement. If 80% of your neurons are devoted to movement, then it must be really important to move.  So, move when you are anxious or panicky.

The holidays can be a wonderfully meaningful time of year.  There is a lot about them that I absolutely love this being one of them:

They can also be one of the most painful times of the year for people for myriad reasons, and sometimes we don’t even know why.  But, we feel it.  From Thanksgiving to mid-January.  It doesn’t have to be this way regardless of your history.  There are ways to enjoy this time of year even when your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert.  We don’t have to wait until we’ve got all our “issues” resolved to enjoy this time of year.

 

 

Making Changes on Purpose

I saw Jack, my still-feeling-new therapist, on Tuesday, and we had an almost adversarial session.  It didn’t feel therapeutic to me.  I felt as if I were there to challenge his ideas and assumptions of what survivors of trauma look like.  He consistently says, “Studies show…”  and “The brains of survivors of trauma show…”  and “Studies show that survivors of torture will believe…”

I know. 

I fall outside the results of whatever studies Jack is relying on.  Had I been “studied” a year or two after I left the trafficking environment? I don’t know.  I’ve been wrestling with the elements that make me a “survivor” since I was 16 years-old.  I cognitively know what is true.  The point of therapy for me now is to build a bridge into the future rather than get mired down in the present by fear as well as to resolve any emotional dissonance that remains.  Jack is still wrestling with his own assumptions about whether how I, as a survivor of profound trauma, present in session is possible.  “You shouldn’t even be able to live as you do.  You shouldn’t have succeeded.  I don’t understand.”

Oy vey! Well, I did.  Now what?

I think about other people who survived far worse, and what they accomplished.  How many Jews left the extermination camps, emigrated, and built new lives for themselves? Successful lives.  How many émigrés from war torn countries have done the same? Leaving everything behind, including family–if they even have anyone left–and settled in foreign lands, started over, and built something new while facing prejudice and social exclusion? Humans are built to survive and even thrive.  It is possible regardless of what studies show.

Think of epigenetics.  Yes, trauma is passed down through generational lines via changes to the genome.  Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tend to be more anxious and suffer from certain health and mental health issues due to genetic changes caused by the extraordinary suffering their forebears experienced in the Holocaust.  This would hold true for other groups that experienced extreme hardship like the Great Depression and civil wars.  My paternal grandmother and grandfather both died by suicide.  My grandfather was a veteran, but his great-grandfather was also a Russian Jew who most likely emigrated due to the social oppression that kept Jews restricted to the Pale of settlement as well as kept them socially and economically restricted.  My grandmother, an anusim, was never able to reconcile her family and ancestral history with her present.  She could not resolve the dissonance and make a choice for herself.  It is hard to overcome a deeply ingrained fear particularly when keeping secrets and lying are the family way even at the expense of one’s own identity and future.

What do we do then when people tell us that certain possibilities are out of reach for us? Do we believe them?

Nope.  We do not.

Perhaps it’s cliché or stupid, but I’ve come to believe that we are often able to achieve that which we want when we decide that we can.  When we begin to imagine it.  When we find our inner contrarian and make a decision to succeed no matter what anyone else says even while they’re quoting studies about what should be possible for ‘someone like us’.

“Psychologists tell us that by the time we’re in our mid-30s, our identity or personality will be completely formed. This means that for those of us over 35, we have memorized a select set of behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, emotional reactions, habits, skills, associative memories, conditioned responses, and perceptions that are now subconsciously programmed within us. Those programs are running us, because the body has become the mind. This means that we will think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, react in identical ways, behave in the same manner, believe the same dogmas, and perceive reality the same ways. About 95 percent of who we are by midlife1 is a series of subconscious programs that have become automatic—driving a car, brushing our teeth, overeating when we’re stressed, worrying about our future, judging our friends, complaining about our lives, blaming our parents, not believing in ourselves, and insisting on being chronically unhappy, just to name a few.”
― Joe Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

This is interesting, isn’t it? So is this.

“Reason this: When you think from your past memories, you can only create past experiences. As all of the “knowns” in your life cause your brain to think and feel in familiar ways, thus creating knowable outcomes, you continually reaffirm your life as you know it. And since your brain is equal to your environment, then each morning, your senses plug you into the same reality and initiate the same stream of consciousness.”
 Joe Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

I’ve said it before.  The brain lives in the future based upon what it knows from the past.  I am the poster child for this phenomenon.  My family, my grandmother and grandfather, lived and died by this phenomenon.  What can we do about this? Oh, so much.

“Change as a Choice, Instead of a Reaction”

I, therefore, carefully make one suggestion.  What is one small thing that you could imagine changing? You don’t have to change it in real time.  Just in your mind.  You cannot make a meaningful change in your life, if you can’t imagine it first.

I’ll go first.  I have a habit of letting my mind run away with me.  It happens when I’ve done too much in a day or after I’ve had a migraine.  Suddenly, the script starts.  A film plays in my mind in which I’m all alone in my life.  I feel lonely and overwhelmed but stoic and contrarian about the situation at the same time.  Sort of like this:

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It won’t last long.  I’ll eventually end up crying alone in my room mumbling to myself:

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I was once caught crying in the kitchen by my daughter as I sniffled, “I’m going to die alone while trying to help refugees, but I’ll be eaten by wild dogs having helped no one…”  I am not lying when I say that I have always had a larger-than-life flair for the dramatic, hence, my mother’s terrible nickname for me:

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Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest French actress of the later 19th century

My mother called me ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ for the first 20 years of my life.  I hated it although it was perhaps earned.  Per my own suggestion, I am going to imagine responding to fatigue and stress differently by creating a narrative now–when I’m not stressed.  Then, when I’m stressed I will have this narrative to call upon instead of my brain trampling over me like a herd of terrified bovines.

Will it work? We shall see, but I’m doing this in the spirit of making changes as a choice rather than from a reactionary place.

If you want to read something that has the potential to introduce you to a very different way of thinking, then I recommend this:

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The Great California Shenanigan

I returned from my two-week romp through Northern California Monday night with my three hyper-sensitive daughters in tow.  My phrasing might make it sound like I have ten daughters seven of whom have little to no requirement of my presence.  Well, that’s not true.  I have four daughters the oldest of whom will be a senior in college this year.  She had the presence of mind to stay home.  Actually, she had to work.

I feel as if I have returned home a shell of a person.  Do I say this with humor? Yes.  Do I admit this honestly? Mmm…yes.  I prepared them for this trip.  I explained all the ground rules.  I drew diagrams.  I asked them to draw on their reservoir of manners and social skills which runs deep and wide.  I quizzed them on responses to possible scenarios.  I had it locked down not to mention they had been on a trip before.  We are not feral people. None of this was new.

When we entered the airport, I began to experience a subtle but very real feeling of dread.  Our last trip to California was trying.  To be honest, everyone behaved like assholes except for my youngest daughter who is on the autism spectrum.  She managed herself like a champ! “Surely, that won’t happen again,” I naively thought to myself as the TSA was patting me down.

But, a conspiracy was brewing, and my 16 year-old was no doubt thinking something like this…

And shenaniganate she did! It started when we arrived and didn’t end for 15 days! I parented more in two weeks than I do in six months.  I overcompensated, deflected in gardens, ran interference in restaurants, pulled aside and coached in museums, flat out disciplined in quiet corners of conservatories, had in-depth discussions privately, validated, encouraged, pulled out DBT self-soothing techniques, and then took ten-minute baths to cry just to excrete all the stress hormones coursing through my body.  By the 13th day, I was so amped up and anxious myself that I freely admit to feeling like this about my own child…

When we walked into our house at nearly midnight, I didn’t fall asleep until after 4 AM.  I’m still emotionally spent from the trip and feel like I might burst into tears at any moment.  For me, it was a bit nightmarish.  I am not wont to take her anywhere ever again.

In the middle of all of her missteps, shenanigans, and displays of teenage angst all of which I had zero control over, I felt a very familiar feeling creep in.  I started walking on eggshells.  My daughter’s behavior was offensive to our host.  There was no getting around it.  She was politely asked to stop engaging in certain behaviors, and, “forgetting” herself, she would continue to do those very things.  Being very sensitive to changes in mood and atmosphere, I discerned our host’s frustration as soon as he felt it, and I almost couldn’t bear it.  It made me feel ill.  So, I did what years of living within abusive environments have trained me to do; I began to attempt to minimize our environmental impact.  I cleaned up every single thing that I could.  I made beds.  I cleaned up dishes.  I cleaned up the kitchen and countertops.  I wanted there to be little to no evidence that we were there.  I removed the girls from the environment for long periods of time in hopes that our absence would lessen the emotional load.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? If you make yourself invisible then perhaps you won’t cause any sort of negative impact on the environment or those within it.  If you can anticipate the outcomes, then you can run interference in order to prevent negative outcomes.  I grew up doing this in order to mitigate suffering.

I knew I was doing this, but I didn’t know what else to do.  No matter what I said to my daughter or how I tried to influence her, she refused to stop engaging in the very behaviors that were causing the problems.  I eventually concluded that we would have to deal with this once we left California.  I was stuck.  We were all stuck, and I felt trapped.  My two other daughters were feeling it, too, and they were frustrated with their sister.  I didn’t know what to expect from moment to moment, and I was starting to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety.  I couldn’t anticipate anyone’s responses.  That type of uncertainty causes terrible suffering in me.

As I sit here this morning looking at my shenaniganating daughter, this is how I feel…

I feel profound frustration with her, and I feel almost 100% depletion.  I don’t know how to restore myself.  My host has reassured me that he had a positive experience, but I don’t remember the past two weeks positively.  I remember spending the past two weeks overcompensating for my daughter as well as trying to reach her in a cognitive sense.  Can she practice perspective taking? Will she try to remember to respect the environment? Please…pleaseplease

Raising humans to be good humans is hard.  That is no joke.

So, what do I bring to the table aside from snarky bird pictures that capture my existential and experiential state brilliantly?

  1. As I watched my daughter play the role of Teenage Asshat Extraordinaire with the aplomb of Meryl Streep, I remembered just how hard it was being 16.  Sixteen sucked.  Being the parent of a sixteen-year old sucks, too, and I realized once again that compassion is hard.  Compassion is not for the faint of heart.  It is not a romantic thing even though there is this inspirational notion out there that would convince us of that.  Nope.  Offering mercy to those whom we are currently experiencing as the least deserving of it is when compassion becomes the hardest because that is the moment when you must restrain your judgment.  Using judgment is a great way to cope with emotional distress, but suspending that, entering into perspective taking, setting aside our immediate needs and our beliefs that those needs trump everything else while offering mercy can be the the hardest choice to make.  And yet this is the moment when authentic compassion becomes possible.  This is probably the moment when compassion becomes the most necessary because compassion might be the one thing that changes a gridlocked situation.  Not force but mercy.
  2. I observed that I am all too sensitive to environments wherein there is any sort of emotional negativity or intensity particularly if I have no control.  If I have no way of escaping that environment, then my distress tolerance decreases rapidly.  I will immediately use old coping strategies to cope or survive in such an environment, and this makes me vulnerable to stress-related health issues as well as issues with self-advocacy.  I do not know if this will ever change.  It may be a tendency that I have, and I have to be aware of it.  If I am around people who do not contain well, then I am doubly  affected.  I observed that.  This may be a common trait in people with longterm PTSD.  A return to hypervigilance.  I don’t say this with a lack of hope, but I do think that self-awareness of one’s tendencies is important.

School is starting next week.  I am exhausted.  I feel the need to sleep for a thousand years, but I am determined to regain my composure and find my way back to myself…

What I find interesting about this situation is the idea of perception.  My host’s perception is so different from mine.  My perception could very well be distorted, but, then again, I am the parent.  I was the one standing in between my daughter and everyone else.  I was trying to absorb as much of her negativity as possible in order to ease the stress.  There has to be a way to ground yourself in order to let that negativity go.

In the meantime, life progresses, and, once again, I will let a troubled bird have the last word…

 

I have to laugh a little.  We might have had a very pleasant trip had shit not gotten real, and, in many ways, we did have an exceedingly good time.  There was just one little bird who kept interrupting the flow of fun with her antics.  Sometimes shit happens, and then…we go home.  And, life goes on.  Shit gets real in my house a lot, but maybe that’s okay.

To see more of these delightfully troubled birds, visit The Mincing Mockingbird.

 

 

Between Blame and Uncertainty

I learned something new this week.  Well, I should say that I relearned something old, and it resonated as if it were new.  It’s worth sharing.

There is a phenomenon that almost everyone seems to experience, at some point, after surviving something bad that I’ll call the I Should Have Known phenomenon.  This phenomenon isn’t isolated to certain types of events.  It can be generalized.  When you listen to people verbally process a negative event that has left them in the wake of negative consequences and pain, you may hear them utter, “I should have known…”

You might hear someone say this in a shocked state after a car accident: “I should have known.  I noticed the driver swerving a few miles back,”  and, from what I have observed and personally experienced, many people often agree! Someone might query “Well, why didn’t you stay behind that suspicious driver on the road?”  And, what do you say? “I don’t know.  I just should have known.”

The I Should Have Known phenomenon is so common that it’s almost mundane in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  If you’re not the one saying it, then someone else usually is via some form of, “How did you not know?”  

  • “Didn’t you know s/he was bad just by looking at them? I mean, I can tell s/he’s no good just by looking at their face!”
  • “How can you live with someone for so long and not know that they’re ______? Surely you would have to be in denial or an idiot not to know that you’re being lied to.”
  • “Why would you stay with someone for so long knowing that they were never going to change? Why keep trying? At what point are you volunteering for abuse?”
  • “You went out dressed like that! I’d say that you were asking to get raped.”
  • “S/he came onto you in the bar and groped you.  How did you not know they were gonna turn around and assault you in the club’s bathroom? It’s so obvious.”

 

What do all these statements have in common? The omniscience of hindsight.  I have a saying that I often use with myself: “We are all gods when we look back through hindsight vision.”  This is why people often say, “If I could go back in time to one moment, I’d choose X moment and tell myself not to make that choice.  My life would be so different now.”  Why do we say that? We say this because we know the outcomes of past scenarios–the outcomes that our past selves never could.  We know now that our past selves never could have known what was going to happen to them, and there is pain in that.  Why?

Why does not knowing the negative outcomes of past events hurt so badly in the present?

I have a theory, and I’m sure it’s not new.  Based in my own personal experiences with this phenomenon, I suspect that it has to do with blame and control.  Let me illustrate this.

I’ve established that I was abducted when I was much younger.  It’s one of those crazy stories that people struggle to believe.  It’s a Law & Order: SVU kind of story with many twists and turns.  I rarely discuss it.  There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if it was worthwhile to survive it, and I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this.  Surviving was the easy part.  Healing from it and learning to live with what happened have been the hard part.  One of my bigger enemies in my journey to heal from this event has been my sense of personal complicity.  For years, I couldn’t discuss what happened to me in any detail because I believed that I was at fault.  I honestly believed that I should have known that the perpetrator who took me was ill-intentioned and evil.  Had I known, I could have avoided him.  Had I known, I could have protected myself better.  Had I known, I could have…I could have…I could have…

But, I didn’t know.

Why didn’t I know?

Overlay this thought process onto my domestic abuse situation.

Had I known that my ex-husband wasn’t ever going to keep his promises and change, then I would not have stayed.  Had I known that it was only going to escalate, then I could have protected myself and my children.  Had I known that I didn’t have all the information for twenty years, then I could have made different choices.  Had I known…

But, I didn’t know.

Currently, I am doing the deep dive into that past abduction experience in therapy, and, wouldn’t you know, one of the first things to arise was, “I should have known.”  Feelings of complicity are extremely common.  I know that, and yet I enter into it.  I feel it.  I admit it.  Why?

My theory? If I were at fault or to blame in that event, then I can now presently figure out what I did wrong, correct it in the present, and guarantee that nothing so heinous ever happens to me again.  I can experience a measure of control.  If I’m the “bad” one in the tragic scenario, then the world is a predictable place.  I’m the one who needs fixing.  This is one of the primary reasons children believe that they are bad and blame themselves when they are abused.  If you had to choose between an unpredictable world full of chaos and uncertainty with no true guarantee that anyone would look after you or love you or a reality in which you deserved your abuse, then which reality would be more acceptable? The scenario in which you deserve the abuse.

Why?

If you are inherently bad, worthy of mistreatment or hatred, or just plain stupid, then you’ve got a shot at fixing that, thusly, giving you a sense of control and hope.  If you are not bad, deserving of hatred, or unintelligent in any way, then what can you control in terms of outside events? That is the magic question, isn’t it?  Because that question is so hard to answer and uncertainty is so hard to deal with, it’s easier to blame oneself and other people for suffering and misfortune.  Surely, that person did something to deserve or cause their predicament.  I mean, if they did nothing and still got annihilated by life, then what does that say about you or me? Could something equally terrible happen to you, me, or someone we love?

Yes, it could.  There are no guarantees, and that is an impossible thought for many people; hence, they blame, wag their fingers, and proclaim judgmentally, “You should have known.”  That one sentence is the quickest way to distance themselves from unpredictable suffering and pain.  This very belief is what fuels stigma and hatred.  It is one of the many reasons people are alienated, marginalized, and mistreated.  The victim of suffering becomes the symbol for that which is feared the most, and the quickest way to resolve and quench that fear is to blame the victim for their own suffering.

Well, I can honestly say that there is no way you could have known then what you know now.  I have gone over and over seemingly millions of times every detail that led up to my abduction, and the only conclusion that remains is this:

There was no way I could have possibly known that I was living next door to a villain.  

 

Whatever you wonder about in your life be it a past experience, a failed relationship, past abuse, a situation gone terribly wrong, or anything else, I suggest now that there is no way that you could have or should have known what was going to happen.  Were that  the case, then you wouldn’t be wondering now how you didn’t.  The time has come to accept that we did not know and do not know how events will unfold, but we can know ourselves.  We can know our own hearts and minds.  We can stop engaging blame once and for all, and we can begin to learn how to live with uncertainty in a way that doesn’t make us anxious or fearful.  We can get on with the business of building out a life that makes us happy as well as making the world a better place even when we don’t know how anything will work out.

I’ll let Rabbi Sacks close:

“For each of us there are milestones on our spiritual journey that change the direction of our life and set us on a new path. For me one such moment came when I was a rabbinical student at Jews’ College and thus had the privilege of studying with one of the great rabbinic scholars of our time, Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch.

He was, and is, a giant: one the most profound Maimonidean scholars of the modern age, equally at home with virtually every secular discipline as with the entire rabbinic literature, and one of the boldest and independent of poskim, as his several published volumes of Responsa show. He also showed what it was to have spiritual and intellectual courage, and that in our time has proved, sadly, all too rare.

The occasion was not special. He was merely giving us one of his regular divrei Torah. The week was parshat Noach. But the Midrash he quoted to us was extraordinary. In fact it is quite hard to find. It appears in the book known as Buber’s Tanhuma, published in 1885 by Martin Buber’s grandfather Shlomo from ancient manuscripts. It is a very early text – some say as early as the fifth century – and it has some overlap with an ancient Midrash of which we no longer have the full text known as Midrash Yelamdenu.

The text is in two parts, and it is a commentary on God’s words to Noah: “ Then God said to Noah, ‘Come out of the ark’” (Gen. 8:16). On this the Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One blessed be He said, to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.”[1]

The moral Rabbi Rabinovitch drew – indeed the only one possible – was that when it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission. God gives us permission. He expects us to go on ahead.”

You have to be prepared to be lonely, at best misunderstood, at worst vilified and defamed. As Einstein said, “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” To be a pioneer – as Jews know from our history – you have to be prepared to spend a long time in the wilderness…Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.  (The Courage to Live with Uncertainty)

The Essence of Healing

I wanted to write something germane to your life and process.  Something that might speak to you.  To anyone.  To everyone.  Perhaps this might.

I go to therapy every Tuesday.  I like to think that I’m ‘getting it done’ whatever ‘it’ is, but, as with all sorts of processes, I stalled.  I wasn’t wasting time per se, but I wasn’t hitting it hard.  I’ve been at this for two years now which shocks me.  I want to finish it…whatever ‘it’ is.

Once again, I was in the Hot Seat, and my therapist was looking at me as he does.

“So, what would you like today to be about?” he asked.

I inwardly groaned.  I knew what was on my mind.  Fear.  I was afraid.  I had been feeling dread for a few weeks.  A nameless dread.  A creeping anxiety that would ooze into me and out of me at the same time until I felt paralyzed in both my body and life.  I couldn’t make choices.  It’s not that I couldn’t make good choices.  I couldn’t seem to make any choices.  As much as I’ve learned about cognitive distortions and mindfulness, I still felt caught up in the washing machine of my own inner turmoil.  It wasn’t depression exactly.  It felt like a flavor of anxiety.  A big anxiety.  Generalized.  A suffocating fog that shrouded every area of my life.

I knew what I was afraid of, and I feared that if I talked about it, then I might empower it.  I decided that I didn’t want to talk about it or even give it room; and yet it was taking up all too much room in me.  So, I attempted to name it.

I admitted to my therapist that I was very afraid that I would break apart at some point.  Now that I’ve written it out it seems rather harmless or silly, but that’s not how it feels.  The ‘what if’ questions were dogging me relentlessly.  “What if something happens to me that I can’t recover from? What if I can’t endure the pain? What if I am dehumanized to such a degree that I become a dispirited, soulless, desolate woman? What if something happens that I simply can’t bounce back from?” As soon as these questions begin, I freeze.  I have no answers for them.  I hold my breath.  I begin to feel a profound fear that shuts down my thinking brain and activates my limbic system.  There is no longer any reason.  Only a warped instinct that seeks to hijack all my rational processes and turns me into a reptile.

For months, I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it, then it might stop.  It did not.  It festered.  I cried trying to describe it.  I thought that perhaps just engaging in the act of sharing my turmoil might lessen the burden.  It did not.

After I had revealed my fears to my therapist, he looked at me quizzically.

“So, you are afraid of breaking? That something might happen to you that is so terrible you will not be able to recover? That you will become a shell of a woman?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Hasn’t that already happened to you?” he asked looking somewhat confused.

“Has it?” I asked beginning to feel confused as well.

“Well, how desolate were you after you returned from being abducted?” he asked.

“Oh my gosh, I was definitely shattered after that,” I said.

“And how empty and in despair were you when you came to see me two years ago?” he asked.

“I was about as low as I’ve ever been,” I admitted.

“How low were you when you cut your father out of your life? And your mother? How much anguish have you known all in all? How existentially destroyed have you felt?”

I had no answer.  I just sat there crying.

“So, it’s pretty clear that you have what it takes to heal, isn’t it?” he asked.

I didn’t consider that.  I didn’t want to consider that.  I felt exhausted.

“There is a limit to how much a person can actually experience in terms of pain.  In terms of physical pain, a person will pass out once that limit is reached.  In terms of emotional pain, you’ve probably reached that.  There isn’t another level to your pain.  You’ve been there.  You’ve done that.  You already know what it’s like, and you’ve already recovered from it,” he explained.

Honestly, I did not know that.  I kept anticipating an exponential increase in emotional pain.

“So, I have what it takes? I don’t need to be fearful that something will break me? I’ve already been faced with the worst and survived it?” I asked feeling suspicious.

“Yes.  Your fear is not based in truth although your past experiences certainly legitimize your anxiety.” he said.

“I’m afraid that I’ll have to do it again.  That something so profoundly terrible will happen to me that I’ll have to rebuild myself yet again, and I’m so afraid of paying the price again.  It is so hard.  It is excruciatingly painful.  I can’t begin to adequately describe how hard it was to come back and try to live again after being abducted and everything that entailed.  After my marriage.  After everything that happened within that relationship,” I cried.

“Do you know that you have what it takes to come back though? Should your worst fears come true? Do you have what it takes?” he asked leaning towards me.

And that’s when I was still.  I sat with the very things that had been paralyzing me.  I went back into the memories of my lowest, most broken places.  The moment when I knew that my captor was going to kill me if I didn’t make a break for it.  The moment in my marriage when I knew I was going to die from an autoimmune disease if I didn’t get out.  What did those moments have in common? How exactly did I survive and make it to where I am now?

Clarity.  In those moments, everything became crystal clear for me.  I felt little to nothing in those moments.  Suddenly, a much deeper instinct came online, and everything came into focus.  I heard a clear voice: “Run.  Get out.  Do whatever it takes.  It’s time.”  And, I did.  Worries about the future fell away.  It was very much like standing in the eye of a storm.  I grew up in East Texas, the land of hurricanes.  When I was a child, I once went outside when the eye of a hurricane was passing over our neighborhood.  The winds had been powerful and violent, and debris, pine needles and branches covered everything within walking distance.  The calm that descended upon us as the eye passed over was chilling.  My mother yelled at me to come inside, but I wanted to experience the ephemeral peace of these legendary storms.  This is comparable to what happened to me when I realized that I had to make big decisions about my own survival be it in life and death circumstances or in abusive relationships.

My therapist called those experiences finding “my essence”.  And, that is what I would leave you with.

I am convinced that humans can survive anything, but I have never been interested in survival.  I have always wanted to live a meaningful life, and my definition of a “meaningful life” has evolved over time.  Nonetheless, the idea that we have an essence that is unique to us and cannot be obliterated or annihilated by trauma encourages me.  It is fear of annihilation that was at the root of my profound anxiety.  How much betrayal could I tolerate? How much suffering could I overcome? What if I reach a point when I finally succumb to suffering and am left in desolation for the rest of my life?

I have to ask those questions as I venture into the darkness in therapy because, at times in therapy, we will stand eye to eye with the monsters.  Only you know who your monsters are, but I suspect that we all have at least one.  And, our monsters know our names and our softest spots.  They know how to kill us be it metaphorically or in real life.  Your courage and bravery don’t emerge when you’re on top of the world embracing the joy.  Your courage, your essence, is forged when you’re blinded by the utter darkness of your fear, pain, and suffering, and yet you choose to get up and act even if you are guaranteed nothing but more fear, pain, and suffering.  In my experience, that’s when your essential self lights up, and you can actually start to see again.

I am still wrestling with my anxiety, but it’s getting better.  No one said that the road to building a better life would be easy or even a fair process, but I can state this with certainty.  You will know what you’re made of as you engage in this.

Your essence will come forward, and you’ll find that you were capable of a lot more than you ever thought.