Nine Things I’ve Learned

I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it.  For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.

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“Where do I begin?”

That works for a while–the distancing.  It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful.  It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”.  But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:

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Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us.  That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.

But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work.  I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it.  Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online.  I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people.  I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race.  I could barely reach out to my friends.  I was just trying to stay afloat.  We are talking about surviving here.  Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I lost friends in the process.  There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did.  It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving.  Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge.  You will be “remodeled”.  You aren’t the same, but you are still you.  So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?

  1. If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster.  I was in therapy for two years.  It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.  I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist.  A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
  2. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal.  When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it.  You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen.  If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them.  Your health and emotions matter little.  If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened.  That was my M.O.  When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy.  I was elated.  My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe.  I said, “Nah…no way.”  I was so wrong.  I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary.  Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die.  Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process.  So, commit to it with all you’ve got.  Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
  3. You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone.  Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize.  I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”).  I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections.  I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition.  I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are.  This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance.  Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
  4. There comes a point when you come alive again.  At some point in your healing process, you reignite.  I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior.  For me, it was when I went back to school.  That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs.  I reached a point where I believed that I could start over.  I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again.  I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered.  I started to acquire hope.  This is a very good sign.  Go with it and see where it takes you.
  5. You will love and be loved again.  This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married.  I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage.  Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do.  I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended.  I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations.  I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked.  So, I lost myself.  Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily.  I did not think that it was possible for me.  I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.”  It is true though.  It is possible for you.
  6. Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve.  This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness.  When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels.  I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life.  Ever.  This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances.  When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you.  You can’t relax.  You can’t trust.  You can’t believe.  You can’t rest.  You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee.  Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want.  Surviving is the goal.  This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life.  So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it.  The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness.  That’s okay.  Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits.  Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
  7. Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do.  Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset.  I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish.  When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed.  I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject.  But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did.  I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours.  This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points.  I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss.  It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself.  That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
  8. You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past.  This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift.  When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present.  This is useful to a point.  Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future.  What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future.  You simply can’t see it.  Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD.  I think that they’re wrong.  I rely on neuroscience for this one.  The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us.  An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient.  Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future.  Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future.  So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences.  If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances).  Never have they learned to plan.  They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances.  Planning is a skill.  Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that.  It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it.  The future doesn’t exist yet.  We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present.  You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet.  It is yours as surely as your past is behind you.  This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
  9. You will recover your resiliency.  This is a big deal.  We are all resilient creatures.  Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points.  The point here is that you can come back from that.  There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t.  Don’t believe everything you think or feel.  That is folly.  Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about.  Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road.  Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here.  For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me.  I will get up again.”  Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed.  At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled.  You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles.  No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good.  I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever.  There comes a point when you something shifts.  You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious.  You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear.  Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being.  They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that.  Joy and peace? Not so much.  Those must be cultivated and invested in.  And…fought for.  The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness.  If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.

At this point on the road, this is where I’m at.  I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now.  We can get up and move.  As always, I wish you all great peace and…

Keep going.

 

 

 

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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

A Timely Ending

Jack the New Therapist aka the FNG will be no longer.  It has become a failed collaboration.  That is what my reasonable self says.  My snarky self is pointing at this:

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The Resting Bored Face

Jack has one of the worst Resting Bored Faces I’ve come across.  There are three places you never want to see an RBF: 1) on a date 2) while you’re speaking publicly 3) on the face of your therapist while you’re sharing something.  He doesn’t mirror or even change his facial expression very much.  He is extremely low affect.  He rarely smiles.  It is strange.  He is putting the clinical in clinical psychologist.

It’s more than that though.  He won’t actually therapize.  He just expects me to sit and talk ad nauseum, and I hate doing that.  That is too client-centered for my taste.  He rarely asks questions.  When he does he says, “Do you mind if I ask a question?” Sweet fancy Moses, please ask a question!! If I mention a past traumatic event, he looks visibly jarred by it.  He then says, “I’m just really angry that you experienced that.  That shouldn’t have happened to you.”

I’m way beyond that now.  Of course, that should not have happened to me.  What I need is some kind of insight into resolving remaining emotional dissonance, and I now see that he can’t offer that.  He can’t get past the nature of my past traumatic experiences.  He’s hunting for something.  An explanation for something. It feels as if he doesn’t believe me on some level.  I present how I present, and he continually refers to studies that show that I should be a mess.  So, the questions that he has managed to ask are not meant to help me.  They have been probing questions.

  • Do I trust that my male therapist won’t be sexually inappropriate with me if studies show that our first experience with a man–our father–becomes our template? (Yes, he actually asked me that.)
  • How am I able to form solid relationships with men or women since both my parents were abusive? How has that even been a possibility for me since studies show…?
  • How am I able to experience any kind of sexual intimacy with a partner after being sexually brutalized since studies show…”

Do you see a theme here? This wasn’t therapy.  This was some kind of inquisition, and I don’t say that in cynical way.  The Spanish Inquisition was an inquiry into whether or not a Jew who converted to Christianity was, in fact, an honest convert.  This felt like an inquiry into whether or not I was “fronting”.  Was I really stable? Was I really recovered or effectively recovering? After all, studies show that you can’t fully heal after trafficking, childhood sexual abuse, and longterm exposure to traumatic environments in childhood and adulthood.  Studies show that you struggle, your hippocampus shrinks, and you remain fragile in some way for the rest of your life.  Well, I never liked those studies.  Excuse my language, but fuck’ em.  I don’t want a smaller hippocampus or a lifelong struggle.  He wants me to provide evidence that how I appear in his office is true in my life.

No.  I don’t have to do that nor should I have to in a therapist’s office.  For all his training, he should have known better.  There are healthy ways to gauge the state of a client.

All that aside, I think this experience has answered my question: Do I still need intensive therapy?

I don’t think I do right now.  I’ve been at this since March 2015.  My favored therapist saw me through the dissolution of my marriage, the fallout, and the processing of the trauma associated with domestic violence.  He saw me through the process of “getting my shit together”.  He was one of the best therapists I’ve ever worked with.  Perhaps it was good that he moved out-of-state.  It allowed me to assess myself and see that I didn’t need the Hot Seat anymore.  After everything that has happened since mid-2015, that’s a weighty realization as I head into 2018.

And this is where I must say that the unimaginable is possible.  I don’t want to sound “inspiration porn-y”, but I do want to be honest.  I could not have imagined my life in January 2015.  I knew that I was miserable and despairing.  I knew that I was getting sicker and sicker.  I knew that I no longer loved my husband.  I was starting to figure out that he was abusive.  I knew that I was living a life that I hated.  I wanted so much more for myself and my daughters, but I didn’t know how to get there.  It all felt out of reach for me and them.  Impossible.  How do you start over in mid-life?

One step at a time taken with great anxiety, however, and my life changed little by little.  Your life does not change overnight.  It changes with sometimes very small steps made by you.  And, truthfully, it all depends on how much you want it.  How badly do you want to be free of what is keeping you from something better? For a while, you have to be single-minded.  Tenacious and relentless.  You must get used to the idea of uncertainty which human beings tend to disdain.  More than that, you must dislike your present circumstances more than you dislike not knowing what will happen.  Once that tips, it becomes a lot easier to make big changes.  The outcome becomes less important to you than making the necessary changes even if those necessary changes are ripping out the foundations of your life.

Currently, I would say that the hardest part of the past two-and-half years has been learning to live with uncertainty.  It hasn’t been the loss of a marriage.  I had a bad marriage.  The grief associated with the loss of a dream or an idea hit me harder.  The trauma that occurred within that marriage was very painful to process.  The things that he said to me infested me in ways I didn’t know until they came creeping out when I was alone at night.  That was very difficult, and I have cried harder and longer over the past two years than I think I have in my entire life.

And yet I can say now that it was a deep cleansing.  Sexual violence can leave us feeling defiled in a very particular way.  I was sexually brutalized for days in a drug-induced haze when I was in the trafficking environment.  When I left that place, I felt utterly shattered and desecrated to my core, but it didn’t feel personal.  Human traffickers are criminals.  They are doing what they do–the job they have chosen.  In that way, it was easier for me to heal.  While I experienced shame, it was somehow easier to deal with because, while I felt for years that it was my fault, it didn’t land or fester in certain areas of my identity.

After the sexual violence in my marriage occurred, I was brought low into a place of utter desolation.  My husband raped me.  More than once.  And then he blamed me for it.  He tore my hip apart.  He herniated the muscles supporting my pelvic floor.  I required two corrective surgeries–one requiring months of rehabilitation in which I had to learn how to walk again and the other requiring a stay in the hospital and weeks of no driving, no lifting, and sitting on pillows.  It was humiliating.

I will probably not discuss the nature of the domestic violence in my former marriage again, and I do so now with a reason.  What I have realized now that I have some distance is that it feels harder to overcome trauma endured from a friend.  From an intimate.  Brené Brown suggests in her latest book that it is harder to hate someone close up.  To counter popular and anonymous hatred, we should then move in.  What if that hatred comes from someone close to you? From someone who promised to love you? The opposite of love isn’t what most people assume.  It isn’t throwing candelabras and screaming while stomping around and launching invective.  No, that’s not hatred.  That’s rage.  Hatred in an intimate relationship is complete disengagement to the point of treating the former beloved as if they do not exist, and, when the beloved continually seeks out some form of validation that they do indeed matter, lashing out in violence to make the point that they do not and will not.

This is the opposite of love, and it is extraordinarily difficult to heal from.  Why? This kind of treatment erodes your ability to retain hope and trust.  As much as I wanted to believe that someone I loved wouldn’t do to me what my ex-husband did, I could not.  When someone said, “But, I love you,” my mind would simply counter with, “That is what he said.”  If your partner could hurt you so profoundly while saying he loves you afterwards, then how will you ever know what is true again? It is this uncertainty that has nearly undone me.  It is this uncertainty that has done the most damage to my ability to trust myself again and my ability to make good judgment calls.

What is to be done about it? How does one heal from it? For real? How? Well, this is what I have done and continue to do:

  • If it is not true, then do not believe it.  Or, at least acknowledge that you intellectually do not buy into it even if you emotionally agree with it.  Beginning to separate the two is the beginning of the healing process.  It also helps you begin to discern what’s driving your responses.
  • If you aren’t sure whether it’s true or not, then ask someone, like a therapist or close friend, to help you figure it out.  Trauma weaves a strange web, and sometimes when something causes a flare-up or exacerbates PTSD symptoms, you just can’t discern what’s true anymore.  Call someone who knows you so that you don’t fall down the rabbit hole.
  • It is okay if your emotions are not catching up with what you know cognitively.  It takes time to bridge the gap (this is called dissonance).  An example from my own life is this thought: “I am disposable.”  Cognitively, I know that this is false.  Emotionally, it feels so true sometimes.  How do I merge the emotional belief and the cognition so that the dissonance is resolved? This is where EMDR comes in.  This is why seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma and EMDR is so vital.  When it flares up, I have to make a choice, and sometimes I can’t.  I must ride the wave of pain that always passes.
  • Build a squad of people who are good to you.  Those people should see you as you are far beyond what has happened to you–your identity is not tied into your trauma. More than that, who you are is in no way reflective of how your former abusers saw you.  That goes a long way into bridging dissonance.
  • Take a look at what you are letting into your imagination.  When you leave an abuser and an abusive environment, you get to choose what comes into your mind and imagination.  You finally have say.  What will you read? What movies and shows will you watch? What forms of entertainment will you consume? What music will you listen to? How will you rebuild your brain? This matters.  Will it be dark and mournful or hopeful and beautiful? Empowering? Or angry? Passive? Active? What helps you feel better? This is a time to begin to think about your tastes, your likes and dislikes, who you were, and who you are becoming.
  • Take some time to try to imagine your future life and do something in the present that your future self will thank you for.  This might sound cheesy, but this actually helped me make the final decision to go back to graduate school.  When I took into account the time that it would take me to complete my graduate degree I winced.  But, then I realized that the time would pass anyway, and I imagined my future self thinking, “I’m so glad that I did this.”  I knew that I wouldn’t regret my decision.
  • We must all banish the idea of “arriving”.  There will never come a time when life will be easier.  We will never be happier when X happens.  I promise.  I once thought that I would be happier when I lost the “baby weight”.  I did.  I wasn’t.  I then thought that my life would be perfect once I finally had meaningful sex with a man who really loved me.  I did.  I won’t lie about that one.  That was a marker of my life vastly improving, but I was still me.  I still struggled with finances, thought patterns and habits that I disliked, and my disdain for that one tooth I don’t like.  And, I’m still an introvert.

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  • Lastly, be kind to yourself.  Be very, very, very kind to yourself.  This is probably the hardest thing to do out of everything.  It might, however, be the most important.

We are in the holiday season now.  If there were any time of year to show yourself patience and kindness, then it’s now.  With that, I wish you, my readers, the deepest peace and restfulness that you are probably wishing everyone else through your holiday greetings and well-wishes.  May it truly be so for each of you.

Shalom…

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 Buffer and Rat Park

I went to therapy on Tuesday with a migraine.

I have to pause for a moment and talk about migraines, pain, and trauma.  Whenever I have mentioned the nightmare known as The Migraine on any blog, well-meaning people have offered helpful comments.  I certainly want more good information particularly if I don’t have it, but it must be explained first that a migraine is not a headache (please bear with me as I will make a point).  It’s a neurological event that, if left untreated, can leave lesions on the brain, thusly, leaving the brain vulnerable to a future ischemic attack.  Who knew? I certainly didn’t.  You can’t fool around if you have “chronic migraine” (15 or more attacks in a month).  I am one of those people.  A dark room, a few Excedrin for Migraine, and lavender oil don’t help me.  Regretfully…

I began experiencing migraines after an auto collision, and these pain-mongering menaces arrived days later and never left.

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They are the bane of my existence.  I have tried everything known to, well, anyone for 13 years now and continue to pursue every avenue of treatment and prevention available from PT, diet therapy, pharmaceutical interventions to yoga, breathwork, chiropractic, aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, myofascial release work, European herbal remedies…you name it.  They don’t stop.  Ever.  They might abate for a while, but they always return.  I was in the ER on Tuesday night for an infusion of the magic cocktail due to a migraine that lasted around 16 days.  It sucked, and I felt very discouraged.

Once again, I was in therapy during this round in the ring with Mega Migraine, and my therapist, who has experience counseling people with chronic pain, tried to coach me through the pain suggesting different strategies.  He also asked me carefully if past trauma played a role in the frequency of my migraines–a legitimate but admittedly tiresome question.  At times, however, one starts to feel patronized.  I did my best to answer his questions while I massaged stabbed myself as if I had an ice pick trigger points and squinted at him possibly slurring my words.

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MJ in therapy…

This is where, I observe, that people with PTSD or past trauma might experience a defensive response (looking catatonic can be defensive in nature, I suppose).  I do, at times, feel emotionally defended when people suggest that migraines or any other illness are psychosomatic if you’ve experienced trauma; that is an oversimplification as humans are far too complex.  I didn’t, however, defend myself at all on Tuesday because I was in too much pain, and, for what it’s worth, I know the emotional stressors that trigger a migraine attack.  I also know that a car crash has damaged the nerves in my neck (neuropathic pain), and I also have vasculitis in my CNS thanks to SLE (Lupus) not to mention genetics.  These are three “quantitative” etiologies for these migraines that have nothing to do with PTSD or past trauma; so, I felt safe enough to address the more qualitative reasons.

For example, the sound of my mother’s voice will trigger a migraine in a certain part of my head–around the trigeminal nerve to be exact–in about five minutes.  This is a primary reason I’m pursing EMDR.  That is a classic trauma-based somatic response.  I want that outta here! If one of my daughters becomes labile and needs to go to the Behavioral Health ER for something like suicidal ideation or a sudden onset of a mixed state, I will most likely experience a migraine within 12 hours after that.  That is a classic stress trigger for me.  My ex-husband’s antics will trigger a stress-related migraine particularly if it hurts one of my daughters in a meaningful way, but this does not mean that a migraine emerges out of the ether and descends upon me, the migraineur, in some sort of psychosomatic fog.  Blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol most likely play a huge role in affecting the blood vessels in the brain thanks to the stress experienced from these events, thusly, causing a migraine.  We are not machines even though Descartes would like to attribute such a description to humans.

Westerners can be quick to banish anything stress-related and almost act as if the resultant symptoms are not real.  Stress causes heart attacks.  That’s as real as it gets.

Look at the rise of hypertension and diabetes or even cancer.  One can point at diet first, but what fuels the poor diet choices (leaving out low income and class issues)? Stress.  Why, for example, won’t people give up their favorite foods loaded with salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats? Stress.   People are often trying to mitigate stress using the closest thing at hand to do that–food products i.e. substances.  The Big Three make us feel better for a time, and that’s real and measurable.  Reduce stress and one observes a subsequent reduction in illness and its damaging effects on the body and mind.  This is a known principle.  Once stress is reduced, the automatic habits that go along with that stress tend to reduce as well i.e. emotional and/or stress eating, increased alcohol intake, increased caffeine intake, increased substance use for stress and emotional management.  It’s tough, however, if the very things used for stress mitigation are themselves addictive which, alcohol and opiates aside, dairy and gluten are as their proteins occupy the opiate receptors in the human brain.  That’s why it is such a pain in the ass to give them up.  What’s more, the very things that ultimately exacerbate our stress levels and level our health surround us namely industrialized food products.  Our biology works against us here.

What if then one has done everything one can, but the stress cannot be reduced?

Isn’t that the magic question though? I can’t control my children or my ex-husband.  You can’t make an infant sleep through the night nor can you control another person’s behaviors or driving habits, and it’s these very things that potentially exacerbate myriad illnesses in us if we are already under internal pressure–how other people’s choices affect our lives.

Enter The Buffer.

What is The Buffer?

Well, we are supposed to have natural buffers in our lives that help support us in ways that our proxy support systems– Fat, Sugar, Salt, Caffeine, Entertainment, Substances, and other things–do.  The emotional soothing and regulation that we get from these sources are supposed to be provided to us from something else.  Like what?

Let me introduce you to Rat Park.  What is Rat Park?

“The Rat Park Experiment aimed to prove that psychology – a person’s mental, emotional, and psychosocial states – was the greatest cause of addiction, not the drug itself. Prior to Alexander’s experiment, addiction studies using lab rats did not alter the rat’s environment. Scientists placed rats in tiny, isolated cages and starved them for hours on end. The “Skinner Boxes” the rats lived in 24/7 allowed no room for movement and no interaction with other rats.

Using the Skinner Boxes, scientists hooked rats up to various drugs using intravenous needles implanted in their jugular veins. The rats could choose to inject themselves with the drug by pushing a lever in the cage. Scientists studied drug addiction this way, using heroin, amphetamine, morphine, and cocaine. Typically, the rats would press the lever often enough to consume large doses of the drugs. The studies thus concluded that the drugs were irresistibly addicting by their specific properties.

However, rats by nature are social, industrious creatures that thrive on contact and communication with other rats. Putting a rat in solitary confinement does the same thing as to a human, it drives them insane. If prisoners in solitary confinement had the option to take mind-numbing narcotics, they likely would. The Skinner Box studies also made it incredibly easy for rats to take the drugs, and it offered no alternatives. The need for a different type of study was clear, and Alexander and his colleagues stepped up to the plate.”

Are you curious yet?

“The goal of Bruce Alexander’s Experiment was to prove that drugs do not cause addiction, but that a person’s living condition does. He wanted to refute other studies that connected opiate addiction in laboratory rats to addictive properties within the drug itself. Alexander constructed Rat Park with wheels and balls for play, plenty of food and mating space, and 16-20 rats of both sexes mingling with one another. He tested a variety of theories using different experiments with Rat Park to show that the rat’s environment played the largest part in whether a rat became addicted to opiates or not.

In the experiment, the social rats had the choice to drink fluids from one of two dispensers. One had plain tap water, and the other had a morphine solution. The scientists ran a variety of experiments to test the rats’ willingness to consume the morphine solution compared to rats in solitary confinement. They found that:

  • The caged rats ingested much larger doses of the morphine solution – about 19 times more than Rat Park rats in one of the experiments.
  • The Rat Park rats consistently resisted the morphine water, preferring plain water.
  • Even rats in cages that were fed nothing but morphine water for 57 days chose plain water when moved to Rat Park, voluntarily going through withdrawal.
  • No matter what they tried, Alexander and his team produced nothing that resembled addiction in rats that were housed in Rat Park.

Based on the study, the team concluded that drugs themselves do not cause addictions. Rather, a person’s environment feeds an addiction. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, and lack of control based on unsatisfactory living conditions make a person dependent on substances. Under normal living conditions, people can resist drug and alcohol addiction…

Today, psychologists and substance abuse experts acknowledge the fact that drug and alcohol addiction involves transmitters within the brain. Certain chemicals latch on to different receptors in the brain, altering the way users think and feel. The user becomes addicted to the high he or she experiences while on the substance, and soon has to use it all the time to cope with other feelings. The more neuroscience discovers about addictions and the brain, the more physicians can find solutions to treat addictions.

What scientists today realize is that addiction is as mental as it is physical. Humans do not have to be physically isolated, like the rats in the Skinner Boxes, to become addicted to substances. Emotional isolation is enough to produce the same affects. Humans cope with their feelings of dislocation with drugs and alcohol, finding an “escape” or a way to smother the pain. A human’s cage may be invisible, but it is no less there.” (online source)

Many people have written about Rat Park.  My takeaway is this: In order to heal and progress in a meaningful way we must build a buffer.  We must emerge from our human cages with as much dedicated effort as possible and do something different than we’ve been doing.

Why do I call it a buffer? That’s what my neurologist called it, and it struck a chord.  She had prescribed five medications for me to take in order to prevent constant migraine pain.  Five.  It’s ridiculous.  When I asked her why so many she said, “These medications are your buffer.  Your life is so stressful.  You have nothing in your life properly supporting you right now.  Until you have real buffers in place like people you can count on consistently to alleviate some of your intense stress like your sick kids and abusive husband, you need the medication.  Otherwise, you won’t be functional because your brain is just too irritable.  Your circumstances have to change, and the meds are bridging the gap for you until they do.”  Well, that’s a lousy answer, but is that not a true answer for so many of us? Who is absorbing the stresses and inequities of our situations? Us.  Our bodies.  Our minds.  Our spirits.  We are caged in circumstances that we did not entirely choose.

Psychologist Adi Jaffe states:

“To make matters more complicated, we know that biological influences related to genetic differences, neonatal (birth-related) circumstances and early nutrition can alter brain mechanisms and make people more, or less, susceptible to the effects of trauma. For instance, we now know that early life trauma alters the function of the Hypothelamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, making individuals who have been exposed to trauma at an early age far more susceptible to stress, anxiety and substance use; or that hypoxia during delivery (certainly a form of trauma) can increase the chances of mental health defects later in life. Like the Rat Heaven experiment, it should be somewhat obvious that without these early traumas, the individuals in question (those who struggle with addiction) would experience less “need” for heavy-duty coping strategies like, let’s say, opiates. So biology is important here at least in this regard.

So trauma and stress are not at all objective truths but rather individually determined patterns of influence. I am fully on board with making sure that the treatment system we use does not exacerbate the problems that stress and trauma bring about (so no shaming, breaking-down, or expulsion of clients for their struggles), but I think that the picture this TED talk and the related book presents is far too simplified to be as helpful as we want it to be. I believe that more focus should be given to improved prevention efforts in order to reduce the likelihood of these early traumas and therefore of later drug seeking experience in the first place. I also know that significant efforts are already being put into this sort of work through a multitude of social-services organizations and government agencies. Needless to say, the demand for drug use has not abated despite these efforts.  It’s been happening for at least 8000 years already and I’m thinking it’s here to stay.” (Adi Jaffe)

Where does this leave me? What is my point? It’s not as if we can suddenly jump from our circumstantial cages and swan dive into a metaphorical Rat Park as lovely as that would be, but can we migrate to such a place given the chance to make small, meaningful changes consistently? Is that possible? I think so.

How? 

Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 13 years.  The reason that I know it’s been 13 years is that the very auto accident that resulted in my now ever-present migraines occurred two weeks after I ended my relationship with my father–my primary abuser.  That was a monumental choice in my life, and, while I did not know it at the time, it set me on a course of recovery.  The trajectory of my life changed in that moment.  A few years later, I ended my relationship with my mother, my secondary abuser.  And, a year and half ago, I ended my marriage.  I finally climbed out of that cage.  No more abuse.  From anyone.  

Was it hard? Excruciating.  It is hard for me to describe the emotional suffering and turmoil I experienced last year.  The pain and grief were nothing if not backbreaking.  I think I wept more last year than I have in my entire life, and it wasn’t because I missed my ex-husband.  It was simply an overflow of pain, grief, loneliness, fear, and existential alienation that I was forced to set aside in order to survive.  I had pretended to be fine for so long that when it came time to be truthful with myself, it became a reckoning.  I spent many sleepless nights sobbing.  I can barely write about it even now.  I felt like I was somehow vomiting forth my viscera through my tears, but, I think, it all had to go.  Years and years of absorbing the inequities, the emotional and physical abuse, and believing that in order for others to be happy I had to diminish had to be sucked from me as a poison.  And do you know what has happened? Unbelievably, my Lupus blood panel is now normal.  For the first time since my diagnosis, I am in remission.

My neurologist also wants to look at reducing those medications.  I am getting better.

I enrolled in grad school.

And…ahem…I met someone, y’all.

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It’s true. Aaaaaanyway….

Yes.  This is hard.  I have never lied on this blog about the inordinate difficulty involved in turning your life around.  BUT…it is possible.  And that is what I have always wanted to know.  I never cared if creating a life worth living was hard.  I only wanted to know if it was a possibility for me.

Is it possible? Yes, it is.

So, excuse my language, but fuck hard.  Do what is possible because, while it might seem impossible, it’s not.

You can do this.  Keep going.

Entitlement and Domestic Abuse

I am going to record this for a very specific reason.

Sometimes people give something away in the moment, and that’s the moment that things crystalize.  That’s the insight that you needed to confirm your hypothesis.  That’s when you know that you were right.

That happened for me yesterday.

For readers new to my blog, I will explain that I am going through a divorce.  I have been separated for almost a year, and the process arriving at this point was very difficult.  I documented that process on this blog very intentionally so that men and women experiencing domestic violence could see what the therapeutic process looked like.  I just finished editing my entire blog, and I was a bit astounded at some of the raw content.  I really was in denial for a long time.  I made some of my posts private because I didn’t want them out there for public consumption any longer.  I stayed in the marriage too long.  I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening to me.

When you are married to your abuser, it doesn’t feel real.  You keep hoping that s/he will change.  You knew them when they were different.  Why won’t they go back to how they used to be? It’s magical thinking.

I caught myself wondering if he was really that bad the other day.  Not in a nostalgic sort of way.  I don’t miss him at all, but I have a buffet of memories.  They aren’t 100% bad.  Two of my daughters still see him.  I just wondered if he would ever choose a better way for himself, and I don’t know why I even started down that road.  This is the man who raped me.  This is the man who hurt my hip so badly that I needed a labral repair surgery.  This is the man that caused a pelvic floor herniation so severe that I needed corrective surgery.  I haven’t even mentioned the emotional abuse that went along with the aforementioned physical abuse.

So, what happened yesterday?

My daughter spent the afternoon with him.  When she returned, she was angry.  She stomped into the house and declared loudly, “Well, that was horrible! We got into a fight!”

It should be noted that my ex-husband and I never fought.  He was very passive.  He was very covert in the expression of his hostility.  It isn’t easy to explain.  He would lash out quickly and then calm down.  You wouldn’t know what hit you.  And then he would deny everything.  Literally!

“I never did that.  That did not happen.”

It was gaslighting all the time.

“Then why am I having surgery? Why have I been limping for three months?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t do that.  That never happened.”

Reality did not line up with his self-assessment so reality had to be denied.

My daughter told me that her father, my ex, insisted on taking her picture yesterday while they were out.  This is something he has been trying to do for months.  She asks him to stop, but, when he thinks that she is not looking, he tries to do it clandestinely.  She always reiterates her wish, and he makes a point to openly sulk.  Yesterday, she finally stood her ground more assertively:

“You need to stop this.  I have told you many times to stop trying to take my picture.  I don’t like it.  I don’t like having my picture taken.  Please respect my boundaries.”

“My parental position supersedes your boundaries and right to say no.”

Did you catch that? He actually told her that he didn’t have to respect her as a person with rights or respect her consent because he is her parent.  I was shocked and livid.

This is a very nefarious form of entitlement in action, and I’m very familiar with it.  I saw glimpses of it during my marriage, but I could never pin it down.  Now? He actually said it out loud:

“I have a right to do what I want to you because of my position over you.”

I don’t know that any therapist or program can fix or heal someone who actually believes this or lives according to this belief.

The following information was taken from New York State’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence:

Understanding Domestic Abusers

Why Would Anyone Abuse Their Partner?

Coercive control gives abusers many unearned benefits, large and small, at the expense of their partner and children.16,17  Gaining access to those benefits is abusers’ goal.18   Those benefits include:

  • Being able to do as they please.
  • Getting their partner to comply with their demands, cater to them, and let them have their way.
  • Gaining unlimited access to partner’s money, time, attention, caretaking, labor and sexuality.
  • Stopping their partner from:
    • Hurting, betraying, or cheating on them.
    • Arguing with them; trying to have a voice in decisions, or expecting them to compromise.
    • Making demands on them (e.g., to do household chores).
    • Disclosing their abuse to others.
  • Keeping their partner’s life centered around them.
  • Having a safe outlet for anger and other feelings.

People often speak of domestic abuse  as “a choice” but, in reality, abusers make many choices over a long period of time – choices that stem from the belief that abusive behavior is a legitimate way to create and maintain their “rightful” position of power and privilege within their family19 – i.e., that they are entitled to act as they do.  (Domestic abusers who have non-domestic criminal histories also often think using violence is legitimate in other contexts.) At its root, domestic abuse  is motivated by the desire to gain and keep control,20 and the individual makes hundreds of small choices about how to continue controlling his/her partner. (One reason more men than women abuse their partners may be that men more often have power over a partner that they see as worth defending, but the feeling of entitlement is also influenced by other attitudes, values, perceptions and feelings, and by what the individual learned while growing up.)

Implications for intervention

Because domestic abuse is largely driven by attitudes and social inequality, therapeutic efforts to stop it are largely unsuccessful.  Mental health and substance abuse treatment cannot effectively address either abusers’ belief that they have the right to use violence to get what they want or the social inequality that supports those beliefs.  Yet abusers, especially those who also have mental health problems, are often sent to some sort of mental health treatment, either individually or in a batterer program.

In addition, the subjects that mental health treatment is likely to address often have little or no relationship to domestic abuse:

  • Factors the abuser can’t control that “cause” the abusive behavior.
  • The individual’s feelings and needs.
  • Conflict in the relationship.
  • The victim’s partner’s faults, problems or provocative behavior.
  • Incidents of physical violence – rather than the pattern of control.
  • Coping skills and communication.

Many of the social underpinnings of domestic abuse, such as male dominance, can’t be “treated” at all, as they are not the sort of individual problems that clinicians work on. For instance, you can’t “treat:”

  • A man’s belief that he owns his partner and is entitled to run her life.
  • The fact that someone sees their partner as an object.
  • A man’s belief that his partner is “less than” he is.

Entitlement attitudes are very hard to change – especially ones that are longstanding and culturally supported, and that benefit the individual who holds them. Treatment providers can, and should, challenge these beliefs, but they are not just matters of individual motivation or pathology. (OPDV)

Entitlement attitudes are very hard to change.  Did you read that?

Yes.  They are.  I tried.  For 19 years.  Nothing changed but me.  If you are in a relationship with an entitled person, think about why you are in that relationship.  What are you getting out of it? Do you believe that it’s possible to experience something better?

Lundy Bancroft, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go, wrote this:

We believe there are basics that all relationships need to have, indispensable elements such as:

  • love, affection, and kindness
  • mutual respect
  • freedom of both partners to express their true opinions and feelings
  • safe, loving physical intimacy
  • equality
  • making each other a high priority (though not necessarily the only priority)
  • accepting responsibility for one’s own actions
  • each partner caring about how his or her actions affect the other person

Nothing on this list is pie-in-the-sky. If your relationship is missing any of these elements, you have good reason to want that gap to be attended to— and to insist on it.

Entitlement is not on this list.  Funnily enough, neither is abuse.  Of any kind.

I was really upset yesterday about what my ex said to my daughter, but, at the same time, I was validated.  We are divorcing for many reasons.  All the right ones apparently.

Aim high.  Don’t settle for lesser loves.  You deserve the life you’ve always hoped for.

Further reading:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Real Talk

Stress.  It doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  I keep telling myself that.  Stress is one of those buzz words in our culture that implies that something is wrong.  It’s not something that needs to be.  It is simply an outside force acting on us exerting pressure.  Is there a way to reframe it so that it doesn’t feel so negative? So overwhelming? Uh…I’m trying to get there.

Some real talk? I am really stressed.  I can feel it, but I can’t seem to offload it.  It is just sitting in my body.  Piling on.  My therapist asked me yesterday what I’m doing to manage the stress and practice self-care.  Well, I’m taking every medication I have to manage my autoimmune symptoms and migraines because that is where the stress is showing up.  It is translating to pain.  Extraordinary pain in my head.  Neuralgia.  The kind that neurologists usually give you narcotics and anticonvulsants to manage.  I’ve got both, and I am using both in the evenings.  I’m almost 43 years-old, and I have Lupus-related vasculitis that is manifesting as trigeminal neuralgia–a horribly painful condition that can stop anytime thank you very much.  I’d like my cranial nerve back please.

This is one very big downside of divorce even if the dissolution of the relationship was for the good.  Stress.  My therapist is finally speaking plainly to me which is refreshing: “Are you feeling safer in your home now that you are not in an abusive relationship?”  Well now, isn’t that interesting? “What can you do to feel even safer?”  He is now calling it what it was: an abusive relationship.  That’s stressful to me.  It’s one thing when you know what something is.  It’s another when someone else does, too.  Yeah, okay.  I just left an abusive relationship.  I did it.  I should feel really good about that, and I do.  My daughters are singing my praises as are my friends.  But, there are days that I just want to sit and cry about it.  Not because I still love him.  I don’t.  This isn’t about him anymore at all.  I actually have some really good things in my life.  It’s just been a long road, and I’m weary.  I look back sometimes and think, “Shit.  Can I never, ever go through that again? Can I have a break now?” But, life is just moving ahead at light speed, and I have to continue to keep up.  It is hard.  Hard to keep running sometimes.

My oldest daughter went to college four days after my ex-husband moved out.  Two major life changes in one week.  And, she is struggling with homesickness.  Yesterday, I had five conversations via text at the same time, putting out various fires.  I drove to my daughter’s college campus to take her out to dinner.  Managed my youngest daughter’s First Day of Middle School anxiety.  As I’ve told a few people, there is a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, and she is in charge of the lunchroom according to my daughter.  One of Satan’s minions is her science teacher, and, as if I did not know this, in middle school, “everyone is herded like cattle!”  Oh yes, I remember it well.  I’m fairly certain that Satan himself was my Algebra teacher in 8th grade.

I have to meet with my ex-husband at a Caribou Coffee tonight to discuss financial issues.  This is how I feel about that:

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You know what though? I am going on an extended weekend trip.  I leave tomorrow.  I planned it a few months ago.  I am having surgery next week.  This trip is entirely for me.  The second time in 19 years that I’ve gone anywhere without my kids.  So, this is the good part.  I suspect that the only way to deal with high stress levels is to get through it.  Just show up and keep showing up.  Running from it makes it worse.  Increase that distress tolerance and forge ahead.  Eventually, this stress will be replaced by a different one, and perhaps I’ll like the new stress a bit more.  Sort of like planning a European vacation can be stressful, but that stress is far more desirable than talking finances with your ex-husband.

I’ve come this far.  I’ve got to keep going even if I’m tired and in pain.  There is no turning back now.  Building out a life and defining one’s own happiness is a privilege, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.  Forging a new path, however, is not easy.  I won’t lie to anyone.

This? This is stressful, but I know that it’s worth every bit of the present pain.  As a rabbi once said, “If you do not want it all, then you do not want enough.”

Want it all so that you’ll want enough when life becomes hard.