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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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Deep Programming and Core Beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Disgust Cycle in Healing

I want to address something that inevitably comes up during the healing process after a break-up or divorce particularly if your ex-partner was not a very nice person.  What do I mean by ‘not nice’?

Well, my marriage ended for many little reasons much like this proverb:

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

 

The primary catalyst for my separation and divorce, however, was domestic violence.  As an aside, I want to make note of something significant for a moment.  Less supportive people have questioned me about my divorce including my family.  People can be extremely judgmental about divorce, and some groups who we might hope or even assume would support vulnerable families in need even think that domestic violence is not a legitimate reason to end a marriage as noted in this study–“Poll Shows Lack of Conversation on Domestic, Sexual Violence in Churches”.  Judgment and blame then become part of the cycle of abuse and even recovery.  The victims are initially questioned rather than the perpetrators of violence, and the questions may look like this:

  • “S/he was so nice to everyone.  You seemed so happy when we saw you.  What was going on to make him/her do the things you say?” (the implication being that some outside influence could “make” a person harm another i.e. stress at work or nagging)
  • “Well, if it was so bad, then why didn’t you report it? Why didn’t any of us know?” (This question is based in ignorance.  The dynamics that keep domestic abuse of any kind in place are shame and fear.  With shame and fear in place, one wouldn’t self-report.)
  • “If s/he was abusing you enough for you to divorce, then why weren’t the police ever called?” (I was asked this.  A few times.)

The first thing to note is that all of these questions smack of victim-blaming.  Secondly, there is no perspective-taking present within these questions.  Thirdly, there is no acknowledgment of the Resiliency Spectrum.  What do I mean? I will use a scenario from my marriage to explain.

There was abuse present throughout my marriage, but some of the abuse did not register as “abusive”to me due to my past experiences with abuse.  I was troubled by the behaviors to be sure, but I did not feel traumatized by them.  When my ex-husband consumed too much alcohol, he was capable of verbal and physical abuse.  Weird things happened.  Yes, weird.  That’s how I interpreted the interactions: “That was weird”.  Even when the “knife incident” occurred, I was still relatively shocked more than anything else.  It didn’t register as trauma although it probably should have.  When your spouse brandishes a blade and waves it around in your face menacingly, you should feel something other than surprise.  I was asked very directly by my therapist, “Why did you not call the police when he did that? That was a felony.”

Well, I had seen my mother do worse things than that.  I was so shocked by his behavior that I froze, and then I was far more interested in diffusing the situation.  Getting the police involved never occurred to me.  I grew up around so much violence that, while I knew my environment wasn’t normative, I wasn’t terribly shocked by it when I saw it again.  I am not justifying it.  I needed to be recalibrated and reacquainted with what a safe and healthy relationship looked like.  The Resiliency Spectrum describes a state of being in which what might be traumatic to one person is not for another.  The death of a pet might be a 9 or 10 on one person’s Resiliency Spectrum while the same event might register as a 3 for another.

Who, however, wants to trot out their past abuse stories with other people? Furthermore, who should have to? If you are experiencing abuse, then you are.  You have the right to feel safe, secure, loved, and accepted.  That’s it.

With that foundation laid, what happens when you bump up against your own Resiliency Spectrum in terms of cognition and emotion? That’s a very abstract question.  I’ll put it another way with an example.

I was in a therapy session discussing my ex-husband when a wave of disgust washed over me.  I shuddered and blurted out, “Oh my gosh, he saw me naked.”  I became nauseous.  I tasted bile.  I actually threw up in my mouth a little.

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My therapist jumped on that immediately.  “What just happened there? What are you feeling?”

“I feel disgust.  Viscerally.”  That seemed legitimate to me.

“Why?” he pressed.

“Well, I…don’t know.”

We went round and round for a while until we came upon the answer:

“Do you believe that you should have known better? Do you believe that you should have been able to discern that he had the potential to abuse you? Do you feel disgust at him or yourself? Are you disgusted with him that he saw you naked or yourself that you revealed yourself to a man who abused you AND you missed all the signs that he could and did?”

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“Well, shit.”

Yes, that is exactly how I felt, and I felt tremendous shame over it.  I felt disgusted with myself.  How did I miss it? How did I not get it for so long? What if I miss it again?

My therapist always turns it around for me, and he did it this time, too.  He leaned in and looked at me squarely:

“When you met him, did you believe what he told you?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have any reason not to based upon what he presented?”

“No.”

“Did you do the best you could at that time in your life with all the information and resources you had?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then you have nothing to feel badly about.  Once again, this is not your fault.  This is not your fault.”

This is what I mean by bumping up against your own Resiliency Spectrum.  Cognitively, I know that it’s not my fault, and most of what I endured, while understanding the behaviors to be wrong, I tolerated to a degree because they were not out of the norm for me.  Emotionally, it feels like my fault because I feel like I should have known better.  I feel like I should have done something about it sooner.  Just because you can tolerate something doesn’t mean that you should.

This is, however, the process of recalibration; the process of aligning cognition with emotion.  The feelings of disgust that radiate outwards but originate from within need to be named for what they are.  They are more about me than they are about him.  I was vulnerable.  Yes, he saw me naked, but, in a way, I never saw him naked.  That lack of reciprocity caused me to want to judge myself because I kept giving myself away regardless of what I received in return.  My own hope was the currency I kept using in the relationship.  It cost him next to nothing to be with me, but it left me bankrupt.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, then I suppose I would encourage you by saying that this is part of self-regulation, integration, and trauma recovery.  It’s not unusual.  It’s a marker on the road of recovery.

 

 

 

Embrace the Process of Healing

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”— Hillel the Elder

I’m 44 years-old, and I’ve been on the “therapy circuit” since I was 16.  As soon as I could drive, I found a therapist on my own and started going.  I knew that my experiences and family of origin were well beyond what could be described as normal.  My mother behaved just like Joan Crawford from the film “Mommy Dearest”, and my father was indescribably awful.  My father’s wife was like a Disney queen.  If she could have sent me into the woods with a random huntsman in order to have me “disappeared”, then she would have.

What I have learned is that you can only sustain therapy and counsel for so long.  For the intervention and work to be permanently effective, you have to build new neural connections and adaptively process your trauma.  Part of that processing involves addressing and changing core beliefs.  For that to happen, you have to find the right therapeutic approach which fits your needs not to mention the right clinician.  If you don’t like your therapist, then you won’t feel safe.  Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen for you then.

You also need to have stability in your life.  You can’t do trauma and core belief work if you aren’t safe in your home and lack support.  You cannot fight a battle on two or more fronts.  The therapist’s office becomes the battleground, and, when you leave that office, the battleground is your mind.  Feeling safe in your life is key to actually doing the deep trauma and core belief processing.  This is a potential reason why many people don’t get that far in their processing.  When there is trauma in the past, there can often be repeated exposure to trauma in the present.  Safety feels like a fantasy or luxury rather than a requirement not to mention that one can lose a sense of what it even means to feel safe.  Losing control of boundaries becomes a normalized way of life.

As I have engaged in the healing process, I have observed that the pattern has been roughly two years of therapy with time off in between.  Years in between.  That fits for someone with my past trauma.  Both my parents were highly abusive, and I was trafficked.  My return to therapy this time was caused by domestic violence, and I was none too happy about it.  Alas, I knew that it was necessary.  Old traumas can become fresh again when new trauma is experienced.  Surprisingly, past trauma that I thought was settled has resurrected, but it has not been bad.  It has come from much deeper places that I didn’t even know existed, and I suspect that it is those deeper places that hold the key to lasting healing.  I feel much more rooted even now than I have in the past.

Why share all this?

Well, sometimes we get tired of our own process.  I even fear that others will get tired of my process.

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“Really? You’re back in therapy? Gosh…”

I have wondered if my entire life will be lived out in a chair in a therapist’s office, and I have felt robbed.  But, this is life.  This is true for everyone.  No, not everyone will endure an abduction or incest or something spectacularly terrible, but no one gets off this planet unscathed.  If you are alive, then you hurt.  Some hurt more than others.  Some are more sensitive to emotional pain than others simply due to the size of their hippocampus.  Some people carry epigenetic influences that influence how they process emotional pain. We don’t control everything about ourselves both external and internal.

For those of us with deep trauma, it is our duty to ourselves and others to participate in this process of healing so that we learn to exercise influence over what we can rather than being influenced and tossed about.  It’s much like when my hip was injured.  I was in pain and limping.  I lost mobility and couldn’t sit properly or even walk well.  I had to see a rheumatologist and then an orthopedist.  I had an MRI and then injections directly into my hip joint.  It all sucked.  Ultimately, I needed a surgical repair followed up by four months of physical therapy with daily and often painful rehabilitation exercises that I had to do at home.  All of this was done to 1) strengthen my hip joint 2) strengthen and repair the surrounding muscle groups that had been overcompensating for the injury 3) aid in healing and 4) teach me how to properly walk again because, due to the nature of the injury, the compensation for it, and the surgery itself, I lost my ability to walk properly.  The injustice of this situation is that I received the initial injury in a domestic violence situation.  But what of it? It’s my hip.  I want to heal.  So, like it or not, I had to conform to the healing protocol and put in the work.

This analogy works.  As humans, we hurt, and we are vulnerable to myriad kinds of injury.  Sometimes we are hurt in ways that defy imagination, and the injustice of our injuries can break us.  No one is held accountable.  No one takes responsibility, and, due to the stigma often applied to mental health issues and victims of sexual abuse and violence, we are often blamed for our own injuries making us victims twice over.  It is impossible to understand.  And yet we must learn to walk again.  That is the commitment we must hold for ourselves and the people we love–and the people we have not yet met but will.  For the people we will eventually love.

There is something within this kind of work that is imperative to acknowledge–hope.  We engage in a thorough healing process because we have hope that what we are doing is building something better.  We are building a better present that will lead to a better future.  We are becoming healthier and safer people so that we can expand our lives to welcome in safe and healthy people.  We do this work for a reason.  It’s not futile.  We are not masochists.  We are not stuck.  We do not love sitting around and talking about the past.  We are shaking off the chains so that we can not only walk again but run.  Or even fly.

That is what this entire healing process is about.  So, ignore the naysayers and the trolls.  Turn away from negative friends and family members.  This is your life.  Your shot.  Grab it and run with it.  You can do it.  You are worth it.  Keep going.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”–Marianne Williamson

Saying No is Good

Saying ‘no’ is good.  I seem to rarely do it, but I’ve heard other people tell me this.  I am kidding.  Sort of.

I really find out just how good saying ‘no’ is particularly when I said ‘yes’ but really wanted to say ‘no’.  Do you know what I mean?

If you are addicted to doing the “right” thing and making everyone happy, then I am certain that you know what I mean.

Case in point:

aspic-pe-blog.jpg

Aspic.

Someone made this on purpose! And some poor sod said ‘yes’ to eating it even though they would rather have endured a root canal without novacaine.  There they are, smiling at the creator of this disgusting delicious creation, mouth full of cool, gelatinous edibles, and all they can think to say as something slime-like oozes through their back molars is, “Wherever did you find this recipe?”

I agreed to having lunch with my ex-husband.  I should have said no.  I ate the metaphorical aspic.

He was not mean to me.  It was simply too triggering.  It took me a week to process a two-and-half hour lunch.  That’s not okay, but it’s informational.  After a year of post-separation therapy, it was an unexpected means of taking my own temperature in terms of post-traumatic healing.  I’m simply not there yet.

I thought I was.  I overestimated myself.  I don’t think it’s bad to overestimate oneself.  That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning sometimes, but, when it comes to having lunch with a former abuser, it might be good to be prepared.  Funnily enough, I thought I was.

What was my takeaway after the dust settled?

  1. Know your triggers.  I know his methods and wiles, but there is one thing that he does that triggers me.  His victim persona is a punch to the gut every time.  I didn’t realize it until we had lunch.  When he plays the victim, I want to take a sledgehammer to something; or, go into my room and cry for a week.
  2. Have at least one person in your corner who can remind you of what is true about your identity and your circumstances.  This will make it so much easier to come out from under those post-traumatic triggered responses particularly if a run-in with a formerly abusive partner is the cause.
  3. Take care of yourself.  Do what it takes to practice self-care and self-soothing.  The feelings will pass.  They will! I promise.  In the meantime, do what it takes to bring consolation and comfort to yourself.
  4. Look out for ANTs (automatic negative thoughts/thought distortions).  I got caught up in a slew of these last week, and it sucked.  Your brain will always tell stories.  That’s what it does, and, for whatever reason, it’s never an awesome story.  It’s always a catastrophic story involving abandonment, sharks, plane crashes, and some sort of plot from Law & Order:SVU.  Our job is to develop a mindfulness practice (I know, we are starting to get sick of that new buzz word) in order to stop the brain’s sordid and scary storytelling.  This is one of the primary points of mindfulness.  It is to learn to become aware of the brain’s latest plot twist, stop it, and then take control of it in the form of non-judgmental observations and containment.  With practice, this becomes a skill, and we are no longer held hostage to the Stephen King/John Grisham/James Patterson/Nicholas Sparks writing collective in our brains.
  5. Imagine saying no and then put that into practice.  If you are not up to doing something because you know that it will cause you to have a setback or cause a triggered response, then consider saying no.  I’m pondering this myself.  I say yes to a lot of things even though I know that I might be triggered.  I feel obligated, but, frankly, my distress tolerance might not yet match the occasion.  It doesn’t mean that I won’t one day be able to engage in the proposed situation.  It just means that I’m not there today.  And, that is okay.  After I had hip surgery, I couldn’t run for four months.  I couldn’t even walk for six weeks.  So, saying yes to a 5K two months after surgery would have definitely caused a setback in my healing process.  It’s not so different when we’re healing emotionally and psychologically.

That’s what I learned last week.  I sure hope it sticks because the idea of using aspic as a metaphor for anything again is…well…I’ll just say ‘no’ to that.

Further Reading: