Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ

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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…

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 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.

Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

I wrote this post, The Male Borderline Waif, a year ago, and it gets a lot of daily traffic.  For as much research that’s been accomplished over the decades around borderline personality disorder (BPD), there are still few answers to be had particularly for men who may be on the borderline spectrum.  Mental health and healing should not be pie in sky for any of us regardless of our diagnosis.

What do we do?

There is also a great deal of stigma for those who carry a personality disorder diagnosis particularly borderline.  The psychopath CEO or even pastor is let off far more easily than the borderline woman (TIME).

Let me be clear.  I’m not a personality disorder apologist.  I don’t, however, feel that anyone should withhold empathy from a population of people simply because there is little true understanding  around the etiology and ultimate course of their condition.  In the case of personality disorders, there are working theories.  That’s it.

Both my parents have personality disorders, and both my parents are dangerous people.  For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down.

Yesterday, I did.

How?

Firstly, my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment.  He refused to go to the doctor for anything.  He refused to seek mental health treatment as well–even when an ultimatum was on the table.  When I asked him why, he would tell me that he knew more than any doctor.  Was my ex-husband a physician? No.  Did he believe that he knew more? Yes, I think he did.  Is there a name for what he was expressing? Yes, there is.

Grandiosity.

Secondly, over the years I noticed that my husband had different personalities depending upon the situation, and sometimes they were wildly different.  He was a chameleon, and I wouldn’t even recognize him as the same person particularly at work functions.  What was creepier is that he had borrowed my self-image in terms of how he talked about life in general.  He used my language and knowledge base as if they were his own.  This is called mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Definition:

Mirroring – Imitating or copying another person’s characteristics, behaviors or traits.

Borrowing a Self-Image

Mirroring occurs when people with Personality Disorders have a vacant or distorted self-image, which can manifest itself as an imitation of another person’s speech, mannerisms, behaviors, dress style, purchase preferences or daily habits.

In more extreme manifestations of this behavior, the person doing the mirroring might begin to believe they actually are the other person, to the extent they might call themselves by their name, claim to be them or ‘borrow’ elements of the other person’s life such as relationships, past experiences, career or family history and claim these as their own.

Mirroring can be a form of Dissociation, where a person’s strong feelings create “facts” which are less than true.

A dramatic case of mirroring is portrayed in the movieSingle White Female, in which the character Hedra Carlson (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) begins to imitate her new room-mate Allie in the way she looks, dresses and behaves, imitating her haircut, wearing her clothes and ultimately seducing Allie’s boyfriend. (Out of the Fog)

What it Looks Like

  • A man switches accents to mimic a colleague.
  • A woman wears identical clothing to her friend.
  • A mother wears her daughter’s clothing.
  • A teenager makes phone calls in which she pretends to be her sibling or parent.
  • A secretary wears her boss’s wife’s perfume in an attempt to seduce him.
  • A man writes letters in which he forges his boss’s signature. (Out of the Fog)

My mother mirrored me frequently.  It was obvious.  It wasn’t as obvious when my ex-husband was doing it until he started therapy.

He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there.  I was shocked, but I played along.

“Why does your therapist think that you don’t need therapy?” I casually asked.

“I told him that I was looking to create more ’emotional mindfulness’ in my life, and he was really impressed with that.  He had never heard that term before, and he really liked it.  Anyone who would even come into his office and use such a term probably didn’t need much therapy,” he said smugly.

STOP!!!!!! That’s MY term!! I used that term! That is what I was trying to create in MY life! 

He mirrored my therapeutic process in his first therapy session to get out of therapy! What kind of person does that?!

That is a very good question.  What kind of person indeed!

I kept this behavior in mind as I proceeded, and this weekend’s antics with my daughter settled it for me.

Between his mirroring, chameleon-like behavior, grandiosity, entitlement, apparent lack of a solid sense of self as well as his belief that others do not have a sense of self that requires fencing in (boundaries), protecting, and respecting, displays of rage and violence, and consistent need to be the victim in our relationship when he was actually participating in victimization, and his reported self-loathing, I am going to go with my initial assessment of borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.

I know that pathologizing people isn’t necessarily the way to go, but it helps me get a proper handle on how to adjust my expectations and behaviors.  It helps me think in terms of what I can expect from someone in terms of personal safety, too.

Mirroring behaviors are not discussed enough in the context of personality disorders particularly if you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in them.  You may feel “creeped out” by them, and that’s legitimate.  It is a bit alarming.    Why is this even a thing? I found a very brave blog post written by a woman with borderline personality disorder who explains why she engages in mirroring behaviors:

“One of the biggest and most challenging aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or ‘mirroring’. This is the constant, unconscious change in the person’s ‘self’, as they struggle to fit in with their environment, or the people around them. It is, essentially, a fluctuating identity. It is the manifestation of a basic inability or difficulty in establishing a stable sense of self.

The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it affects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also effects and masks the way in which BPD intersects with other disorders that may have developed in connection with it – creating a complex web of behaviours that can be hard to untangle. The irony is that, without diagnosis and treatment, most are unaware of The Chameleon, and it is only through awareness that The Chameleon can be managed.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

She goes on to explain very succinctly what the mirroring is all about:

“Now that I am acknowledging the presence of my Chameleon, I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the key to everything. The whole kit and caboodle. The crux of the issue. From what I can see, everything stems from this lack of a stable self. Borderlines instinctively ‘mirror’ to fit in, because without that behaviour, we have no idea what will happen. We have little or no sense of our own identity, so we can’t know if that will be acceptable to others. Without acceptance by others, we risk abandonment, which is often an intense fear for Borderlines. Why do we have this intense fear of abandonment? Because if we are abandoned, we have nobody to ‘mirror’. The fear of abandonment is a fear of being alone. It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

This is such a courageous thing to write, and it explains the inner movements of the emotional life of people who struggle with borderline personality disorder in a way that is very understandable.

My ex-husband and mother refused to confront themselves or their highly abusive behaviors.  There was no happy ending, but perhaps we can all gain better insight into the vast spectrum of human experience through the depth of our own.

Further Reading:

Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’

The Borderline Blame Storm

I was asked recently to write more about being in relationship with someone who expresses as having a personality disorder.

Firstly, I want to be careful because I don’t want to vilify people who carry this diagnosis.  There is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric particularly on the Internet concerning personality disorders, and the very labels themselves have entered into popular culture.  The word ‘narcissistic’ is used commonly today, but would someone recognize a legitimate diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in, say, their neighbor? I’m not so sure.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is on its way to becoming just as recognizable in terms of popular terminology and stigma.  To counteract the stigma associated with BPD, there is a movement within the therapeutic community to rename BPD Emotional Dysregulation Disorder.  I can understand this.  Diagnostic labels of the psychiatric sort can dehumanize people minimizing an entire person until they are just viewed through the lens of a label.

Having grown up with a mother with BPD, I can tell you why there is therapeutic and social stigma around BPD.  The disorder manifests in such a way in a person to enhance and magnify their best and worst traits even going so far as to bring forth talionic rage and homicidal tendencies.  At times, it can resemble sociopathy.  Without help from trained professionals specializing in treating BPD, there seems to be a lack of any ability to learn from past mistakes causing the same relational mistakes to be made repeatedly–even if those mistakes are extreme displays of violence.  This notable inability to apply learning is what makes BPD so difficult to treat.  It’s also why it’s so hard to stay in relationships with someone with BPD; you can’t hold someone accountable for their behaviors if they don’t learn from their past mistakes.  The neuroscience behind this explains some of the behavioral manifestations, but it doesn’t lessen the abusive nature of it.

I love my mother.  Dearly.  It cost me to pause our relationship and put space between us.  Why did I do that? Because she consistently blamed me for her behaviors and choices.  What does that look like? I’ll give you a very black-and-white example so that the dynamic is easy to spot.

When I was under the age of 10, I was playing in our living room.  I had a drink in my hand.  My mother had our couch newly upholstered in a rather hideous floral pattern.  As I was going to sit on our couch, I lost my balance spilling my drink on the couch.  She saw this, and I observed her facial expression change from one of contentment to rage.  It was an immediate switch.  She ran over to me, clutched my upper arm very tightly, and dragged me across the floor while screaming invective.  I was trying to get to my feet because I could feel my shoulder starting to pull from the joint, but I could not.  I was crying and pleading with her to stop.  She proceeded to drag me by my arm up the stairs, her nails digging into me, the connective tissue in my shoulder stretching.  She got to my room, threw me on the floor, and slammed the door.  My shoulder was almost dislocated by then, and there was already a well-developed bruise around my upper arm marking where she had grasped it.

This is a typical interaction with my mother.  One of many.  Years later, when I tried to discuss this with her, she responded, “Oh, you had that coming.  You were fooling around and stained my couch.”  She tossed her hair, gestured, and rolled her eyes.

Blame.

She blamed me.  It was my fault that she behaved badly.  It was my fault that she was abusive.  When I told her that she almost dislocated my shoulder, she said, “It’s not my fault that your shoulder couldn’t stay in its socket!” She blamed my shoulder! It is almost funny.

In her mind, she should have been able to apply as much force to my shoulder as she wanted because she was angry.  It was my shoulder’s job to take it.  If my shoulder broke or dislocated, then it was my shoulder’s fault.  Not hers.  This idea comes from a blindness, and that blindness is centered around a poorly developed cognitive empathy known in academic circles as theory of mind (ToM).

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that what I think is different from what you think.  Going further, a well-developed theory of mind allows one to predict, infer, and deduce another person’s thoughts based on their cues and nonverbal communications.  It also allows one to understand that what I think, want, and believe is not what other people want, think, and believe.  Furthermore, what I do affects other people and my environment as well as how other people feel around me.  People who carry a personality disorder diagnosis often have a ToM deficit, and this deficit contributes to the blatant displays of entitlement which fuel the blaming behavior.

In my recent dealings with my mother through an exchange of letters, she is still blaming me for her choices.  She wants a relationship, but she continues to blame me for her abusive behaviors: “That only happened because you did _________.”  There is a pathological behavior present here.  She cannot account for her own choices and then go on to see how anything that she did might have caused a subsequent event.  It is like trench warfare.  To reach her, I would have to leave my trench and go out into the field risking assassination, and I’m no fool.  She would take me out, and then, when I’m gasping for air, she would blame my body for being vulnerable to death.

My mother has both borderline and narcissistic tendencies so her “blame storms” are excruciating.

Sam Vaknin, self-acknowledged narcissist and author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, says:

I am constantly on the lookout for slights. I perceive every disagreement as criticism and every critical remark as complete and humiliating rejection–nothing short of a threat. Gradually, my mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia.

I react defensively. I become conspicuously indignant, aggressive, and cold. I detach emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. I devalue the person who made the disparaging remark, the critical comment, the unflattering observation, the innocuous joke at my expense.

A narcissistic injury is just as painful to the narcissist as abandonment is to the borderline. Thus, just as the borderline is hypersensitive to abandonment, the narcissistic is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of a narcissistic injury. (Randi Kreger)

In the end, my mother has emphasized that if I loved her, as she so loves me, then I would never “throw these things in her face”.  I’m supposed to love her no matter what, and this is where I must offer a different opinion:

What does unconditional love usually mean as employed by a Narcissist, Borderline or other abusive personality type?

It means that you won’t hold the Narcissist, Borderline, Histrionic or Sociopath accountable for their bad behavior nor enforce appropriate boundaries and natural consequences for their bad behavior. Basically, they’ve confused unconditional love with you happily and obliviously tolerating their abuse of you and others, including children. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

In my experience, this is true.  This is also true:

If for whatever reason you’re committed to staying with your abuser (e.g., there are minor children or you’re confusing abuse with love due to your own childhood issues) then, yes, you do need to accept that your abuser is unlikely to change in any meaningful way, that she or he is severely limited as a human being and, at some point after she or he has completely depleted your resources, you may be further vilified and discarded for fresh supply. You don’t get points for being a compliant martyr at the end of the relationship. You get blamed for being broken — never mind the fact that it’s the abuser who broke you…(What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

This is tough to hear.  The psychologist who penned this article has a lot of followers as well as haters.  She doesn’t pull her punches.  I don’t agree with how she communicates everything, but she isn’t necessarily wrong either in terms of content.  Abuse is abuse.  An inability to change is still an inability to change.  At the end of the day, does the ‘why’ of it all matter when you’re dying a slow death?

Finally, this is where she is most accurate:

Generally speaking, the mental health field has a difficult time admitting that women can be abusers, even when their victims are other women and children. Many wives and girlfriends of men with abusive exes and adult children of narcissistic and borderline mothers understand this all too well. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

I was told for years that my mother was abused as a child and emotionally troubled, and I should just “love her through it”.  If a man, however, did the things to me that my mother was doing, I would have been pulled out of the home as a child and advised to flee the relationship as an adult.  The faith communities with which I became acquainted were notorious for this response.

As you can see, the concepts of unconditional love and radical acceptance are frequently (ab)used in couples therapy to persuade targets of narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic abuse, particularly if the abuser is a female who has “emotional problems,” that you’re an unloving and abusive partner (or adult child) if you don’t unconditionally accept your partner’s (or parent’s) abuse. If that last sentence makes your head spin, good. It should because it’s ridiculous. It also probably echoes what your narcissist or borderline has been drilling into your head, which is equally ridiculous. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

It is not wrong to want to be happy.  It is not wrong to want to feel safe.  It is not wrong to want to be loved appropriately.  It is not wrong to want to be a part of healthy, mutually life-giving relationships.

The only thing that tolerating or accepting abuse will get you is more abuse. You can call that unconditional love, but it sure sounds more like codependence and extremely unhealthy codependence at that. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

What I have learned is that blame can be rejected.  My mother or my ex-husband can blame me for anything, but I don’t have to accept it.  I can let the “blame ball” drop to the ground and walk away.  I do not have to take responsibility for something that is not and never was mine.  Nor do you.

There may be disorders at play in others that limit their capacities to grow and change, but, if we are not limited, then we can grow and change.  When you stop and think about that, and I mean really think about that, you must see that the playing field isn’t level at all.

The possibilities are limitless for you when you stop allowing another person’s limitations define your terms.

That is what I would offer you today.

Where are you allowing other people’s small capacities and limitations determine your own life’s possibilities?

What can you do right now to change that?

Shalom…

Further Reading:

Borderlines and Narcissists Both Blame Storm by Randi Kreger

What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love

Overcoming a Sense of a Foreshortened Future

I have been thinking about this idea of The Reboot, which I wrote about in my previous post.  Clearly, I’m not entirely empty in my old noggin.  I had an actual thought and pondered it, too! Have I ever felt like this before in my life?  Why, yes, I have!

After I graduated from college I felt a lot like I do now.  Aimless.  Anxious.  A bit scared.  That’s a good question to ask by the way: “Have you ever felt like this before?” It helps you gain insight into what’s going on internally and responsively.  We often know a lot about ourselves with the advantage of hindsight.  Looking back upon my 22 year-old self, I know exactly why I felt so untethered and aimless after I graduated.  I can blame that lesser known symptom of PTSD called ‘a sense of a foreshortened future’.  I’ve written a few blog posts on this topic over the years.  It has dogged me relentlessly, and I’ve never been able to fully shake it off.  It’s very difficult to even describe how it feels.

I think that the best way to describe what living with a sense of a foreshortened future feels like is to relate it to the concept of object permanence.  Object permanence is the term used to describe the concept that objects exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard.  This is why, for example, babies love the game peek-a-boo.  Very young infants have not yet developed object permanence so they, therefore, do not know that their mother, for example, exists when they cannot see or hear her.  Peek-a-boo must then be a very thrilling game for babies if you think about it.

Apply the concept of object permanence to your own concept of survival.  Imagine playing a metaphorical game of peek-a-boo with your life.  One day your sense of security is in front of you.  The next day it’s gone.  Another day, it’s been given back to you.  Another day, it’s vanished.  This endless game of “Will I live or will I die?”, or at least a perceived sense of dying, begins to define one’s reality.  Nothing is permanent.  Security and a sense of being loved, the most coveted and needed objects, are never permanent.  What happens to a person who lives like this? If a person can develop Stockholm Syndrome in as little as 72 hours which shows just how little it takes to completely break down a personality, then what do you suppose happens to the neural networks of a person’s brain who is exposed to long-term trauma?

“Children learn their self-worth from the reactions of others, particularly those closest to them. Caregivers have the greatest influence on a child’s sense of self-worth and value. Abuse and neglect make a child feel worthless and despondent. A child who is abused will often blame him- or herself. It may feel safer to blame oneself than to recognize the parent as unreliable and dangerous. Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a poor self-image are common among children with complex trauma histories.
To plan for the future with a sense of hope and purpose, a child needs to value him or herself. To plan for the future requires a sense of hope, control, and the ability to see one’s own actions as having meaning and value.  Children surrounded by violence in their homes and communities learn from an early age that they cannot trust, the world is not safe, and that they are powerless to change their circumstances.  Beliefs about themselves, others, and the world diminish their sense of competency.  Their negative expectations  interfere with positive problem-solving, and foreclose on opportunities  to make a difference in their own lives. A complexly traumatized child may view himself as powerless, “damaged,” and may perceive the world as a meaningless place in which planning and positive action is futile. They have trouble feeling hopeful. Having learned to operate in “survival mode,” the child lives from moment-to-moment without pausing to think about, plan for, or even dream about a future. ” (The Effects of Complex Trauma)

What can we learn from this in order to overcome something as complex as a diminished future orientation? I think that asking questions of ourselves is the place to start:

  • How do I feel about myself (do I feel worthless or inherently bad?)
  • How would I rate my self-esteem?
  • What is my self-image like?
  • Do I blame myself for any past mistreatment or abuse? Do I make excuses for the person or people who hurt or neglected me? (e.g. “Well, s/he had a hard life.” or “They didn’t mean to do what they did.”)
  • Do I feel hope about my future?
  • Do I feel that my present actions can affect change somewhere as in what I do matters?
  • Do I feel like what I say or do matters?
  • Do I feel powerless?
  • Do I feel competent? Do I feel capable?
  • Do I feel like damaged goods? Do I feel broken? Has anyone ever told me that I was broken?
  • Do I feel like no matter what I do it won’t make a difference anyway so why bother?

Anything that disempowers you in the present will detract from your ability to see into your future.  It keeps your mind looking into your past.  You become locked into a past/present paradigm because the mind, from what I have understood, wants to solve the unsolvable problems .  And, what are these unsolvable problems?

  • mother/hate
  • father/abuse
  • uncle/sex
  • grandmother/neglect
  • teacher/shame
  • grandfather/violence

We are supposed to be loved and nurtured by the adults in our lives so that we can grow up to reach and even exceed our potential.  The mind will never be able to resolve and overcome the impossible and diametrically opposed realities that we knew.  There are no answers for them.  There is no way to balance these equations.  Then what? We get stuck in an endless feedback loop of shame, self-blame, sickness, and slow deterioration seeking attachment because we are made for attachment, and, yet, we can’t.  We survive.  In the now.  Stuck in the past because we need to find an answer.  We must fill in the variables.  Solve the problems.  Do we exist outside of what we experienced? Are we defined by these bad experiences? Are we permanent? Is anything that anyone says even real or believable?

Who are we anyway?

It is like living in a constant identity crisis.  Until we find a way to stop the cycle.

How do you put a stop to this and begin imagining a future? Oh, isn’t that the question!

I can only speak for myself.  If you were exposed to complex trauma for an extended period of time, then I would suggest taking those questions to a therapist trained in dealing with trauma.  Not every therapist is equipped to help you.  I would also suggest meditating on the idea that you do have a future.  There is time ahead of you.  Also, there is no rush to figure it all out today.  Whatever dreams you may have held dear at some point in your life might still be possible, and, before you naysay, ponder this.  Even if it takes you ten or twenty years to accomplish something, don’t be so quick to give it up.

The time is going to pass anyway–whether you pursue your desires or not.

The question then is: What do you want to do while the time passes? You do have a say even if you feel like you don’t.  This is how you begin to overcome a sense of a foreshortened future.  It’s not easy.  In fact, it might be incredibly daunting.

It is, however, oh so possible.

Further Reading:

Effects of Complex Trauma