Stopping the Holiday Madness

The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood.  I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete.  I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow.  Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome.  I see now why all the locals drive SUVs.  Nothing seems to stop them.  Not snow, ice, flash floods.  Pedestrians.

Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit.  This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend.  You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.

About 11 years ago I had an epiphany.  Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them.  What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking.  Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.

The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving.  Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder.  The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child.  She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury.  Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’.  It never went well for them.  Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk.  Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.

So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us.  She had in-laws.  Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt).  That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me.  For five years.

So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening.  Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday.  We eat in the evening.  We stay at the table.  We enjoy drinks and desserts.  And then the games come out.  Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun.  She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised.  My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped.  As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.

By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night.  It wasn’t fun.  It felt like playing a social game of Tetris.  People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  I was glad when it ended.  As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.

Why do we do it? I ask it honestly.  Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?

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Ah yes, tradition.  How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time.  Just like last year.  And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.

I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do.  I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly.  You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore.  Can we please start a new tradition?”  You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me.  I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.

What does it feel like? It feels wonderful.   There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do.  I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress.  I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.

One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.

This is the most important takeaway.  Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason.  Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands.  When you are stressed, your body produces it.  One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response.  Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick.  Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event.  Why is this?

The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus.  Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen.  In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug.  In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus.  Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen.  So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection.  You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production.  The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation.  We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection.  We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self.  And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.

Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system.  Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult.  Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.

With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

Playing Scrabble with Life

Happy September, everyone! I am ending a three-week break from school. The girls and I headed West to San Francisco for 12 days of doing whatever we wanted which pretty much meant drinking too much boba, hitting up stores that are not in the Midwest like Muji and Uniqlo, and eating bibimbap whenever possible.  It was glorious.

Alas, all escapes involve the inevitable return, but, if it’s a successful vacation, then I suppose one feels recharged and ready to return to reality  The girls felt ready to come back.  There is a lot to do in our home city.  School is starting, and I have a house to empty out.  We have to downsize in a big way in preparation for moving next summer.  It’s daunting not to mention I have to return to my grad school program, and, as much as I’d love to forget it, the OCR investigation is still on-going for my college’s Title IX violation.  And, the guy who harassed me is returning to the program.  I shouldn’t bump into him; nonetheless, he’ll be there.  I’m ready to depart.  I’m weary of being in that school, but I’ll do what I must for an additional two trimesters.  I think the modern term for this is “adulting”.

With my attitude adjusted, I went to a lovely wedding two nights ago.  A civil ceremony and dinner hosted by the bride and groom and their family.  It was utterly delightful.  I seldom meet such charming and warm people.  Being present for their wedding was a privilege and pleasure.  A metaphorical fly, however, was in the soup.  One of the guests was a student in my program, and I was a bit on edge upon seeing him there.  After the sexual harassment at my college started in February 2017, I kept my personality and appearance guarded.  I stopped wearing make-up.  I wore hats and hoodies, jeans, and Converse.  I tried to be as invisible as possible thinking that my harasser would find me less attractive or even completely unappealing.  It didn’t work.  The lesson in that is that when you’re being harassed, the problem isn’t with you.  The problem lies with the perpetrator regardless of how often you’re blamed.  It’s never about how you look or what you’re wearing.

Admittedly, I feel that I have a bigger personality, and I really tried to keep myself “small” at school.  I don’t know if any of you will relate to this, but have you ever been criticized or judged for being successful or good at something? This is, of course, due to the insecurities of those judging you, but it makes little difference in the moment.  When people blame you for something, I think that’s it’s normal to feel at fault somehow.  When I was an adolescent, my mother would often accuse me of thinking that I was superior to others because I found intellectual pursuits appealing; more than that, I excelled in the academy largely because I worked really hard and had little to no social life.  I hid from the world in school.  It wasn’t at all balanced, and it led to serious burn-out.  I don’t recommend it.

My mother did not go to college, and I suspect that she felt somehow lacking and out of place for this.  I never said so, and I have never believed this.  She, however, projected her beliefs onto me and then harshly attacked me as if I held that view.  It became almost memetic in our exchanges.  If I did well in school or university, then I by default thought I was superior to everyone in the entire world.  To bypass these judgments, I had to pretend that I was not doing well in school.  I could not discuss scholarships or opportunities I was receiving.  I couldn’t tell my family when my university endorsed me for the Rhodes Scholarship or the Fulbright Fellowship, and my mother refused to acknowledge that I had graduated from university with highest honors.  To her, I just thought I was better than everyone which is completely untrue.

My father, on the other hand, would just slap me across the face.  For real.  If I said anything that bothered him in the slightest, he would slap me! Me and my big personality often said things that bothered him.  You can imagine how often I was slapped.

Bear with me, this relates to the wedding…

So, I decided to go to the wedding as myself.  I dressed up, wore lipstick and fancy shoes, and did my hair.  To hell with it all, I thought.  It’s a wedding! Back to that fly in the soup–the student from my school, Brandon.  Brandon is young.  He’s very boyish in his demeanor and affect, and it’s, therefore, surprising that he’s almost ready to graduate.  He has appeared friendly enough in past interactions, but, at times, he is haughty.  A quality I chalked up to his age and a lack of life experiences.  Humility often comes through having negative life experiences and then having the time to develop insight around them.  That requires time which is often reflected in one’s age but certainly not always (Lord, I sound old right now).

On the night in question, I sat with a lovely group of seasoned Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners and listened to them tell “war stories”.  I’m a student! I have nothing to contribute to this conversation in terms of experience, but I asked questions.  They were happy to include me.  Brandon, who chose to sit across from me at the dinner and text, had already asked me one question, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…mom?” I mention this because were I a male student would he have asked, “So, what do you do? I know that you’re a…dad?” Likely not.  There are three stay-at-home dads in my program, and I’ve never heard anyone speak to these outstanding men in a pedantic or condescending tone.  To the women with children, however, who have stayed at home to care for their children, Brandon’s somewhat condescending question has been the norm.  The context for our future exchange had been established.

As the conversation developed, the practitioners and I began discussing travel and past education, and I could enter into this discussion. I have traveled and lived abroad.  The discussion was wonderful, and the rabbit trails were quite fascinating.  Brandon looked to be disengaged or pouting.  We all discussed foreign languages and past teachers.  Suddenly, the subject of harvesting berries emerged of which the time was nigh.  One of the doctors had a crop that was due for harvest, and the medicinal qualities of the berry were discussed at length.  Brandon perked up eager to join in as he could finally discuss something “scientific”.  When I looked at him and commented, “Oh yes, you can look at the studies online about this,” he turned his head, looked me in the eyes and said meanly cutting me off, “I want to listen to the conversation right now.”  He then turned his shoulder to me, leaned in towards everyone, and ebulliently asked questions, laughing in an overly exaggerated manner.

It was a verbal slap in the face, and it stung.  Oddly, no one present seemed to hear what he had said which made sense because it was solely meant for me.  He did not want me participating in the conversation.  I sipped my water and gathered my wits.  I contained myself.  I was not going to say anything to him because this was not my social affair.  I wasn’t going to ruin a beautiful evening because of an apparently insecure, immature boy’s misbehavior.  I went home that night feeling very bothered.  I could see his face in my mind’s eye and hear his voice, and I determined that his inappropriate behavior bothered me so profoundly because he did what both my parents had done to me for years.  He felt left out socially for whatever reason so he chose to socially wound me in order to rejuvenate his injured ego.  He already displayed sexism and mild misogyny in his prior question.  Attempting to silence me in our evening’s discussion of medicine was apparently the only way he could feel legitimate again.

That’s so wrong and, unfortunately, so common in terms of how humans interact.  It exemplifies poor interpersonal skills, poor ego development, poor impulse control, personal and professional envy, insecurity, mild narcissism, and emotional arrested development.  It explains a lot in terms of why people are struggling to make meaningful interpersonal connections and overcome loneliness which is rampant today.  As my boyfriend said after I told him what happened, he’s fortunate he behaved like that towards me.  I’m kind.  What if he had done that to someone with a harsher nature? It would have ended much differently.  What if someone invited him to settle his complaint outside?

So, what’s the point here? I guess my point is that you never know who you will be seated next to on an airplane or at a dinner party.  Life will deal you some strange hands on any given day, and we have to find a way to play the hand we’ve been dealt.  I like to think of it like Scrabble.  Sometimes you get the best combination of letters and impress the heck out of everyone with your chosen word and earn a triple word score.  Other times you get three x’s, and the rest are q’s and z’s.  What…the…hell.  The only way to do anything with that is to build a word off of what’s already been laid down on the board.

We have to dedicate time in our lives to laying some good letters down–building some really complex words–so that when we get a shitty draw of letters we can still play something worthwhile.  What does that look like? Don’t be like Brandon.  Address your insecurities.  Address your envy.  Dig deep and address your past wounds.  Look at the injuries that your parents and family members inflicted upon you.  Do authentic recovery work from past relationships.  Seek out the resources around you that can help you heal from them.  Address your addictions whatever they may be.  We will spend our lives doing this, of course, because all of this is process-oriented work.  It is not destination-based work.  There is no point of arrival in terms of an ending.  If you are breathing, then you are processing something.  You are always drawing tiles to play.  The point of engaging in a process is that you start to draw better tiles.  What Brandon did was attempt to steal tiles from me in order to shut me out of the “game” so to speak.  That’s what socially injuring someone does–it steals social capital from them so that they can’t participate in a fair and often deserved way.  This includes gossip, slander, humiliation, shame, and even discussing true things about them that are bad.  As we engage with intention in daily life and process, what we lay down on The Board gets better because our tiles improve, and, when we do draw some bad ones, we can still play what we draw because we have some quality words on The Board already.  We’ve been building a solid foundation in both how we live our lives and within our character and personalities.

It’s not that hard to do actually when you start small.  Just pick one area where you know you’ve been drawing bad tiles.  Where you feel you can’t win no matter what you do.  Dedicate some time in that singular area.  Whatever it is.  Start with 5 minutes a day.  Just 5 minutes.  See where it takes you.  That might sound naive of me, but it’s not.  Everything has a beginning, and every beginning starts small.  So, start small and stay small until you feel you can make it bigger.  Just be consistent.  That is the key.  Five minutes.  Every day.  That’s it.

With that, I wish you all a wonderful September.  If you have kids going back to school or if you are going back to school, best of luck!

Shalom and keep going…

 

 

 

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

Pushing Back against Malignant Core Beliefs

I want to talk about negative core beliefs and dissonance–and perhaps a way to challenge them effectively.  Bear with me as I get there.  I have written a lot about my last two years in therapy with a neuroscientist.  I didn’t know initially that he was an official neuroscientist (who taught at the college level) who also happened to be a social worker, but that’s what he was.  He specialized in “difficult cases”.  I didn’t think of myself as a difficult case per se, but I imagined that my history would qualify me for that label once my full case history was trotted out.

 

I’ve written before that my most powerful negative core belief is “I am disposable.  I am expendable.”  It is hardwired.  I have processed almost all of my maladaptive core beliefs at this point, but this one is like the final boss in a video game.  I can take it on over and over again, and over and over again I lose.  It’s not “online” most of the time, but when it’s activated, I fall.  I cannot refute it.  There is no line of thinking that will stand up to it.  No amount of EMDR has defused it.  This is why I agreed to continue therapy after my therapist moved.  To try to get at this particular core belief.

And then…

As I was sharing my frustration and fear about dealing with this with someone close to me, an idea was brought forth.  He commented, “You can’t nullify a person, right? That came up for you early on in therapy.  Your sense of morality doesn’t allow you to do that.  You view all people as significant regardless of past acts.  Is this true?”

Well, yes, I do.  Frankly, it has made dealing with my parents a pain.

He continued, “Philosophically speaking, would you find it immoral to view another human being as disposable?”

Yes.  I would.  Humans are not disposable.

He then asked, “So, would it violate your own sense of morality and personal philosophy to view yourself as disposable? To agree with that?”

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“Well, I…uh…”

Why had I not asked myself this before? How had I not seen it from this perspective? I do not believe that I can have a double standard.  There are not two sets of rules in the universe.  If it is true for others, then it must be true for me.  That is one aspect of integrity.  How I view and treat other people must also apply to myself.  If I view other people as having inherent worth and in no way disposable, then how could I view myself in an opposite way?

This is where the arguments start.  This is what I would like anyone who has a profound struggle with a deeply embedded negative core belief to take note of.  Challenging a core belief doesn’t change it.  You must think of this like a boxing match.  Once you find a statement or a strong sense within yourself that you can hold onto that matches the strength of your negative core belief–that matches its energy, then you can throw the first punch.  Like this:

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Heisenberg: “You are completely expendable.  Disposable.”               Me: “My morality doesn’t let me believe that so I can’t be.  I am not.”

What will happen next? Heisenberg, your profoundly negative, most likely biologically embedded core belief, will get up and come at you with evidence.  That is exactly what mine does.  Heisenberg is cold, mean, and extremely smart.  He uses evidence from my past to prove why I am disposable, and the case is airtight.  And, the more you listen, the worse you feel.  The more monstrous that core belief becomes.  As if it takes on a life of its own until he’s doing this:

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Those feelings that you have at this moment are defined as “dissonance”.  Why? They are the gap between what you are starting to know is true about yourself or situation and what you feel is true about them.  This gap can be shallow or a deep abyss.  This is why emotional dissonance can be so dangerous and hard to manage.  This is where the spin-outs and target behaviors can happen.  I typically freeze and can’t reach out.  Emotional eating, cutting, high-risk behaviors like gambling, high-risk sex, substance abuse and emotional dysregulation are all common manifestations of falling into this gap.

Now, a negative core belief doesn’t sound that bad on paper.  Why would someone react in such an extreme way? It is a matter of what that core belief represents and triggers.  In my case, my negative core belief centering on expendability was literal.  I was trafficked.  I had a literal price tag put on me and was sent to an auction.  Men actually bid on me.  It was the most dehumanizing experience that I could never have imagined as an 18 year-old.  I was put through experience upon experience meant to rob me of a sense of identity so that I would come to experience my own person as an object void of self.  That is the purpose of the “breaking in” process.  Once you are no longer a person, you are compliant.  The problem for me in all of this was that I fought the process in captivity and left that environment with a sense of self albeit a very traumatized, compromised one.  Years later, when there is a trigger, the past becomes present, and I am faced with this old but very effective lie.  It is biologically embedded with the actual trauma.  This is the neurology of trauma and beliefs acquired with trauma.  This is why we suffer so much when we flashback–even with something as seemingly benign as a negative core belief.

Part of battling it out in the therapeutic process is identifying that which you solidly believe to be true with someone who can parse your language.  When someone gets to know you, they can often help you discover your values and truths–the truths that you take for granted.  This can prove to be quite useful when you can’t see what’s true anymore staring up from the bottom of your dissonant abyss.

What is a better strategy? Don’t fall into the abyss.  Well, that’s brilliant.  How do we avoid that? Go back to that moment when Heisenberg is giving you the finger.  In the past, I didn’t have anything that could adequately refute the case he made against me.  I would fold every time and free fall.  Now? I still feel the onset of panic when that profoundly negative belief comes online, but I honestly know that it cannot be true because it does not line up with any of my beliefs about humanity.  How could it be true? Once I sat with that, I let it go further.  If I’m not expendable or disposable but a person treated me as if I were, then who in that situation had acted badly? Me or the other person? Clearly, the other person.  This is an easy conclusion, but it is a very difficult idea to internalize when you grow up under gaslighting conditions or presently experience them:

“We treat you like this because you are bad.”

The truth is this:

“We treat you like this because we are bad.”

Change one word in that statement and the meaning is completely different.  Gaslighting is very common: “You are the problem which is why we hurt you.  You are the problem which is why you were sexually abused.  You are the problem which is why X happened to you.”  What perpetrator is ever going to admit, “I have the problem which is why I hurt you”? Nary a one most likely.

So, there you are staring down Heisenberg.  He’s coming at you with your terrible belief, triggered by something that you can’t control like a phone call from that person, something a person said to you, a feeling you had when something happened that made the past present in an instant.  It could be anything.  When this experience is beginning to crescendo, do not try to change how you feel.  Do not try to change Heisenberg.  He never changes.  Bring in your own strength–your own hitter.  I figured this out because I realized that some of our very malignant core beliefs do not belong to us.  They originated in our trauma and are not natural to our personalities or nature.  We may have held onto them because they helped us navigate extreme and painful circumstances, but they no longer help us.  They hinder us.  This is the definition of ‘maladaptive’.

This is what a solid refute will do to your Heisenberg:

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These malignant core beliefs are designed to paralyze and limit.  Whatever you put in front of them, they will naturally push up against.

Your challenge will become the wall to your Heisenberg.  Heisenberg does not stop showing up when stress shows up.  Your neural connections have created a fantastic pathway for him.  The more you use your challenge against him, however, the more you weaken his pathway until there are potholes in your neural connections.  It will look something like this:

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He still comes for you, but now he trips on the way.

After a few months of challenging Heisenberg with the same new thought that might be one of your beliefs: “I can’t be disposable because it violates my own personal sense of morality,” my personal Heisenberg is starting to do this:

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He leaves before anything serious starts.

In my mind, I thought for years that dealing with negative core beliefs was all about changing them, but then I realized that a negative core belief was a lot like Heisenberg of “Breaking Bad”.  Heisenberg, much like Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde, was an evil alter ego.  A negative core belief is a negative alter ego of a functional, adaptive thought.  It’s a thought gone rogue.  It served a purpose, but its present existence has long outlived its original purpose. Now it just keeps on comin’ because that’s what it does.  Like a cancer.

I can try to kill Heisenberg or strengthen my other thoughts in order to overcome him.  Where is the effort better spent?

So, the key here is finding the right challenge.  That is the most important part of the process in taking down a malignant core belief and arguably the most difficult.  I would assert, however, that the prior work done in therapy, which included EMDR, laid the foundation for present insight.

The other strategy I have used in the past and model in this post is externalizing and naming a toxic feeling in order to separate it from yourself and your identity.  I have identified my most feared maladaptive core belief as “Heisenberg” in order to differentiate every idea associated with it from myself and my identity.  This draws a distinct line between me, my own thoughts, my hopes for my present and future, and what I would like to think about.  This is highly effective for dealing with negative emotions.

For anyone experiencing the abysmal free fall or struggling with repetitive negative thoughts rooted in malignant core beliefs, there are strategic ways to deal with them and eventually defeat them.  It takes time and consistency, but it is possible.

Keep going.

 

 

 

 

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…

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.