Nine Things I’ve Learned

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

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“Where do I begin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Becoming Strong

Today is a momentous day.  I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years.  At least I think it’s ten years.

I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal.  I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation.  To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression.  I have always had great compassion for her.  I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.

I was a non-entity growing up.  I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have.  I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*.  My role changed according to her momentary whims.  I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself.  I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.

What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse.  How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap.  While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger.  Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones.  Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma.  So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.

A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother.  They know the stories of her past behavior.  They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up.    For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here.  For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious.  Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype.  My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.

So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?

I made a career out of going to therapy.  While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging.  She was in my head.  I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence.  My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me.  It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good.  She was a bully.  So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people.  Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.

I practiced being assertive.  This is still very difficult for me.  I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents.  I recall saying no to my mother only one time.  She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back.  My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam.  You just didn’t say no to him.  Ever.  I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary.  I will stand up for myself and other people.  So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.

I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature.  What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person.  Believe me, they won’t.  We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature.  It is, however, worth nothing that women  have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.

“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I was definitely raised like this.  It wasn’t a choice.  It was a necessity.  For survival.  There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that.  I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son.  They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family.  The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women.  This spans the gender gap.

I also thought that this was the way of the world:

“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind.  There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:

“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.

Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries.  And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any.  I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin.  After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.

What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:

1. Ask for what you want and deserve.

Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.

2. Say no.

People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.

3. Speak up.

If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.

4. Stand your ground.

There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.

5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.

Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)

My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing.  Some things stick around in our minds.  We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things.  It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength.  Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand.  So, we cannot forget.  You are resilient today because you were once hurt then.  And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today.  I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me.  I’m still me.  There is no power in that place anymore.  That is why I remember.  Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories.  The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.

May you forge new victories as you keep going.

Further Reading:

Choosing the Healing Path

To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother.  My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders.  When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies.  In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:

 Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.

 Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.

 It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.

 The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.

 Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).

 Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,

 Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,

 Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),

 Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)

 Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),

 Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.

 is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with.  What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control.  With my mother, it was both.  It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment.  Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.

She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment.  I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror.  It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious.  In her worst rages, she could become homicidal.  To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party.  No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors.  They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.”  If only it were that easy…

So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually.  I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children.  That was over ten years ago.  It’s funny how something starts.  She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business.  She decided not to speak to me.  That was her M.O.  Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow.  The kowtowing was very important.  She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again.  If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode.  Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway.  This time, however, I didn’t call her.  I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script.  I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me.  I am her daughter after all.

She never did.  For years.  In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics.  I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was.  I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother.  I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage.  Anything.  I lacked any distress tolerance for it.  I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger.  My first response is to run away as fast as I can.

My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry.  I’m not now.  So, how are you? I want to visit.”  Four years.  I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement.  I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong.  I then ended the conversation.  Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving.  Usually in December.  Some of them are twisted and strange.  Some of them blame me for her misery.  Some of them plead with me.  The 2017 Letter was different.

This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy.  She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior.  She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way.  She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life.  She apologized.  My mother doesn’t say things like this.  I was shocked.  She asked if we could talk.  I thought about it for six weeks.

I decided to send her my email and cell number.  She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year.  After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her.  I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always.  Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.

I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn.  It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends.  It is hers.  Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls.  No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process.  Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call.  But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people.  It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.

I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore.  I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her.  I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing.  I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person.  And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation.  It could be almost anything really.

I don’t feel angry towards her anymore.  I feel at ease.  I do, however, feel disappointed.  So much was possible and went unrealized.

My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD.  She is herself.  My experience with her is unique unto itself.  So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing.  What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood.  It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.

You heal you.  Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals.  Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you.  Staying willing.  Pushing through.  Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships.  Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love.  This is what heals you.  And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you.  You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life.  Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward.  That’s the definition of survival.  That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.

That is something I have learned along the way.  As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.

Healing Past Trauma in The Present

I have been trying to find an appropriate way to write about a particular “emotional” experience that I have endured for years.  I wouldn’t blog about this were it not for the fact that most survivors of trauma seem to experience something quite similar.  What is it?

It isn’t exactly the Foreshortened Future experience, and it isn’t the “catastrophizing” thought distortion either.  One could say that it is a combination of both.  It is somewhat unique unto itself.  Essentially, it is a fundamental feeling of dread that something terrible is going to happen.  It usually comes out of nowhere most often when nothing terribly stressful is happening and particularly when you’re feeling happy.  It almost feels like you’re being watched, but it’s not paranoia.  As if Life Itself is watching you.  Waiting to destroy your happiness.  To inflict something torturous and terrible on you.  It is the emotional experience of “the other shoe is going to drop” x 100.

It creates fear and panic.  An anxiety extraordinaire.  And no matter what I’ve done in terms of CBT, DBT, EMDR, and therapy, this flavor of terror has stubbornly stuck around.  I’ve grown so tired of it that I generally don’t discuss it when it strikes.  I live with it until it passes.  It is so familiar to me.  I cognize myself out of it, and my therapists praise me for that.  I don’t feel good about it.  I feel exhausted and somewhat defeated.  This just doesn’t feel good enough.

In the midst of one of these unusual “anxiety attacks”, a friend suggested I try breathing essential oils.  There are some oils that are particularly good at crossing the blood-brain barrier and affecting the limbic system.  I had those oils on hand.  I gave it a shot, and it was effective.  I was pleasantly surprised.  She then suggested that I introduce some cognitions while smelling the oils the next time.  This experience felt very similar to EMDR using essential oils (and I do not recommend doing that if you have a lot of unresolved trauma because it was remarkably potent).

What came to mind, quite out of the blue, during that most particular feeling of dread was an ordeal from my time with trafficking.  It came so far out of left field that it stunned me.  I said out loud, “What does that have to do with anything?”

I’ll write about it here because I think that it is so important in terms of present experiences of trauma and anxiety that we can experience.  I did not receive any justice in terms of the legal system regarding my trafficking experience.  I got away and survived it.  The man who abducted me was never caught, but he knew where I lived.  And, he knew where I was going to go for college.  He made threats to find me and murder me when I was in the trafficking environment should I try to escape.  Law enforcement agents explained to me that should I see him, I was to notify them, but they admitted that I was vulnerable to “secondary contact”.   For at least two years, I lived with feelings of terror and dread that he would find me again.  I had nightmares.  I looked over my shoulder.  I checked and double-checked my car.  I wouldn’t go anywhere alone.  Whenever I relaxed enough to start to enjoy myself, I suddenly couldn’t because he might show up.  That might be the time that he would make good on his threats.  It probably took a full five years to stop looking over my shoulder and another ten to stop believing that, at some point, he was going to find me and kill me.  My heart still skips a beat today if I see someone who resembles him.

How does this connect to the present dreadful anxiety attacks? I suspect that what is happening today are actually the same feelings of dread that were related to the post-traumatic experience of leaving the trafficking environment, but they have lost their context.  Those feelings were never processed.  So, they continue to play out until they are processed.  I never talked about them.  There was no one to talk to during that time.  I just had to start college and pretend that none of it ever happened.  Those feelings are so strong today because I was in a marriage that triggered those feelings of dread and enlivened them.  They are now front and center.  They appear as an emotional flashback void of visual cues.  The way to deal with them properly is to go all the way back to their source, but, if you have profound trauma, do not do that alone.  You need the guidance and support of a trained clinician.

I am always fascinated by how we function.  Our brains seem to be fighting us, but they aren’t.  We just lack information.  What amazes me more is that when we’re finally able to listen and receive information, our brains speak to us.  When I finally sat down and asked, the memory came forward clearly.  I almost dismissed it because it made no sense to me.

I encourage you to take time out of your day or week to journal or pay attention to what your mind is offering.  Some of it is white noise and cognitive distortions, but not all of it.

And, if you really want to look into something interesting, then check this out:

Emotional Release with Essential Oils

 

 

The Holiday Revisited

My daughters and I did something a bit unusual for us yesterday.  For the first time in my life and henceforth theirs, we did not celebrate Christmas Eve.  When I was married, our family was interfaith in terms of family tradition, and my family of origin defines the word complex in terms of faith traditions.  This year, we celebrated Hanukkah, but it wasn’t quite that easy.  I grew up amongst Scandinavians.  Dyed in the wool Scandinavians.  For my family, Christmas is all about the traditions.  The food.  The holiday decor.  The annual trek to Ingebretsen’s for the food.  The music.  It was never about the gifts.  It was an excuse to be Swedish or Norwegian.  I mean, to really be Swedish or Norwegian.

I have always associated Christmas with Scandinavia.  With my grandparents.  With their home cultures.  And with very cold weather.  It has never felt like a spiritual tradition to me for this reason, I suspect.

So, yesterday, Christmas Eve, the evening upon which all good Scandis celebrate Christmas, I did not.  This year, my daughters and I re-examined our family traditions.  Going forward, what do we want to keep, and what do we want to leave behind as we re-create our family?

A divorce changes everything.  In our case, it changed it for the better, but the dynamic in our home is still vastly different now.  We can practice Judaism openly without fear of reprisal from family members.  We do not have to keep anything for the sake of keeping it just to appease–to keep a false peace.  We can be deliberate about our practices, and that freedom to choose feels like a privilege.

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So, what did we do? This might sound funny, but…we watched Christmas movies all day.  We stayed in our pajamas and chose movies that we liked or remembered liking.  “White Christmas” was the front runner.  I made the traditional cookies that my Great Aunt Evelyn always made during the holidays while we lounged and reminisced.  The last movie of the night was Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday”.  I saw this movie in the cinema in 2006 which blows my mind because I so clearly remember it.  The part that hit a nerve in me when I saw it then and nearly ran me over last night was Kate Winslet’s monologue:

“What I am trying to say is I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible. And how it can actually ache in places that you didn’t know you had inside you. And it doesn’t matter how many new hair cuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of Chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends. You still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. And sometimes you can even convince yourself that he’ll see the light and show up at your door.

And after all that, however long all that may be, you’ll go somewhere new, and you’ll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again, and little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all that fuzzy stuff, those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.”

In 2006, as I sat in the dark of the theatre watching Winslet so brilliantly speak out these words, I ached inside.  I knew that something was terribly wrong in my life then.  I knew that I was diminishing.  I was not on the right path.  I wasn’t playing the right part.  The character of Arthur Abbott, played by Eli Wallach, remarks to Iris, Winslet’s character, during their first dinner together why she is miserable in her life:

Arthur Abbott: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.

Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake! Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. That was brilliant. Brutal, but brilliant.

That is what struck me last night eleven years after I’d seen this movie for the first time.  You know, if I could sum up why we go to therapy, it would be Arthur Abbott’s remarks–to learn to play the leading role in our own lives.  Not a supporting role to someone trying to usurp that role in our lives.  To be the star of our own story.  It isn’t an elegant process that happens in two weeks as it does in “The Holiday”, but it can happen.

So, that is what I would wish for all of you as 2017 comes to a close.  I wish for all of us that we would become the leading men and women of our lives–the stars of our stories.  The stories might be adventure, fantasy, romantic comedy, drama, slapstick, epic, or sitcom.  It’s my guess that they will be all of the above.

May it be a life worth living and story worth telling in the end.

Shalom and keep going.

And Merry Christmas, everyone!

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…