Nine Things I’ve Learned

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

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“Where do I begin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ

The New Year Begins

Happy New Year, y’all!

So far, 2018 has been eventful.  Two weird things have happened.  I shall begin with grad school.

I just started my second year at a Traditional Chinese medical school.  Only three more to go!

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Anyway, I have zero complaints about my program excepting one.  His name is Sean, and he’s been harassing me for about a year.  I didn’t recognize his behavior as harassment until it was pointed out to me and labeled as such.  I thought he was just a really annoying, clueless arse of a guy who needed some serious mentoring.

Last Friday, I reported his behavior to one of my professors in an attempt to get some advice.  Sean is in one of my classes this term, and he targeted me in class almost as soon as class began.  He then used your run-of-the-mill intimidation tactics later on the same day.  I found his behavior to be annoying at best and fear inducing at worst.  My professor happened to be the newly appointed chair of the Bio-Western Medicine Department; I didn’t know that.  With that position comes legal responsibilities such as mandated reporting.  After I ran my situation by him, he went ballistic.

He has a strong “dad energy” about him and an established moral code.  My seeking advice on whether I should ask the teacher of my shared class with Sean to run interference for me turned into a huge legal matter.  The college’s attorneys were called.  I had to write a statement for a legal record.  I now require escorts.  The police may be notified in order to establish a better record.  They will seek to expel Sean due to the nature of his harassment.  Frankly, I was and continue to be stunned.

And, I’m now somewhat scared.  I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks.  Sean is also retaliatory.

So, as I pondered all my interactions with Sean as I wrote out the disclosure, I wondered why I waited so long to say anything.  Why did I not report the harassment sooner?

I think the primary reason that I didn’t report anything was that I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was truly sexual harassment.  I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace before, and it was severe.  A fellow employee started with highly inappropriate remarks like, “Wow, you look really wet today.”  If I he found out that I had been on a date, he would pass my desk and taunt me: “I bet you rode that guy like a bucking bronco…”  Finally, one day, he cornered me in the women’s bathroom and refused to let me leave.  To me, this is a clear example of sexual harassment.

I reported him after a few months of his on-going acts, and the company fired me.  Not him.  They were in the middle of an IPO and didn’t want any trouble.  That’s how it was twenty years ago.  If a woman reported sexual harassment, she was often not believed, or she was punished in some way.

In this case, I had to ask myself if I was still operating under that premise.  No.  That wasn’t it.  What caused my inaction? I think that one of the primary causes of my personal confusion was the fact that there were witnesses to almost all of Sean’s misbehavior, and no one acted surprised or indicated that his actions were out of the norm or a violation of social mores–save one person.  She and I both agreed that he should not be working with patients.  He was predatory.  Neither of us knew what to do about it.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to us to report him.

I realized yesterday that we do look to those around us to gauge the normalcy of a situation.  If everyone seems okay with someone else’s behavior but I’m not, then what? Am I overly sensitive? Do I have a reason to feel uncomfortable? Am I easily “triggered” because of past trauma? There is a lot of room for self-judgment here, and other people judge, too.  There is such a long tradition of sexual misconduct and its normalization within our culture.  Simply look at Harvey Weinstein and the narrative accounts that have exploded and expanded around him.  His actions against women are utterly deplorable, and many people knew what he was doing.  There is no defending him.  And yet when questioned, the people who lived and worked around him say, “Well, he was a terrible guy, but we didn’t know he was doing that…”

That isn’t true because when these same people are pushed to tell the truth, they confess, “I suspected, but I was afraid of him.  I didn’t want to lose my job.”

Fear of retaliation is a very real thing.  Fear of not being believed, I think, is the other reason people don’t report.  Bullying and sexual harassment are largely normalized behaviors, and targets of said behaviors have to prove that they didn’t misunderstand the “attention” far more than the accused has to prove, well, anything.  Women also have the burden of defending their lifestyles, choice of clothing, and sobriety in terms of whether or not they made themselves vulnerable to harassment.

In fact, sexual crimes against men and women are the only crimes in which a perpetrator can openly admit to the crime but be declared innocent of any wrongdoing.  What do I mean by this?

If a man is accused of sexual assault, he could say that he was confused because the woman was dressed quite scantily.  He thought she was interested in him sexually, and he never recalled her saying ‘no’.  This explanation is still enough in some states to exonerate someone.  He could even admit to raping her and still use this explanation and muddy the waters.  If a woman got drunk at a party and became apparently flirtatious even to the point of dancing in only her underwear, a man could rape her and claim that he misunderstood because she was almost naked.  And, he could go so far as to say that he heard her say ‘no’, but her state of drunken undress communicated–to him–otherwise.  She would then be blamed for her sexual assault and told to keep her clothes on and refrain from drinking at parties.

Now, if we apply this logic to other crimes, then anyone standing outside holding their wallet would be blamed for getting mugged.  A thief could easily say, “Well, they were holding their wallet right in front of me.  I assumed they wanted me to have it.  So, I took it.”  Car thieves should be jacking far more cars since cars are everywhere.  If it’s in public and on display, then isn’t that an invitation to steal it? Well, no, that’s just ludicrous.

And yet we still blame victims of sexual crimes and find ways to normalize myriad forms of sexual harassment.  Women, I have found, are especially good at this particularly when they witness it, and I have been wondering why this is.  I wonder if it’s because most women have been sexually harassed at one time or another, and we have grown accustomed to it.  Perhaps we don’t recognize it when we see it, or we believe that we just have to put up with it because it’s just part of being female.  Sort of like cramps.  We see another woman enduring harassment, and we shrug.  Welcome to the world, honey.  It’s a man’s world.  Get used to it.

Also, many successful men and women are often judged to have domineering, entitled personalities.  Women can sexually harass, too, and the idea of ambitious, entitled, mercurial personalities binging on success and bringing in loads of money to corporations is practically a trope.  With that cliché comes the meme of the handsy boss who takes what s/he wants, and everyone who works with him/her just has to put up with it.  This is exactly why Harvey Weinstein got away with rape and sexual harassment for so long in Hollywood.  It is, in part, why sexual harassment in work and educational environments is known about and tacitly condoned–these people are really good at what they do.  So what’s a little ass-grabbing here and there?

I think the tide is changing around this issue.  That may be why my college is taking such swift action.  I am not especially angry about any of this.  I have questions more than anything.  How could this have gone on for a year? Why didn’t I recognize it for what it was? Why didn’t anyone else even after witnessing it? Sexual harassment is very slippery and hard to pin down, and it is this way by nature.  It is subjective in experience, and, when left unchecked, it can become dangerous.  This is where I’m at now.  He has the potential to become retaliatory, but that is something that can be reported to both the school and police.  I watched and waited for too long.

The other weird thing that occurred happened yesterday as I was studying.  A patron of Caribou Coffee approached me as I was hard at work, nose deep in my text books.  He is a rather inappropriate personality, always telling disgustingly shocking jokes involving body parts and sex.  I have never liked him.  And, he loves to find me when I’m sitting in the corner unable to flee so that he can blitz me with his dirty jokes.

Yesterday, however, he apologized to me for “being that guy”.  He explained that he had been at a bar and witnessed another man harassing women with shock jokes and crude sexual energy.  He observed how the women responded to him, and he didn’t like it.  He realized that he was that guy.  He said that he knew he needed to grow up and stop.  His mother had recently passed, and he wanted to do something better with his life.

I was truly surprised to hear him say this.  Sometimes I feel a little cynical and wonder if people want to be better.  He did.  It was a welcome reminder considering the circumstances.

People can and do change.

So, what does 2018 hold then? Well, I think I can say for sure that it is worth investing energy in your own safety and personal care.  What you would do and want for others close to you, you must do and want for yourself.  This is how my boyfriend put it to me last night as I was voicing my concerns over this current legal matter.  He asked, “What would you do or want for one of your daughters if they were dealing with a guy like Sean at their college?”

Are you kidding? I would be driving to school daily to pick them up and lining up escorts until it was all settled.  I would be seeing to their personal sense of safety 24/7.  He indicated that this was what I should be enforcing for myself.  Oh boy…

So, for you, whatever situation you may find yourself in currently, ask yourself how you would handle it were it happening to someone beloved by you.  Then, apply that answer to yourself.  That is your standard.  It’s hard, isn’t it? This is the beginning of self-compassion.

Perhaps this is the theme of 2018.  Practicing self-compassion.

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This is really worth exploring says MJ

Do for yourself what you would do for others.  This is an outstanding starting point when you don’t know what to do.

Happy New Year once again.

Keep going…

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.

 

 

 

 

The Neuroscience behind Feeling Stuck

I have recently been reading a lot of material on the endocrine system and neurology.  Why? Anatomy and Physiology II.  Brain, brain, brain, brain.  What I’ve learned, aside from more than I ever expected to know about hormones, is that distress of all kinds is really bad for the body.  Really bad.  It is chemically bad.  Our bodies secrete so many chemicals in response to real and perceived stressors, and prolonged exposure to those chemicals do damage to our vessels and surrounding tissues–to our brains.  We are not meant to marinate in our adrenal gland’s hormones, but we do.  More and more.  What is one stressor that might cause said marination? Trauma.  And, that trauma can be early childhood or yesterday’s car crash.  Time isn’t a factor.

Outside of A&P II, I’ve been reading about trauma and the brain because I want to find some answers to my own questions.  I came across a quote online somewhere a few days ago that said that trauma is an “unfinished event”.  Initially, I did not like this interpretation of trauma.  An unfinished event? What does that mean? It bugged me all week.  Then, I heard it again this morning! I was watching an explanatory video on The Hakomi Method in which Ron Kurtz, founder of the method, was illustrating a point by discussing a session he had with a client.  His client had an experience in session in which he recalled being hit by a car and waking up in the hospital with a priest performing something like a blessing or even the last rites over him.  He was consequently filled with dread in the past and in the present as he recalled it.  Kurtz explained that his client was experiencing an unfinished fear.  He had never had the opportunity to fully process that experience–or finish it.  So, the client’s wife, who had been present in session, held him in order to soothe and console him while Ron talked him through the rest of the experience.  His client finished experiencing his trauma in order to finish experiencing his fear.  He processed that trauma.  I was intrigued and emotionally stirred.

Dr. Mark Brady describes the early phase of recalling traumatic memories as such:

Extensive research suggests that early terrifying experiences take up residence in implicit (unconscious) memory networks primarily on the right side of the brain. These memories essentially compromise the flow of electro-chemical energy and information. In response to overwhelming experiences, our neural networks abruptly inhibit the firing of action potentials (nerve impulses) in the brain so as to cause the adrenal glands to stop flooding both brain and body with excessive amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. In the amounts generated by life-threatening emergencies, without this safety shutoff, that quantity of stress hormones would do even worse damage than the trauma itself. The lived experience feels like going numb or being checked out – dissociated. But that’s not the end of it.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

I am all too familiar with this experience.  Does it resonate with you? When I recall past trauma that has not been processed, this is exactly what I feel like.  I have, in the past, mistaken my numbness or emotional detachment for being completely fine.  I used to think that it meant that I was presently okay with whatever happened way back when.  Hardly.  Dr. Brady is describing the “back end” of your emotional and affected experiences.  The inner workings of your mind.  Whether you know it or not, your brain is your friend.  It is the modulator of your emotional experiences.  It allows you to recall and cognitively experience a memory, but it’s not going to allow you to experience the emotional contents of said memory at the same time–unless you go mining and break into buried compartments.  In other words, your brain is trying to titrate your emotional experiences so that you are not overwhelmed or overdosed by your own traumatic experiences.

Brady goes on to say:

“The brain knows when its functioning has been compromised by traumatic experience. As a consequence it seems to constantly attempt to identify or morph people, places and familiar environments into circumstances where its impoverished networks can be rekindled and activated, ideally for integrative re-connectivity. In both the incidents I’ve just described, that didn’t happen. Abdication (flight) is not integration.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

The aforementioned remark is absolutely vital to me in terms of understanding ourselves and creating a roadmap out of our suffering.  What do I mean by this? Take a moment to consider your uniquely personal Distortion Machine.  What is the Distortion Machine? It is the name I’ve given to that harassing voice inside your mind that never shuts up.  It is the Malicious Storyteller.  It is the voice that always says, “What if…what if…what if…” followed by hundreds if not thousands of possible detailed scenarios usually involving your downfall.

  • “What if you trust this person and they betray you just like everyone else you’ve trusted?”
  • “What if you try your hardest and fail?  Again.”
  • “What if your house is struck by lightning and burns to the ground?”
  • “What if you never meet anyone and you die all alone and they find your body all decayed and partially eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you really do look terrible in those pants and no one has the balls to tell you because everyone just feels sorry for you because they all know that you will never meet anyone and will most certainly die alone and will for sure be eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you’re just stupid?”
  • “What if your parents were right about you all along?”
  • “What if it was really all your fault?”
  • “What if you really do have a snaggle tooth?”
  • “What if no one really likes you at all?”
  • “What if you choke and you’re by yourself and you can’t give yourself the Heimlich maneuver and you die…once again to be found partially eaten by the neighbor’s Great Dane.  Or…just your cats?”
  • “What if you get in a terrible car accident because someone is texting while driving?”
  • “What if he decides he doesn’t want you anymore? Out of the blue? And you don’t see it coming? What if you can’t adapt to that? What if something terrible happens and it finally breaks you? What if…you just can’t get up again…?”
  • “What did she mean about you when she said that? What if she is looking for a way out of this relationship?”

Do you notice the mix of absurdity, fear, and preoccupation with the past that paves the road into your future? The past is informing the present which kindles anxiety and fear about what might happen in the near or distant future? Some of this seems absolutely far-fetched.  Lightning striking a house? Being eaten by cats? Choking to death? Car accidents? These are all examples of cognitive distortions that fall under the heading of catastrophizing, and I do this all the time.  My brain is usually set off when I’m relaxed and happy.  It’s as if it cannot stand to be at peace, and I cannot stand that my brain must kill off my serenity.

For example, if I get my hair done and it looks good, then I usually hear something like: “What if it all falls out? What if you get cancer and have to have chemotherapy and lose all your hair?” When I have a good coffee date with a friend, I might hear, “What if they get tired of you? What if they find out how weird you are?” I am left dragging my self-esteem and bedraggled brain home feeling like this:

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Why does this happen? I have an answer (sort of), and it begins and ends in your brain.  The first thing to understand is that our brains do not live in the past.  I thought that mine did.  I was wrong.  Our brains live in the future.  Our brains are continually looking for patterns based upon past experiences in order to predict outcomes so that we might have a sense of what to expect which allows us to plan a trajectory with a reasonable amount of certainty.  Our brains do this all the time with very few data points without your conscious input.  Also, our brains fill in the gaps between those data points with whatever is available be it past, present, or available data.  In other words, our brains make shit up, and we are completely unaware of this.  We are operating on false premises most of the time, but this is a necessary evil because we would not be functional or decisive if our brains failed to do this.

Think of all the unknowns that surround us second-to-second.  Is that coffee too hot to drink? Did that barista really put almond milk in my latte? Was that really a car backfiring, or was someone shooting a gun? Should I cross the street, or will a car careen out of control from out of nowhere and run me down? Is that dog friendly? Are all these strangers safe? Is there E. coli in my spinach leaves? Should I drink this water? How do I know that someone in this movie theatre isn’t concealing a weapon? How do I know that someone didn’t lick that penny that I just picked up off the ground? We are faced with too many decisions to consider on a daily basis.  Our unconscious brain must act for us all the time in order for us to maintain higher functionality–just to make it through the day.

Enter outlier events.  When you have trauma in your past, your trauma becomes a data point for your brain, but traumatic events should be logged under “outlier events”.  In other words, traumatic events should not be considered viable data points when your brain is constructing its premises and making its decisions.  Think of statistics.  How do we calculate an average? Before we calculate an average, we throw out the outliers: the highest number and the lowest number.  Then, we calculate our average.  Past traumatic events in our lives are part of the outlier numbers–the highest and lowest numbers.  Outside the bell curve if you will.  You cannot consider them as a possible data point for a future set of possibilities, and yet our brains do this all the time.

This is why my brain is the Malicious Storyteller.  The majority of my past events are highly traumatic.

  • “What if he turns out to be a liar and dupes you?”
  • “What if he tries to kill you?”
  • “What if you die in a terrible accident?”
  • “What if everyone leaves you?”
  • “What if it’s really true about you? What if you are disposable?”
  • “What if you get eaten by a wild animal while you’re still alive?”

I know that all of these sound ridiculous, but all of the aforementioned “What ifs…” have happened to me.  I have been duped.  I have almost died in a car accident.  I have been threatened with being eaten alive by wild animals while in the trafficking environment.  I have been tortured.  I have been abandoned and left to fight for my life.  I was young, and these events happened years ago.  These are all outlier events, but my brain does not know that.  To my brain, these are all data points.  These are legitimate possibilities that must be considered.  Some of these old traumas became new again in my marriage during re-traumatization.

Enter the habenula.  What is that? The habenula is part of the diencephalon and, together with the pineal gland, makes up a structure called the epithalamus.  It is a tiny mass of cells about the size of half a pea.  “The habenula tracks our experiences, responding more the worse something is expected to be,” said senior author Dr. Jonathan Roiser of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.”  (Medical Daily) .

The habenula is involved in many, many of your brain’s activities, but it really gets involved when your brain starts storytelling and predicting.

“Previous neuroscience studies have shown how animals will exhibit avoidance behaviors following activity in their habenulas. Researchers watched as cells fired within animals’ habenula whenever bad things happened, or were simply anticipated to occur. Activity in this region is known to suppress dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine not only enables us to see rewards, but also to take action and move toward them. Significantly, the habenula has also been linked to depression.

For the current study, the researchers began by enrolling 23 healthy volunteers. First, participants were positioned inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, while the researchers collected brain images of high enough resolution to capture activity in the tiny habenula. Then, volunteers observed a random sequence of pictures, with each followed by figures depicting the chance of a good or bad outcome. Occasionally, volunteers pressed a button simply to show they were paying attention. Watching, the researchers discovered how habenula activation tracked the changing expectation of bad and good events. In particular, Roiser noted how the habenula didn’t just express whether something would lead to a negative event or not, it also signaled (with its increased activity) “how much bad outcomes are expected.” (Medical Daily)

Now, with that in mind, take a look at this study.  Put on your thinking hat:

“Under repeated or continuous stress, animals and humans may show depression-like behaviour, as proposed by the ‘learned helplessness theory’64 and the ‘rank theory’112 of depression. In both schemes, depression is considered to be a form of behavioural adaptation to adverse conditions. More importantly, in the state of depression sensitization of the LHb-dopamine and LHb-serotonin circuits seems to occur (FIG. 2c). Indeed, in humans with depression and in animal models of depression the LHb (lateral habenula) becomes hyperactive12,83. This may cause the general motor suppression (through inhibition of dopamine neurons) as well as the mood changes (through changes in serotonin transmission) that are associated with depression.

Thus far, I have proposed that the habenula evolved as a general motor controller that was originally devoted to circadian control of behaviour. According to my hypothesis, at some point in evolution the brain areas that encode aversive signals acquired connections to the habenula. The habenula then became a suppressor of motor activities in response to, or in anticipation of, aversive events.” (The habenula: from stress evasion to value-based decision making)

What does all this mean?

“The researchers believe their study suggests how a hyperactive habenula might cause people to make disproportionately negative predictions, while also being involved whenever people feel pessimism and low motivation, or when they focus on negative experiences.” (Medical Daily)

What do I think this is? I suspect that this is a form of learned helplessness (LH) due to past exposure to trauma in which the victim of trauma had no control over the trauma and no means to escape the trauma.  There are numerous studies available for review on LH (search PubMed).  Clinicians are trying to assess how to help victims of trauma overcome LH as well as study the etiology of LH.  LH perpetuates depression, and perceived re-traumatization exacerbates LH in those with PTSD even when there is a means of escape and control over the duration and exposure to the trauma.  Based upon the animal studies, coping style and personality can often determine how one deals with later exposure to trauma or reminders of past trauma.  In addition to this, the neurochemistry of the brain is changed sometimes for the worse after trauma exposure hindering recovery.

Okaaaaay, but how can I make this practical? I like knowing what is happening in my brain.  It helps me feel better about myself for some reason.  My brain is just doing what it was designed to do (or getting in my way).  That being said, now what? What can I do to help myself?

  • Shut it down.  The Storyteller has nothing good to say.  It’s like listening to a maniacally deluded weatherman predict the weather:
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    “Run! Get inside! It will be raining fire and dragons! FIRE! DRAGONS! RUUUUUUN!”
  • Find and activate your imagination by bringing forth colors, music, scenes, and images that you like whenever you begin to hear the Storyteller’s voice. For some reason, the imagery that you choose to conjure which springs forth from the right hemisphere of the brain can often overpower the words of the Storyteller, which you didn’t choose.  This actually works.
  •  Change your language.  Stop referring to what caused your PTSD as a trauma.  Start using the word ‘injury’.  You were injured after all.  You do not have an illness.  You have an injury, and you are engaged in a process to heal from that injury that you received by no fault of your own.  You might be surprised at how effective this one linguistic change can be.
  • Change your perspective.  “One of the keys to Time Perspective Therapy is the realization that we always have the choice to change how we view the times of our lives. Over the course of Time Perspective Therapy, PTSD sufferers move away from a narrow focus on the traumatic past and a cynical present and the possibility of ever achieving a hopeful future. Instead they journey toward a balanced time perspective in which it seems possible once again to live a full and promising life.This concept is reflected in ordinary language that time perspective therapists use. Most people suffering from PTSD have already been labeled as anxious, depressed, or even mentally ill. When they hear these words, and identify with them, the possibility of ever emerging from such a state feels very distant. Reframing their ‘‘illness’’ as an ‘‘injury,’’ and recasting their depression and anxiety as a ‘‘negative past’’ that they can replace with a ‘‘positive present’’ and ‘‘brighter future’’—and ultimately with a balanced time perspective—may seem overly simplistic, especially to those trained in psychotherapy. But to PTSD sufferers, the idea of having a forward-leaning framework in which to understand and work on their issues most often comes as an enormous relief and a welcome ray of light in the darkness.  The image below illustrates how in Time Perspective Therapy (TPT), we show people how to lift their back foot that is stuck in the muck and mire of the traumatic past while standing firmly on the ground of the solid present, and place it into a brighter future.” (Your Brain on Trauma)
    Source: Noah Milich
    So, there it is.  There is so much happening in our brains all the time, and we don’t even know it.  We can, however, make small changes when we feel well or even relatively okay to create habits that will make all the difference when we don’t feel well.  When the Storyteller comes for us.  When it starts raining fire and dragons and Paradise is lost.  Or, at least, when it feels that way.  So, the next time you feel adrift, panicked, and awash in “What ifs”, remember your habenula.  Remember to throw out your outliers before you let your Storyteller even try to calculate potential outcomes.  And, don’t forget to activate your imagination and silence your verbal processing.  Take in some beautiful images and music to silence that Inner Torquemada and overcome that sense of learned helplessness.

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Is it a tall order? Maybe.  But, every tiny effort is still an effort.  Be proud.

Keep going.

MJ

 

The Prison of Maladaptive Behaviors

I am an independent person by nature.  I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11 years-old suddenly making me the youngest of three girls.  My developing personality came to a grinding halt.  I didn’t know my place in my family anymore nor did I like my new stepsisters.  They didn’t like me either.  I look back and cringe particularly if there are family photos involved.  I did not make that transition gracefully.  As I got older, however, that new family became my family; I learned all sorts of things in that family, and then my mother and stepfather divorced a few months before I graduated from high school.  And, I left for the East Coast never to return to Texas again except for a funeral and to visit one of my stepsisters years later.

I learned that remaining independent–fiercely independent–was a good thing.  Self-reliant.  Literally.  I learned to rely on myself first and foremost to get things done.  My mother was too unstable and self-involved to count on for legitimate help.  My stepfather was too beholden to her for his emotional stability and sense of self for any kind of authentic help.  When the dreaded Choose-A-College time came around, I picked a women’s college and handled all the financial aid on my own–tax documentation and paperwork included.  I drove to college by myself.  I drove across the country numerous times alone, and it didn’t seem that dangerous or odd to me.  I spent days in hospitals alone.  Endured painful medical testing.  Alone.  As a teenager.  In my mind, I had to normalize this.  This, for me, had to become a social and emotional norm in order to be tolerated.

I once got into a serious car accident in an ice storm in Pennsylvania on one of my solitary cross-country road trips returning to college.  I remember knowing that it was serious.  I remember realizing that my car had fallen into a ravine and was not visible from the road.  I also realized, at the time, that I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t get out and go for help.  I have so many stories like this, and I’ve met many, many people who do as well.  You learn, by force of circumstance, that you must take care of yourself because there is no one who will do that for you.  You are on your own in the world.  Rely on yourself because you can always count on yourself.  You won’t betray you.  This becomes hard-wired.  It is the truth for you.  It has to be.  There is no other way to survive your life if you believe otherwise.

Then, long-term relationships enter the picture.  People expect to be trusted.  They want to be trusted and feel needed, but I’ve got this hard-wired belief that backs certain behaviors: “Trust myself.  Depend on myself.  Rely only on myself.”  I have saved my own ass countless times! I also have good evidence from past significant relationships and experiences, mostly from my family of origin (FOO), that my inner prosecutor can whip out anytime to prove that people are untrustworthy and not to be counted on.  People will fail you and even hurt you when you count on them.  Worse, they will attach strings or conditions to their help if and when they give it.

So, how does this work out? I either end up in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and happy not to be needed, thusly, enabling my extreme self-reliance, or I am challenged to discard my maladaptive extreme self-reliance and begin trusting people by asking for help while also offering help.  An even, reciprocal exchange and trust-building, relational exercises.  It feels aversive and gives me emotional hives.

This type of extreme self-reliance is, of course, a conditioned response.  It is an adaptation made to fit into and survive a particular environment.  I was very self-reliant when I got married, but I had expectations that I would be able to relax into a different kind of relationship once I was married.  I asked my husband for help quite often.  He rarely gave it to me.  Initially, I thought it was immaturity.  It wasn’t.  It was personality-based, and it remained a consistent problem throughout our relationship.  A year and half before our marriage ended, he refused to go with me to a diagnostic mammogram that involved an impromptu biopsy because he “felt unwell”.  He did, however, go to work.  On the morning of the appointment, I actually summoned the courage to ask him for help.  I asked him to go with me because I was nervous–a rarity for me.  I asked him for help often enough in terms of tasks, but this was different.  Admitting to someone that you’re scared is different.  Asking for their presence to offset fear is showing vulnerability.  I wasn’t asking him to take out the trash.  I was asking him to be my partner.  To be an emotional support.

He acted predictably.  He was unwilling to support me.  When he was willing to be helpful, he helped but on his terms putting me in the position of beggar.  That kind of disempowerment became intolerable.  I finally stopped asking and fell back into my previous position–it is better to be completely self-reliant.  At least one gets to keep one’s dignity.  That was my default mode, and that is my struggle today.

Asking for help is my Achilles’ Heel.  I don’t value extraordinary self-reliance as a measure of character.  I’m not a pioneer or Ralph Waldo Emerson.  For me, depending upon other people for just about anything has led to punishment.  Relying on others=hot stove experiences.  Or some sort of humiliation.

Does this ring anyone’s bell?

Now, this is where I get to be my own therapist.  This core belief and “stance”, if you will, only successfully works if I’m interacting with my ex-husband or my family of origin.  I adapted to living with them both, and I survived both experiences.  I cannot, however, take that particular adaptation, or psycho-emotional template, and apply it to other relationships.  Suddenly, it becomes MALadaptive meaning that it will not work outside the environments in which it was developed.  It will wreck my other relationships and potentially hurt other people.

The opposite of this would be trusting untrustworthy people.  If I had a healthy approach to relationships in which I could ask for help, depend upon people appropriately while also relying on myself, too, then would I practice this kind of relationship approach in, say, the prison system? Or, would I be far better off using the “extreme self-reliance” approach? The latter, yes? The former would be maladaptive in a prison environment while the latter would be highly adaptive in an exploitative and violent setting.

The term “maladaptive” when applied to a behavior means that the behavior was adaptive or worked successfully in the original environment, but it does not work successfully outside of that environment.  A very concrete example of adapting our behaviors to environments would be speaking softly in libraries.  As soon as we enter libraries, we speak softly–for four reasons.

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  1. Social contract
  2. Respect for people reading and studying
  3. Fear of librarians who use shushing to warn and socially embarrass us
  4. Social embarrassment

When we leave the library, we resume speaking at a normal volume.  If we continued to speak at “library volume”, no one would understand us.  We would have failed to adapt to a new environment.  Our continued use of “library volume” would then be maladaptive.

In its most simplified terms, when we take behaviors that only serve us in abusive environments, be they extreme or not, and continue to use them in other environments where they do not work or are in no way understood by others, they lose their adaptive qualities.  We are the ones who are failing to adapt.  Often, we fail to adapt because we have come to believe something about people, the world, or ourselves based upon our experiences with a small group of people who were very important to us (our family and friends), or we had a very bad experience with a random person and developed beliefs about that event that we have generalized to every other random stranger (a random stranger mugged me on the street ergo all random strangers on the street might mug me at any time).

What is to be done about this? Maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are some of the primary reasons people go to therapy.  People survive abuse and continue to survive their lives because of these maladaptations, but they don’t often go beyond mere survival.  Maladaptations become a prison.  This I know a helluva lot about.  I have been asked to trust people and reach out when I need help.  You may as well ask me to drink poison.  That is how hard it is for me.  I have been conditioned from a very young age to solely rely on myself.  I have tried for years to overcome that, but I was met with such disdain and displeasure for even asking as if my need for companionship and aid from another human being was a sign of a character defect or congenital weakness.  It was used against me repeatedly and caused inordinate suffering and humiliation.

I resorted to what I knew.  I know that I did that.  It is harder now.  What eases the effort is viewing this as conditioning because that is what it is.  If I can be conditioned to rely on myself, then I can be conditioned through repeated positive experiences to rely on others in addition to myself.  The rub? You have to put yourself “out there” and ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable, and that can feel existentially terrifying.  It can lead to feelings of real panic particularly if the very reasons you are defaulting to extreme self-reliance have not be addressed or resolved.

This is what I know for certain.  You cannot grow beyond the point of survival and experience real intimacy with other people if you remain in the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and desolation.  It is impossible.  You must break that cycle, and one of the first ways that you do that is by reaching out.  Is it often anathema to you? Well, yes.  Who do you reach out to if you have zero safe people in your life? Get a therapist.  For real.  This is exactly what they are for.  They are there for practice.  They act as models for healthy human interactions.  They teach you how to adapt to new and healthy relationships, thusly, showing you where your maladaptive behaviors are, and they help you move from the maladaptive behaviors into new and better ones.

This is not pie in the sky.  This is all very real and possible.  It is hard and painful, but it is what must be done on the road towards healing and recovery.

Big Ideas in A Little Poem

When you are a parent, partner, and all-around Make It Happen person, it can feel like there is no room for “flow” or peace.  When the buck stops with you, you never stop running, anticipating, planning, deciding, problem solving, observing, fixing, and repairing.  That’s me.  I’m the Make It Happen person in my life.  In my home.  In my domain.

Does anyone relate to this?

If there’s a problem, then you have to fix it.

If anything needs to be done, then you do it.

If anything needs solving, then you solve it.

This was generally clear to me when I was married.  This is now crystal clear to me now that I am not.  If I even see a potential problem, I can’t just let it be.  I am compelled to fix it before it becomes a real problem.  I define hypervigilance.

I never shut off.  Burnout, anyone?

Consequently, I have little to no hobbies.  I don’t read for pleasure.  I’m studying, but I used to almost solely read nonfiction because I was, once again, attempting to solve some health or circumstantial riddle.  Any free time I might have my children manage to sniff out and find creative ways to fill.  I don’t know how they manage to do that.

So, when I came across Rev. Safire Rose’s poem, I had to read it more than once.  Twice.  Ten times.

She Let Go: A Poem

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go.  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.

– Reverend Safire Rose

Let go.  Let go? Let it be? Let it all be? That just sounds anathema to me, and yet it also sounds appealing.

How do you feel when you read this?

What comes to mind for me is that hypervigilance is adaptive when you’re living in an intense environment.  It works well.  It helps you survive.  Being a troubleshooting go-getter is a good quality.  Knowing how to survive the most complex of circumstances is great.  But, at some point, we either bring that adaptation down from DEFCON 2 to DEFCON 4 or even 5 so that it doesn’t become maladaptive, or we continue to live our lives as if we are consistently under threat–even when we are not.  This destroys relationships, jobs, health, and hurts the people close to us.

So, what about that “letting go”? What would that look like? What about just stopping? Giving up the need to control everything? No consulting friends.  No journaling.  Just…doing it.  Well, that sounds unappealing, but it feels freeing at the same time, doesn’t it?

At the moment, I’m not sure what it would look like, but I can tell you that I will be thinking on it.  And if the idea of letting go feels too hard, then perhaps change the idea to something like this: “Loosen your grasp on things that you are trying to control.”

How does that sound?

Doable?

Maybe?

Shalom…