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.

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The Significance of Being Seen

After almost a year of grad school perhaps one might expect to feel like this:

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Sometimes, however, I swear the doctors are looking at me like this ::cough::Dr. Hong::cough::

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I suppose it goes with the territory.  Humility and feeling completely inadequate are better traits to have in a would-be medical professional than hubris and arrogance.  In the midst of raising teenagers, trying to keep my household running–and doing it very poorly I should add, I’m still riding the therapy train.

When I went to my regularly scheduled Tuesday appointment with the FNG, Jack, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I really require this in my life anymore.  I’ve been at this now for over two years.  I feel okay.  I really do.  I’m nowhere near where I was when I started in 2015.  My life is completely different now.  I’m different.”  So, I walked into his office open to talking but unsure of where to begin.  He is new.  My former therapist is gone, and I miss him.  He knew my history.  All the stories of my family of origin.  It feels exhausting to try to catch Jack up on all that shit.  I sighed internally.  Maybe I don’t need to!

I sat on the couch and stared back at him.  He’s using that approach with me.  You know the one.  They just stare at you, waiting for you to begin blathering on about something.  It is unnerving.  So, I told him that I didn’t know where to begin, and he responded:

“How do you feel about how our sessions are going?”

I answered honestly.

“Well, it’s hard to say because you don’t know my history.  When I say, for example, that my mother sent me a letter, you don’t know what it means.  People who know my history know what that means.”

“Did your mother send you a letter?” he asked.

“Yes, she did, and it means a lot.  My mother is a dangerous person, and I’m not sure how to begin to describe that, but I’ll give you a sense.”

I presented “postcard” views into my experiences with my mother.  Scenes that would capture her best and worst selves.  The utter terror and absurdity of her personality and emotional expressions.  The betrayals.  The abuse.  The distortion campaigns.  The violence.  The gaslighting.  The moments of lucidity.  He responded:

“What you describe is in line with borderline pathology.”

“I know.”

“She sounds fragile,” he observed.

“She can be, yes.”

“She also sounds like she has a lot of rage.”

“Talionic rage, and yet no one in the family believes me.  She is like this behind closed doors.  She presents very differently to the outside world.  But, go home and shut the door? She can become homicidal if triggered.” I said.

I then moved onto my father.

“Look, I don’t even know where to start with him.  I know that you know some things about him because you confabbed with my former therapist during my transition, but I think I’ll tell you this.  Aside from the obvious offenses like his sexual abuse of me during my preverbal years and his preference for military-like violence and torture, he did something else that I think neatly represents his psychology.

He had a book.  A kind of photo album of pictures of me from infancy to childhood.  Photos he took.  Photos of me crying after he had abused me.  Like a set of trophies.  Some of the photos I remember him taking, and I remember what he had done before he took the photos; and I know that he had this album because I found it when I was visiting him.  I was young.  I took it out and looked through it, and I felt very confused when I looked through it.  I brought it to him and asked him what it was.  My father was a steely, cold man.  I had never seen him lose that composed veneer–until that moment.  He looked angry when I brought that to him, and I felt scared seeing him look like that.  Scared because his response was not predictable.”

Jack is not a high affect man.  I, on the other hand, express myself like a Muppet.  I struggle sometimes when I am faced with low affect expression because it is so opposite to my mode of expression.  This is, therefore, the time when words matter.  He leaned in and said:

“This is positively evil.”

I never characterized the album or my father as evil before.  I just thought that there was something deeply wrong with him.  Oddly, I never characterized him as anything.  Evil.  Huh.

Jack went on to tell me that he had spent time in his post-doc research studying psychopathy and psychopaths.  It is hard to describe how relieved I felt.  I grew up with a psychopath.  I knew that for sure.  I was abducted by a psychopath.  That was a certainty.

“So, you’ve seen some bad shit then?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen some bad shit. I’ve studied it.  I can take it,” he said, looking into me.

I started to feel better about disclosing, and that brought some relief.

The thing about all this is that I’ve disclosed all this before.  There was nothing new about any of this.  Did I need to do this all over again? It could simply be re-traumatizing.  In the middle of my rumination, Jack leveled a question at me:

“Who knows you? What is it like to have had these kinds of life experiences and be who you are? You’re not sadistic.  You’re not cruel.  You don’t even express borderline traits.  You’re not even that angry.  So, to carry all this personal history with you–all this personal contact with, frankly, evil, who gets to know that about you?”

I must have looked like a deer caught in a meadow in the dark of night while a hunter aimed his spotlight at my face.  He landed on something, and I was completely caught off guard.  I stumbled.

“Who knows me?” I asked trying to buy time.

“Yes, who gets to know you? Who knows all this about you? Who do you tell your stuff to? And who gets to share this pain with you? No one can go through life carrying all this by themselves.”

I started laughing.  Tears were starting to stream down my face, but all I could do was laugh.  The question was legitimate, but I just couldn’t fathom the idea of sharing all that shit with people.  It was laughable.  I felt like I was about to cross over into some kind of mania.  Can you relate to this? For anyone who has ever seen some serious shit in life, can you imagine sitting around with people or even one person and trotting out some of your worst pain? What do you think would happen based upon your past experiences with people? Awkward coughs and stares? Quick subject changes? Being treated differently? Stigma? Judgment? A game of The Trauma Olympics (“You think your pain is bad? Well, at least you don’t struggle like I do!”)? The idea seemed impossible to me.

My mother losing it and punching holes in walls or ruining family holiday parties is one thing.  The kind of violence and abuse that characterized the relationship I had with my father is simply too personal and shocking as was what I experienced in the trafficking environment not to mention that it could very well cause secondary trauma.  The people hearing it could be adversely affected.  The people I include in that very intimate circle matter.  Boundaries matter–for both sides.

And, I think that these reasons are why people who have experienced profound trauma struggle alone and don’t often know how to change it.  The result of this is an ontological feeling of desolation that comes and goes–for me anyway.  A deep and hidden fear that one will never be truly known.  I felt this keenly when my mother’s second husband died.  He was a witness to my mother’s most violent cycles of abuse and rage.  He knew her when she struggled the most, and he understood the consequences in a way that few did.  He knew where I came from.  When he died, I felt a grief I never expected.  I heard a thought drift through my mind, “There is no one left in the world who knows me.”  I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now.  There is no one in the world, aside from my stepsisters, who were witnesses to that nightmare.  We know each other’s histories, and there is great validation in that knowing.

In being seen.

I think, therefore, that what Jack was really asking me is, “Who sees you?”

Who sees you and loves you after having seen you?

Whoa.  That gets me.  I don’t even like that question.  This is a question about belonging and significance.  And vulnerability.  So, I’m going to let the queen of vulnerability and belonging provide some kind of round-about answer:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brené Brown, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”

This is where I was after my session with Jack.  Well, this is what therapeutic hubris will get you–a realization that I really do need more time in the Hot Seat.

This is the work of a lifetime.  I’m all in.

I highly recommend Brené’s new book.  It is so timely for so many people struggling with existential questions of belonging, vulnerability, and finding their place in a world divided.

Reframing Suffering

It is a rainy, autumnal day here, and I like it.  It’s conducive to contemplation.

I fear sounding like a meme here, but I woke up contemplating gratitude.  I know, I know.  It’s practically a cliché, but I don’t think it should be.  Gratitude is a big deal.

I’ll begin with yesterday.

I have a mast cell disorder.  Don’t be surprised if you don’t know what that is.  Most doctors don’t know what that is unless they are allergists out of the Mayo Clinic or Boston or immunologists.  It’s not a new blood disorder.  It’s just a newly discovered and newly named blood disorder.  Would it surprise you to know that celiac disease is mast cell mediated? Endometriosis is mast cell mediated.  Chronic migraine disease can be mast cell mediated.  Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is related to disordered mast cells.  The list goes on and on.  Chronic anaphylaxis is definitely related to disordered mast cells, and that’s my most immediate problem.  The wind can change direction, and I’ll experience an anaphylactic reaction.  For no good reason.  I didn’t even know that was possible until last June when I saw an allergist after having taken yet another trip by ambulance to the ER for a stupid allergic reaction.  I thought I was just a really allergic person.  My list of food allergies is long and grows even longer every year–or every month now.  Foods I’ve eaten my whole life I suddenly become deadly allergic to without warning.  It is a very stressful way to live–not knowing if I might potentially die that day.  My kids are fearful.  My close friends are worried.  I just have to live with a bit of a Wild West attitude all the time–feeling invincible.  It’s the only way to survive severe anaphylaxis–you have to relax into it and believe that you are immortal.  For some reason, it helps me stay calm and collected in the face of either my blood pressure bottoming out or my blood pressure hitting the ceiling after the epinephrine injection.

What is this about? Why does this matter?

Few people understand what this is like.  Parents of kids with allergies like this get it.  A parent with a child who will die in ten minutes after eating a peanut? Oh yeah, they understand because that’s me with a walnut or avocado or banana or kiwi or chestnut or buckwheat or peach…or…or…

You can hear the quiet desperation mixed with angry frustration in their voice when they say, “No one gets it! No one understands that my child will literally die if s/he is exposed to ________!” No.  It’s hard to comprehend death by food.  Furthermore, every reaction can be potentially worse than the last leaving you with less time to get help the next time.  This is true for me now.  Two weeks ago as I sat in the ER, a doctor asked me if I’d ever been intubated and suggested that I’d be staying overnight.  Ode to joy.  What a thrill.

It’s in moments like those that you really want to feel understood because you don’t want to feel afraid.  And, honestly, you don’t want to die feeling alone.  That compounds the fear.  You really want someone else to help you carry that burden.  Dying isn’t on my agenda or, at least, being taken out by a tree nut, but pragmatism suggests that you plan for it in this case.

And, as with most of our life experiences, few people truly understand it, or, rather, most people are too caught up in their personal narratives to step outside of them and into ours.  This is my general observation about the flow of life.  So, when you really need support and validation, you can’t find it because the weight of your life–even if it’s crushing you–is simply inconsequential to those around you.  Others can’t imagine your story.  It doesn’t hook into theirs.  Or, other people think that what you are experiencing is very similar to their experiences when, in fact, they are world’s apart.  Consequently, your experiences are minimized and dismissed leading to feelings of alienation and ontological isolation.

What is a relatable example of this?

I had the privilege of being in California a few weeks ago and meeting new people.  We all dined out together.  This really should be my order:

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I am now the high maintenance customer which I hate: “What kind of flour is in your gluten-free bread? Are you using buckwheat? Are there walnuts in that salad? Walnut oil in the dressing? Is there honeydew melon in your fresh fruit salad or kiwi or peaches? Hell, I’ll just have coffee.”

One of the women in our group immediately asked me about my gluten-free diet and why I was asking about the flours in the gluten-free bagels.  I explained that I had allergies.  I have to ask.  It’s important.  “Oh, I’m so sensitive, too.  I get headaches if I eat certain foods and my skin breaks out from something I eat.  Dairy, I think.  So, I try to avoid it, but sometimes I eat ice cream.  I totally get it.”

No.  That isn’t it at all.  I’ll die.  She will live with a bad complexion and a headache.  She is trying to make a connection which is very good, but her attempt and over-identification minimizes the reality of my situation, but, admirably, she was trying.  Nonetheless, one feels something weirdly frustrating set in with an interaction like this.

So, what about this gratitude?

Yesterday, I went to the hospital’s infusion center for immunotherapy. One of my friends went with me, and it was actually a good time.  It was a good time because she was there.  We chatted and joked around for two hours while the nurses observed me.  The drug I was receiving has the potential to turn my immune system around and prevent anaphylaxis! That would be a miracle for me.  I could literally get my life back.  The drug causes anaphylaxis in about 12% of patients who receive it which makes me a high-risk patient.

I was really grateful for her company.  She went with me to my subsequent doctor’s appointment, and then we went out for lunch.  It was a really pleasant day.  In my mind, she stepped into my life and experienced it with me.  The double injections, the touch-and-go first half-hour in which no one was sure if it was side effects or anaphylaxis.  It was just shared experiences.  She showed up.

And, the conclusion that I’ve come to in all this is that showing up for other people is the fastest way to step out of your own overwhelming narrative.  It gives you a break from yourself, your crazymaking thoughts about yourself, your problems, your anxiety about your future and what might or might not happen, and it restores perspective.  When I step out of my own swirling maelstrom of pain and stress and step into someone else’s personal pain I experience a huge shift in perspective.  It is in this that I often find my own strength again because I get to exercise my strength and sufficiency.  How often do we feel sufficient and adequate in our own lives? Conversely, how often do we feel insufficient and deficient?

When we connect our narrative to someone else’s we recharge our personal sense of sufficiency because we get to feel successful in places that we have often overlooked and this leads to gratitude.  Here are some suggestions.  Not all may apply to you:

  • “I’m not housebound and on disability.  I am healthier than I realized.”
  • “I have a stable job and am healthy enough to work.  This is a good thing.”
  • “My children are all healthy.  We are not reliant on social services for help, and neither I (nor my partner– if you have one) has had to quit working to stay home and manage care.  This is a blessing.”
  • “My partner loves me and does not abuse me.  I have a loving relationship.  I feel loved and supported.  I am grateful for this.”
  • “My home has not been affected or destroyed by drastic weather events.  I have shelter, electricity, access to potable water, and food.  I have not lost everything.  Perhaps I ought to connect to organizations serving devastated populations.”
  • “I have the resiliency to overcome victimization and access to support organizations that will help me continue to do this.  I know people who do not.  I am grateful for this.”
  • “My home is warm when it is cold outside and cool when it is hot.  I have a bed to sleep in.  I have food to eat.  I received an adequate education and am literate and capable of finding employment.  This is amazing considering that in some countries the literacy rate is around 27%.”
  • “Where I am ill, there is potential for me to become well.  Where I am alone, there is potential for me to connect.  Where I am ignorant, there is potential for me to learn.  This is worth a lot.”
  • “I am not living in a war-torn country.  Others are.  Perhaps I can express my gratitude for this by donating money in whatever sum to organizations that support refugees and the victims of ethnic cleansing and war.”

I go through this list when I feel overwhelmed and misunderstood.  Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed particularly after I’ve been loaded up with epinephrine, IV steroids, multiple doses of multiple types of antihistamines, and antiemetics followed up with extra doses of anticonvulsants.  No one has an easy life.  We all fight to survive something, but I find that gratitude lubricates the engine so to speak.

There will always be people who minimize our experiences most often unknowingly.  We will feel tempted to feel alone or belittled.  Or, we can sink into a softer place.  A kinder place.  I get to come home to my own space and comfy bed when I leave the ER.  That’s something, isn’t it? Consider this:

“In order to be happy we must first possess inner contentment; and inner contentment doesn’t come from having all we want; but rather from wanting and being grateful for all we have.”  The Dalai Lama

For some, the first reaction might be, “How am I supposed to be grateful for losing my house to a hurricane?” or, in my case, “How am I supposed to be grateful for a blood disorder?” That seems legitimate.

Well, we are not grateful for suffering, but we are grateful for what is produced in us when we engage in our lives intentionally.

“Our enemies provide us with the precious opportunity to practice patience and love.  We should have gratitude toward them.” The Dalai Lama

In some cases, people present to us as enemies, but sometimes circumstances and events are enemies.  Our stance towards them will determine how we emerge out of that stage of our lives.  If we are judgmental, entitled, easily offended, and vindictive, ruthless in our demands about how we think they ought to behave towards us, then we are no different.  We are simply the flip side of the coin.  If we are intentional about how we engage with other people, refusing to let their behavior dictate our responses, then we have the opportunity to practice being the kind of people we want to see in the world–good, kind, compassionate, and effective.  Circumstances are very similar.  We cannot change people.  Oftentimes, we cannot change circumstances either, but sometimes when we decide to change how we engage with both people and circumstances, both change.

So it is in this that we practice gratitude.  We are grateful because every moment of our days provides us with opportunities to become better.  To upgrade.  We can self-determine in this way.  This is the one area in life where we truly get to have all the control, and that is a strange thought to me.  To exercise that kind of intention in yourself and in your surroundings changes everything.  And this is what the previous two quotes mean.  We experience gratitude because it is possible to be changed, for the better, by everything that comes our way.  And, I don’t say this flippantly.  I’ve had some extraordinarily bad experiences from experiencing human trafficking to domestic violence.  I would never want to do either again, but I can experience gratitude for the sense of empathy and justice I have today because of both experiences.  I have a very wide resiliency spectrum because of past experiences, and, in some ways, this has made me the perfect candidate for a mast cell disorder.  Almost dying once a month doesn’t stress me out too much.  I bounce back very quickly emotionally.  Physically? That takes longer.

So, I leave you with this.  Gratitude.  Not for suffering.  But, for the opportunity to show up in your own life and in the lives of other people with intention.  The intention to be or do what?

That, dear reader, is entirely up to you.

My last word? Whatever it is…be sure to think big.

 

The FNG Asks about Sex

I’ll be honest.  I miss my old Therapist.  Jack the FNG (“friendly” New Guy) is so different.  He’s a much younger PhD.  He feels like a grad student.  Yeah.  That young.  He’s growing a beard now.  He’s really tall.  Fit.  And very subdued.  In fact, this sort of looks like Jack the New Therapist:

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He even dresses like this! Total prep.

He’s like a character in a romantica novel.  And, Tuesday’s session felt like the beginning of a romantica novel.

Jack has asked me a few times if I’m comfortable having a male therapist.  I’ve reassured him that I am.  I’ve done my best work with male therapists.  His predecessor was a guy.  They were colleagues.  Of course, both of my male therapists were older than I and very quirky.  I like quirky therapists.  They always seem to be less constrained by social mores and public opinion.  This makes for great therapy sessions because the therapist is often willing to go with compassion over protocol under pressure, and that lays the foundation for a quickened healing process.  I have observed over the years that traumatized people can usually discern when they are being “handled”.  In other words, we usually know when protocol is being whipped out because someone feels like we are “too much to handle”.  That just wrecks me when this happens.  I have so often felt like a hot mess in my life.  People talking to me using objectifying, distancing language reinforces that fear and negative core belief.  Compassion, on the other hand, takes it apart.  That’s the point of therapy.

As our sessions have unfolded, Jack sometimes seems to be the one who appears uncomfortable with being the man in the room.  His consistent inquiry implies that.  Yesterday, as I sat across from him trying to be open while once again observing his somewhat defensive listening posture, he brought up dating and whether or not I was doing it.  Dating?!

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This is the first thing that popped into my head.

Dating.  Like…speed dating? Online dating? Blind dating? Have-a-friend-set-you-up-dating? I stared at him and repeated, “Dating?!”

“Yes, dating.  You’re a….you know….ahem…::cough:: woman with a lot to offer. I’d really be curious to see how things go for you…”

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“So, he took me to a Brazilian steakhouse and got the meat sweats five minutes in…”

“In fact,” he continued, “how is your libido?”

This is where it started to feel like a romantica novel.  Handsome, young therapist asks wounded divorcée about her dating life and whether or not she’s having sex in veiled terms.  What happens next? 

I’ll tell you what happened next.  Another epic eye roll from me or, rather, a smirk.  I smirked at him, and he pointed it out.

“Jules, you’re smirking.”

“I am? I’m…smirking?” I asked incredulously.

“Why are you smirking?” he asked starting to smirk at me.

This is the point in the beginning of a therapeutic relationship where you get to establish that relationship.  I have a sense of humor, and I use it in therapy.  It tempers the hard moments and eases the pain of the work.  I have, however, never discussed my dating status in therapy! Never.  It’s not why I’m in therapy.  Also, I’ve been married for most of my therapeutic career.  Dating has been irrelevant.

It’s funny to me because one reason people often avoid therapy is because they don’t want to disclose all their private stuff.  They’ll say, “I don’t want to go sit with some stranger and tell ’em all my personal shit.”  You know what? People don’t go to therapy to air their dirty laundry so to speak.  My past therapists only knew what I wanted them to know, and my past therapist never knew how I spent most of my time.  He only knew about the issues that I had which I wanted addressed.  Dating? Sex? Are you kidding? No.  We did not discuss that.  So, yes, I did start to feel a little weird with Jack on Tuesday, and when I feel weird I’ll usually whip out humor.

There I sat.  Smirking apparently.  Looking at Jack.  Pretending to ponder my libido for his sake because he had presupposed that I was living in a social desert.  A weird word, by the way.  Libeeeeeedo.  Libido.

“My libido is fine,” I answered somewhat curtly.

Do you know what he said?

“Do you know what FINE means? Feelings Inside Never Explained.”

“That’s clever.  Okay.  My libido is good.  It’s healthy.”

Then we stared at each other.

“I think, at some point, I’d like to see you think about dating.”

For the love of….oh my sweet Lord…

“Jack, I am dating! I have been seeing someone.  For quite some time now,” I admitted with a small huff.

That’s when he finally sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees.

“Oh! Well, I hope I didn’t force a disclosure there.  I just think that it’s time to view yourself as something other than mother or ex-wife or through the lens of a role.  You are a woman with a lot to offer.  It would be good for you to meet men who see you as a woman first so that you can experience something other than only knowing what you have had which is, as I’m learning, not good at all.  And sex is just such an important part of our lives, but we don’t talk about it much.”

And then he stared at me.  Again.

At this point, I don’t feel comfortable talking sex with Jack.  I have other people in my life for that.  As a society, we don’t talk about sex very much at all, and I think that we should.  Oh, we portray sex in all manner of ways, but we do not engage in helpful, healthy, healing dialogues in which people come together and experience appropriate vulnerability that will cultivate growth.  Big difference.

I think that many of us would heal a lot faster if we felt emancipated in that way.  Sexual victimization steals so much from us, and one of the first things to go is our voice–our physical ability to use our voice in any situation that could be perceived as sexual.  Many of us can’t use it in real ways in sexual situations for a variety of reasons.  Societal pressure and shame are real factors that smother us.  Religious models have tremendous influence over past and present sexual development.  And, some of the last people we talk about sex with is our partners.  Frankly, it is stinkin’ hard.

The primary reason I won’t discuss sexuality with Jack is because I don’t know him.  The foundational trust for sexual discussion isn’t there.  Plus, he just looks somewhat uncomfortable, but he presents as not wanting to be.  There is some kind of dissonance there even if only affectual.  I also know that everyone brings their own sexual baggage with them–even professionals.  Projection comes in many forms, and bad advice is, in my experience, one of the most common.

Healing is holistic or it should be.  What does that mean? When we talk about trauma of any kind, it means that it touches all of us from DNA to neuron.  We, therefore, want our healing work to do the same.  This includes our sexuality.  What is sexuality? Boy, that’s a question.  My off the cuff definition might go something like this: Your sexuality includes your expression of your sexual identity (orientation), but it also includes your sexual personality meaning what your sexual preferences are, how you express your sexual preferences, how they manifest, how you feel and experience your own sexual feelings, your capacity for sexual feelings, and how you would like to weave your sexuality into how you live your life.  Based upon that definition (which is written out very quickly so be kind), it’s not too difficult to see how trauma infiltrates and corrupts it and why it’s so hard to even “go there” in meaningful ways that affect lasting change.  You need the resources to do that work and access to safe people is one of those resources.

I feel overly vulnerable and unsafe when discussing anything related to my sexuality or past trauma that has affected my sexuality with people I don’t trust enough because judgment, shame, and sexuality go together like chocolate and peanut butter.  Identity work of any kind is very hard.  Sexual identity work? Oh, that’s a whole other ballgame, isn’t it? And when judgment and shame are aimed at your developing and healing sexuality, they are aimed at your healing and developing identity, too.  In the midst of deep trauma work, it is practically impossible to separate the two.  This is why safe, validating environments coupled with safe, validating people are so important.  I think this gets missed.  I think that this is why it is so hard.  The identity piece.

So, how do you do it?

In my experience, the first step to take is to begin thinking about it–the state of your sexuality.  That’s it.  For some people, it is a repugnant thought, and there are myriad reasons why.  Self-loathing is a big theme in trauma as is fear.  Those two don’t mix well with sexuality.  It’s a nasty cocktail, but, as with any healing process, it all starts with what we’re thinking about, and it usually ends there, too.

So, begin to think about it.  What do you think about yourself in relation to that definition of sexuality? What’s in that “sexuality” box inside yourself? That is a good place to start.  That is where I started.

As a somewhat humorous aside, one of my cats insists on sitting by the bathroom door every time someone closes the door.  She sits there just like this for as long as the door is closed as if she’s in queue.  It is both adorable and annoying at once.  Once the door opens, she immediately scolds you for having even been in the bathroom! It’s as if she is saying, “I was waiting for it, and you cut in line!”

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The Daily Routine

Therapy in Pictures

Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my therapist of two and half years.  I didn’t know he was leaving until three weeks before his final week.  He just dropped it on me during session: “So, I will be leaving.  I will no longer be practicing in the state.  Had I been simply leaving the practice I would ask you to follow me.”

Admittedly, I was somewhat stunned, but I thought it might be a good opportunity to take stock of the process.  Should I continue therapy? Where exactly did I stand in terms of recovery? Am I recovered from the psychological warfare and domestic abuse that ultimately ended my marriage? Are the past issues like family of origin abuse, for example, that kept me blind to some of the abusive elements in my marriage appropriately processed? Did the EMDR address the maladaptively processed trauma that was lingering?

I liked to think so.  But, was I in the clear? I didn’t want to run a great race and then fumble at the finish line because of self-judgment: “You sure do need a lot of therapy, MJ.  Just how fucked up are you?” That judgmental accusation is probably not new to most of us.  Stigma is often what keeps people out of therapy or keeps them from meeting their goals.  Or fear.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow commented on therapy after describing herself as possibly bipolar:

“Have you had psychotherapy?”

“No.” (Maddow speaking)

“Are you afraid of changes to the psyche it might produce?”

“No. I’m just not interested. I’m happy to talk to you for this profile, because I’m interested in you and in this process. But, in general, talking about myself for an hour—it’s not something that I would pay for the privilege of. It just sounds like no fun.” (The New Yorker)

Well, no.  Therapy is no fun.  It’s not supposed to be fun.  I do not enjoy therapy at all.

In my last session, my therapist introduced me to the only other PhD in the practice with neurocognitive training.  His name is Jack.  Jack is new to the practice.  My therapist suggested that Jack and I meet.  Should I want to continue or check in from time to time, he thought Jack would be a good person for me.  I made a face.

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While I am a huge advocate of psychological flexibility, I don’t seem to always want to practice it.  Change is hard.  On the inside, I was pouty and begrudgingly agreeable.  On the outside, I was agreeable and happily shook Jack’s hand although I think he saw right through me.

And then, I hugged my therapist goodbye.  And, that was it.  I’ll never see him again.

I saw Jack yesterday for a trial run.  When we chatted after my therapist introduced us, he had some words of wisdom that I couldn’t ignore.  He suggested that I consider not abandoning my process yet.  If I had come back to therapy to address an acute problem like abuse, then it is often much easier to do core work once the acute suffering has passed.  He is correct, but I was just getting used to the idea of “being done”.  I liked the idea of having my Tuesdays free.  No more therapy! What should I do?

So, when I sat in his office yesterday, he asked me if I had any issues with “right brain” stuff? I rephrased it for him.

“If you’re asking me if I have dissonance between what I know to be true and what I feel to be true, then my answer is a resounding yes.  You have just met the poster girl for cognitive dissonance.  Let me shake your hand.”

His proposition? Let’s start focusing on that then.  I know what is true, but my “distortion machine” often gets in my own way.  He wants to address that so that both my right and left brain unite and function together rather than fight each other.

Well, shit! Yes, please! Let’s get on with it then.

He asked me what to look for in terms of how I might evade during session.

“Do you check out, intellectualize, use humor….that kind of thing?”

O sweet fancy Moses, where do I begin? If only I could do an entire therapy session in Anne Taintor postcards:

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This one is a magnet on my fridge. 

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I think it’s obvious how I deflect in therapy and in life.

You know, this isn’t a bad idea. ::she says with hopeful sarcasm::

Painfully setting my snark aside, I’ll say that I don’t know another way to get better with efficiency than to find a well-matched therapist and get to work.  There are ways to do work on your own, but it takes longer; and the process is often more painful and cumbersome.

As always, keep going.

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All images are courtesy of Anne Taintor collection and annetaintor.com

Thought for The Week

 

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Image Credit: Mike Taylor – Taylor Photography

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ”    –Brené Brown

Rebooting for the New Year

One of the broader topics on this blog is mental health and how mental health is defined and experienced in different contexts.  The DSM-V has divided and sub-divided the human experience into so many diagnoses that I imagine that every human could find an aspect of themselves somewhere within it.  Some of that feels legitimate.  Some of it feels less so.

Within one area of that broader diagnostic context you will find the personality disorder and its many “flavors”.  What is a personality disorder (PD)? What is its origin? Is it genetic? Is it chemical? Can it be treated? Can it be effectively “cured”? Is it a spectrum “disorder”? When is it safe to diagnose a person with a PD? At what point in human development does one’s personality become disordered? Why does one person become narcissistic and another express as borderline? What about the antisocial personality or the schizoid?  These are important questions that I won’t attempt to answer here.

I have written extensively about Borderline Personality Disorder on this blog as my mother’s personality expresses as borderline and growing up with a borderline mother affected my development in profound ways.  I do not directly blame my mother for my abduction twenty years ago, but, at the same time, I doubt I would have been taken had I been raised by a different parent.  I don’t say that with self-pity.  It feels factual at this point.  As they say today, it is what it is.

Why bring this up? My mother wrote me a letter.  Again.  It arrived a few weeks ago.  I haven’t seen my mother in almost ten years.  I think.  That is my best estimate.  She has sent me very weird letters over the years.  Some of them have been vitriolic.  Some of them have been strange and full of darkness.  Some of them have been full of blame and desperation.  My response has remained steadfast.  “Tell me how you are safe.  Tell me how you have changed.  Tell me how you have learned to control yourself.  Tell me how you have learned to respect boundaries.  Tell me how you have learned to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Tell me how you have learned to be accountable for your actions.  Then, we’ll talk.”

Never has she addressed these requests.

Until her most recent letter.

This letter was different.  For the first time, she tried.  She talked of realizing that she had been self-centered.  She had never known that about herself, but she had come to see that she had been.  For her whole life.  She talked of her recklessness.  She admitted that I would have to live with the consequences of her actions for the rest of my life.  She knew that now.  She recognized that her behaviors were abnormal.

I think she must have finally gone to therapy which is what I have been recommending rather strongly.  We none of us can make it without help.

She asked if we could meet for coffee or lunch.  I am considering it.  Not from a place of smoldering hope.  I suspect I am considering it because she finally tried.  She did what i asked.  It took her ten years to do it, and it cost her a great deal.  It may cost me something to see her.  I remember what she was like.  She may reduce me to a bloody mess, but, then again, she may no longer have the power to do that.  I’m not the same person anymore, and I’ll tell you why.

At some point during my marriage, my mother saw how my my ex-husband was treating me.  He was very neglectful and self-centered.  Sixteen years ago, we moved into a new house.  I was six months pregnant.  I had packed up the entirety of our old house singlehandedly.  My mother and her husband drove in from out-of-state to help us.  On the day of the move, my ex-husband received an invitation from a friend to attend an outdoor concert.  One of his favorite bands was playing, and he was stoked about it.  As we were moving boxes into the house he left.  There was a concert to see! “Sorry babe, but Frank Black! I gotta go!”

And that was it.  I was pregnant.  My mother and her husband were helping.  And, there I was.  Alone.  My mother was shocked and hurt on my behalf.  Reasonably so.  She told me, “Leave him.  Just bring the girls and live with us.  I’ve been divorced twice.  There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

“There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

Her words reverberated through my mind,  Nothing wrong with being like her? She was the last person I wanted to be like.  There was everything wrong with being like her.  So, I internally vowed in that moment never to be like my mother, and I stayed in a very bad marriage so much longer than I should have, in part, to prove a point.  I could not be like my mother.  I could not have failed like her.  I imagined her rubbing my face in it should I ever see her again.  I imagined myself feeling defeated, humiliated, and small.  Judged.  My mother standing over me smugly saying, “See? You and me? We are the same.”  The thought of it cut into my viscera.  

There came a moment towards the end of my marriage when I realized that I didn’t care anymore about what my mother might say to me or even think about me.  I wasn’t my mother, and my mother wasn’t me.  I wanted a second shot at life, and I didn’t care one iota about what anyone thought of me least of all my mother.

I think that this realization and moment of actualization are the insights that allow me to venture forth into even imagining sitting in front of my mother after a decade of virtually no contact.

Why speak of this? Well, I see in retrospect that I made certain choices from a deficient identity.  I was trying so hard not to be someone (my mother) rather than building out who I really wanted to be.  I would not have tolerated quite a bit had I seen that sooner.  Thankfully, I did.

In honor of gratitude and changing our lives, I want to introduce you to 10Q.  The Jewish New Year is upon us, and it is a time of reflection, return, and making changes.  There is a very cool app of sorts that helps you do that called 10Q:

Every year between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is a 10-day period of reflection – an opportunity to look at your past, present and future. 10Q makes this digital and social.

  • For ten days 10Q sends you a question a day to answer.
  • Answers are entered in your own secret online 10Q space and then saved to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping.
  • After the ten day period the vault is locked.
  • One year later, the vault opens and your answers land back in your email inbox.
  • You can also choose to share your answers anonymously with other 10Q users, and can also scroll through other people’s answers. (Becoming The B Boss)

You do not have to be Jewish to do this.  Just willing.  Here is the first question:

Q01: DESCRIBE A SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCE THAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST YEAR. HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU? ARE YOU GRATEFUL? RELIEVED? RESENTFUL? INSPIRED?

I love this! It is a wonderful reminder that the best time to change your mind, your circumstances, or yourself is always now.

Happy New Year!

Resources: