For my non-American readers, Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the States. It is a big deal. It marks the beginning of The Holidays–a season of high stress, joy, high consumerism on display, dread, meaningful religious observations, turmoil, GERD, Mariah Carey on loop, and so much more. I sound cynical. I’m not. It’s the truth though. As soon as Thanksgiving hits, people start grabbing the Tums off the racks, eating too much to cope, maxing out their credit cards in order to buy gifts to make all their family and friends happy, and figuring out ways to avoid family conflict. It is a rough time of year for almost everyone I know. And now that there is political polarization to the extreme in America, one wonders if tapas and finger foods should replace foods requiring forks and knives.
I have panic attacks every Thanksgiving. For real. For the past seven years, they have hit me hard. They start around 10:30 in the morning, and, every year, I don’t seem to know what they are.
“What is happening to me?”
The first time it happened, I took a Xanax at 11 AM. I passed out on the kitchen floor and woke up around 1 PM. So, that would be a ‘no’ to the Xanax then. The second year, I took half a Xanax thinking it was a dosage problem. The same thing happened except at least I was on a couch. Throw the Xanax away.
To me, anxiety is like being nauseated mentally. It is a plague. I am anxious to some degree almost all the time. My mind is perpetually on edge. It has been this way since the domestic violence started in my former marriage. I have not fully calmed down from that. The last episode of domestic violence was over three years ago, but I am still hypervigilant at times. I know that this will subside. I was anxious for years after I escaped the trafficking environment. I was easily kicked into “survival mode” by any number of triggers. The sound of a car backfiring was a trigger. It sounded like a gun shot. If someone yelled at me, held eye contact too long, deliberately tried to intimidate me, or touched me in a way that I perceived as threatening, I froze.
What about Thanksgiving sets me off? I’m not sure. I tried to solve it on Thursday when I realized that there was a pattern. Here are some things that I did observe. Maybe you will find it helpful.
Thanksgiving has always been a day that I work my ass off. I really like entertaining and cooking for everyone, but, historically, my ex-husband would never help me. For him, it was his day off. He would go in the bedroom and play games on his laptop while putting his feet up. He would ignore his children and me. I felt like his servant, and that feeling started to degrade and erode me. It permeated the entire relationship and culminated in the sexual violence that put me in an operating room–twice.
Almost all the traumatic experiences I had growing up in my father and mother’s homes were centered around my accepting “my place” as an object, and that objectification felt eerily similar to how I felt in my marriage. My father spent his energy trying to convince me that I was not a person but merely property–his property. I was to express my acceptance of this at all times by calling ‘sir’ and obeying him at all times. I could never do that. I obeyed him because I was afraid of him, but I argued with him about calling him ‘sir’. In Texas and the rest of the South, we call our elders, strangers, and people outside the family ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ out of respect, but I simply could not understand why I should call my own father ‘sir’. It made no sense to me. So, I refused. This enraged my father. What did my defiance cause? Well, I endured hours of military-like torture–the sort that Navy SEALs endure in an attempt to break me. I, however, got to keep myself. I never called him ‘sir’, and this might be why I survived intact. My ridiculously stubborn nature saved my innate personality. I always told my mother that it would serve me one day!
My mother’s house was different. She ran a military-like household as well in terms of order and cleanliness. She was obsessed–literally–with cleanliness. She lined things up, dusted weekly, and vacuumed in straight lines. If I moved a tchotchke out of place, she would notice–and have a fit. If I didn’t vacuum the carpet in perfect lines, she would notice. God forbid I leave a footprint! I would have to vacuum the carpet all over again. I had to organize my closet by color and season. Oh, and no wire hangers. My mother and Joan Crawford were one and the same person.
My underwear and sock drawers had to be perfectly arranged. If they were not, she would dump out their contents on the floor and insist I arrange them all over again. She would go through all my drawers every Saturday in order to find my personal journal. Sometimes she should would read it out loud to me and mock the contents. I had to hide every personal item from her. I was not allowed privacy–ever. She would bounce quarters off my bed to make sure it was perfectly made, and she would run her fingers on the surfaces of all my furniture looking for dust while I stood against the wall watching her inspect everything. She reveled in her own power over me. I was not a person to her. I was an extension of her or nothing at all depending upon her needs.
She began this process when I was old enough to clean–around 7 years-old.
This isn’t an uplifting read. Why recount it? Well, in my experience, when we have strong emotional experiences that increase to panic when there is nothing in the present to panic about, then we are panicking over something in the past; and, there is a cue in the present that is activating our “survival” mode. I recount this to offer up an example of what could possibly activate that “survival” mode.
I grew up, as so many people do, being treated as less than a whole person. Thanksgiving also marked the beginning of the worst time of year in my family as my mother was prone to suicide attempts during the holiday season. Some of the worst violence I witnessed was during the holidays. I was also often forced to see my father during the holidays which bred inordinate terror in me. I have resolved most of my feelings around that past trauma, but recall that recent trauma can often kick up old trauma. This is why new traumas re-traumatize. That which is settled and adaptively processed gets re-activated with new traumas. I was brutalized in my marriage. There was no way that I wasn’t going to have to face down old abuse again. It would all have to be looked at again because this is what brains do. They make connections: “Oh, this looks just like that.”
What do you get then? Panic attacks that come out of nowhere coupled with fear and dread. Emotional flashbacks. They are confusing. Annoying. Inconvenient. What is the strategy?
First: They will pass. Know this. They will pass.
The holidays can be a wonderfully meaningful time of year. There is a lot about them that I absolutely love this being one of them:
They can also be one of the most painful times of the year for people for myriad reasons, and sometimes we don’t even know why. But, we feel it. From Thanksgiving to mid-January. It doesn’t have to be this way regardless of your history. There are ways to enjoy this time of year even when your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert. We don’t have to wait until we’ve got all our “issues” resolved to enjoy this time of year.
I saw Jack, my still-feeling-new therapist, on Tuesday, and we had an almost adversarial session. It didn’t feel therapeutic to me. I felt as if I were there to challenge his ideas and assumptions of what survivors of trauma look like. He consistently says, “Studies show…” and “The brains of survivors of trauma show…” and “Studies show that survivors of torture will believe…”
I fall outside the results of whatever studies Jack is relying on. Had I been “studied” a year or two after I left the trafficking environment? I don’t know. I’ve been wrestling with the elements that make me a “survivor” since I was 16 years-old. I cognitively know what is true. The point of therapy for me now is to build a bridge into the future rather than get mired down in the present by fear as well as to resolve any emotional dissonance that remains. Jack is still wrestling with his own assumptions about whether how I, as a survivor of profound trauma, present in session is possible. “You shouldn’t even be able to live as you do. You shouldn’t have succeeded. I don’t understand.”
Oy vey! Well, I did. Now what?
I think about other people who survived far worse, and what they accomplished. How many Jews left the extermination camps, emigrated, and built new lives for themselves? Successful lives. How many émigrés from war torn countries have done the same? Leaving everything behind, including family–if they even have anyone left–and settled in foreign lands, started over, and built something new while facing prejudice and social exclusion? Humans are built to survive and even thrive. It is possible regardless of what studies show.
Think of epigenetics. Yes, trauma is passed down through generational lines via changes to the genome. Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tend to be more anxious and suffer from certain health and mental health issues due to genetic changes caused by the extraordinary suffering their forebears experienced in the Holocaust. This would hold true for other groups that experienced extreme hardship like the Great Depression and civil wars. My paternal grandmother and grandfather both died by suicide. My grandfather was a veteran, but his great-grandfather was also a Russian Jew who most likely emigrated due to the social oppression that kept Jews restricted to the Pale of settlement as well as kept them socially and economically restricted. My grandmother, an anusim, was never able to reconcile her family and ancestral history with her present. She could not resolve the dissonance and make a choice for herself. It is hard to overcome a deeply ingrained fear particularly when keeping secrets and lying are the family way even at the expense of one’s own identity and future.
What do we do then when people tell us that certain possibilities are out of reach for us? Do we believe them?
Nope. We do not.
Perhaps it’s cliché or stupid, but I’ve come to believe that we are often able to achieve that which we want when we decide that we can. When we begin to imagine it. When we find our inner contrarian and make a decision to succeed no matter what anyone else says even while they’re quoting studies about what should be possible for ‘someone like us’.
“Psychologists tell us that by the time we’re in our mid-30s, our identity or personality will be completely formed. This means that for those of us over 35, we have memorized a select set of behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, emotional reactions, habits, skills, associative memories, conditioned responses, and perceptions that are now subconsciously programmed within us. Those programs are running us, because the body has become the mind. This means that we will think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, react in identical ways, behave in the same manner, believe the same dogmas, and perceive reality the same ways. About 95 percent of who we are by midlife1 is a series of subconscious programs that have become automatic—driving a car, brushing our teeth, overeating when we’re stressed, worrying about our future, judging our friends, complaining about our lives, blaming our parents, not believing in ourselves, and insisting on being chronically unhappy, just to name a few.”
― Joe Dispenza,
This is interesting, isn’t it? So is this.
“Reason this: When you think from your past memories, you can only create past experiences. As all of the “knowns” in your life cause your brain to think and feel in familiar ways, thus creating knowable outcomes, you continually reaffirm your life as you know it. And since your brain is equal to your environment, then each morning, your senses plug you into the same reality and initiate the same stream of consciousness.”
― Joe Dispenza,
I’ve said it before. The brain lives in the future based upon what it knows from the past. I am the poster child for this phenomenon. My family, my grandmother and grandfather, lived and died by this phenomenon. What can we do about this? Oh, so much.
“Change as a Choice, Instead of a Reaction”
I, therefore, carefully make one suggestion. What is one small thing that you could imagine changing? You don’t have to change it in real time. Just in your mind. You cannot make a meaningful change in your life, if you can’t imagine it first.
I’ll go first. I have a habit of letting my mind run away with me. It happens when I’ve done too much in a day or after I’ve had a migraine. Suddenly, the script starts. A film plays in my mind in which I’m all alone in my life. I feel lonely and overwhelmed but stoic and contrarian about the situation at the same time. Sort of like this:
It won’t last long. I’ll eventually end up crying alone in my room mumbling to myself:
I was once caught crying in the kitchen by my daughter as I sniffled, “I’m going to die alone while trying to help refugees, but I’ll be eaten by wild dogs having helped no one…” I am not lying when I say that I have always had a larger-than-life flair for the dramatic, hence, my mother’s terrible nickname for me:
My mother called me ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ for the first 20 years of my life. I hated it although it was perhaps earned. Per my own suggestion, I am going to imagine responding to fatigue and stress differently by creating a narrative now–when I’m not stressed. Then, when I’m stressed I will have this narrative to call upon instead of my brain trampling over me like a herd of terrified bovines.
Will it work? We shall see, but I’m doing this in the spirit of making changes as a choice rather than from a reactionary place.
If you want to read something that has the potential to introduce you to a very different way of thinking, then I recommend this:
I had such an unusual week. I’ll begin at the beginning.
My youngest daughter is open-enrolled in another school district because our home district is, well, incompetent and infamous for refusing to implement any kind of special education services. That’s fine if your child doesn’t require special education services, but my daughter does. So, I open-enrolled her into another district that came highly recommended, and it was a very good decision in terms of special education services. In terms of diversity, it has been an exercise in futility.
My state isn’t exactly known for its racial diversity. I live in the Midwest. My state is known for lakes, Scandinavians, lutefisk, hot dishes, icefishing, and the up and coming Super Bowl. There are good things about living here. I’ve lived here for two decades, and I think I must have been living in some sort of insulated box. What I encountered last week stunned me.
My daughter has faced not one, not two, but three counts of anti-Semitism in her Social Studies class including an incident of “soft-core” Holocaust denial over the past few weeks. It has been shocking. I reported the first incident to the school. Nothing was done. I explicitly reported the second and third incident to the school principal last week. My report was acknowledged. I am still waiting for action. In addition to anti-Semitism, there have been openly racist remarks from white students towards non-white students witnessed by teachers. The teachers have done nothing, and I suspect that their inaction was due to not recognizing the racism for what it was. One might think that this should just be allowed to pass. Middle school is a shark tank. It is terrible. Everyone is a target, right? No.
The problem here is that there might be perhaps one or two African-American students, one or two Asian-American students, and one Latin-American student in a sea of white students. 300 plus. 400 plus. 500 plus. No advocacy. No modeling. Enabling of bullying. Enabling of on-going racist interactions, aggression, and micro-aggression that has probably been nurtured since elementary school. I don’t necessarily expect kids to know for sure what is driving their inappropriate behaviors, but I do expect the adults observing them to know particularly when that behavior involves “otherizing”, sorting, and marginalizing which often leads to bullying and violence. This is completely unacceptable, and I’ve said so. You can imagine how much they love me over there.
It is even more important to address racism and anti-Semitism when the school district is largely white. It doesn’t matter what the culture of a student’s home is be it misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, conservative, liberal, or whatever. When a student participates in the public and civil forum, they and their parents tacitly agree to the rules governing that forum. Views and opinions that harm the well-being and rights of others and violate the rules governing that forum are left at home. One can be a white nationalist at home. One can be violent and misogynistic at home. One can hold fascist views at home. One can be homophobic at home. One can hate other people at home. One can deny the Holocaust at home. One can endorse the legislation of one’s own interpretation of morality and harshly judge other people for not believing exactly what they do at home. Not in a public school.
As I sat at home wondering how anyone could factually deny the Holocaust, I witnessed another injustice. I attended my 17 year-old daughter’s IEP meeting. She attends a school for students with special education needs. There are three members of the staff serving the needs of the students who hail from a West African nation with an almost 82% poverty rate. Of all the staff members at my daughter’s school, these three staff members are the kindest, most respectful, and most willing to go above and beyond for some of the most hard-to-reach students; and, it is hard for me to grasp at times because I know simply from the history of their country of origin that they have suffered inordinately. From what I know of two of these staff members’ personal stories, they have lost more personally than anyone I’ve ever met, and yet they show up every day to their workplace with optimism and a willingness to work hard and show kindness regardless of how they are treated.
And how are they treated? Poorly. Why? Because they are African. They are not white Americans. They are different. The staff and even students at my daughter’s school display racist attitudes and rhetoric towards these three people on a weekly if not daily basis, and I cannot fathom it. They are spoken down to. They are talked to as if they don’t understand English because they have accents even though their first language is English. They are excluded and mistreated.
So, what is new here? Should I really be surprised? This is the American legacy. I grew up in the South with an active KKK clan one town over from mine. Racism, prejudice, and bigotry run deep in the veins of our nation’s foundation. It was freely displayed in Texas. It’s just passively exhibited in the North whether we like to admit it or regard it.
So, what did I find surprising this week?
Well, my daughter has experienced unusual forms of bullying at her school, and I don’t say that to be dramatic. She was targeted by another student for months last year. This student attacked staff members with makeshift weapons. This student stalked my daughter during school and threatened to physically harm her. It was a severe situation. The school’s lawyer was involved. The superintendent was involved. My daughter required a “safely plan” meaning she had to be escorted wherever she went in case this student found her in the hallways or even the bathroom. This student is no longer at this school, but, when he was at this school, it was a serious situation.
I learned yesterday that one of the West African staff members was also experiencing multiple forms of mistreatment at school. The mistreatment is bad enough to bring charges. I also learned that this teacher will not leave until my daughter graduates. This teacher has determined to stay to make sure that my daughter is safe, protected, and cared for. This teacher is willing to tolerate abuse in the workplace for the sake of my daughter.
After weeks of battling my youngest daughter’s school district and their policies on racism and anti-Semitism and my own personal and emotional depletion, I felt something in my heart…crack…for lack of a better word.
How often have I felt alone in my efforts to set an injustice right? All the time. “Just let it go. It won’t make a difference,” I have heard. And, you know, I almost didn’t say anything after what my daughter’s Social Studies teacher said in her annoyance, “Let’s just pretend that those kids are Jews being packed onto train cars on their way to Auschwitz.” I almost didn’t say anything when she denied the Holocaust. I almost didn’t say anything when another anti-Jewish statement was made. But, if I don’t, then who will?
And, then I learned that there is someone else, behind the scenes, absorbing the inequities, suffering, for the sake of my daughter. Helping her feel safe. Helping her make it in a hard environment. Anonymously. And, the first thing that came to mind was, “How often do we experience this? We ask for help. We pray. And, we think that God doesn’t come through for us because we hurt. Because we are mistreated. Even abused. Because it’s so hard. Because we have to push really, really hard just to make it an inch up the road. But, what if we would have fallen a mile behind without their silent assistance?”
Pain is not the absence of God or human support.
So, today, I feel a profound, humble gratitude that I don’t know I’ve ever felt before. I feel it deep inside my core. Yes, the battles are real, and I will resume the fight tomorrow. Today, I can say that what we often hope for–maybe there is more to this than I can or ever will see–is true. There are truly good people in the world, and I might never know who they are.
Perhaps this will encourage you as you continue on.
I had an interesting therapy experience yesterday. Jack is a very different therapist from my previous therapist. The gap is growing wider forming a gulf that is coming to represent their differences, and I’m missing my former therapist more and more. Alas, change is good. Perhaps I was growing too comfortable. I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of work is going to be done with Jack. I find myself feeling disdainful. Unusually rigid. Clinging to my own stubbornness.
He wants to discuss my sex life. He wants to discuss my “getting out there” and dating. I’ve got a lot to offer the world of men so he says.
Uh huuuuuuuuh. He wanted to emphasize that his office was a space for discussing difficult topics that may feel taboo. Like sex and all the nuances therein. Like…men and getting with them (my words not his). You know that I’m uncomfortable when I increase the sarcasm.
“It might be hard for you to even think of having sex. With everything that you’ve been through…but, we can talk about it. I’ve had clients come to me who can’t masturbate or even have sex at all. That’s okay. I want you to know that we can talk about that. I’m here for you. This is my job.”
I didn’t know how to tell him at that moment, when he was staring at me like I was sexually constipated and frigid, that I have a boyfriend.
I started trying to imagine walking in one day for a session with the intent to ask him about masturbation or a difficult nuance regarding having sex. I ended up here in my head.
I’ll tell you why. If I want to talk sex, then I either talk to a close girlfriend with whom I’ve been talking sex for years. Or, I’ll talk to the person with whom I’m having sex! It was a fair question for him to check in with me regarding sexuality particularly now that I’m not married. He doesn’t know that I’m in a relationship. I haven’t disclosed that to him, but he also hasn’t asked me if I feel competent sexually. He made an assumption about me. No, no, no, Jack. Never assume anything about your clients. It isn’t really fair to the one sitting in the Hot Seat. He assumes that because I have past sexual injuries and traumas that I’m presently fearful, incompetent or deficient. Whether he knows it or not, he was stereotyping me.
That being said, I will say that it is very important to discuss sex, but you have to do it with someone you like and with whom you have an established rapport. A person you trust. Someone who will have good insight. A good listener. And, a person who will not view you through the lens of past experiences because, if you’re anything like me, then you’re already doing that to yourself. You want to share this aspect of yourself with someone who has a healthy view of sexuality and brings something complete and relatively unmarred to the table. Someone who can see you in the present tense and imagine you in future tense, too. This encourages you to be open. Sex is one of the harder topics to discuss because there is so much shame and embarrassment tied up in it mixed with social pressures and judgment along with messages from our families of origin and religious upbringing. We never have sex without bringing a slew of people with us it seems. You want to talk to someone who likes themselves and likes sex. That really matters, too. And, you really want to talk to someone who wholeheartedly believes that recovery and healing from past trauma is possible for you. Particularly when you do not.
For roughly two and half years, I wrote a blog about sex. It wasn’t what one would call a “sex blog”. It was a blog about sexual development and healing in the context of PTSD and the recovery of one’s own sexual health in a long-term relationship. I really liked that blog and writing it. For what it was, it was a successful blog. It also marked the beginning of the end of my marriage. My ex-husband used to put me in double-bind situations–no win situations. He would complain about not having sex enough or my not seeming to enjoy sex. I took his observations to heart and decided that I was done with allowing past traumatic events determine my sexual health and enjoyment. I process quite well through the written word. So, I decided to blog about the experience anticipating that no one would find the blog. I was wrong.
Everything I learned, tried, failed at, succeeded at, and the effects it was having on my relationship I recorded. How I felt, how it was affecting me in terms of trauma recovery, whether or not I could be present, how post-modern culture and religion were affecting my experiences of my sexuality, all of it–I wrote about it. What I discovered was that I started to get better, and my ex-husband no longer wanted me. He changed his stance. He then complained that I was too demanding. I was showing up for sex, and he didn’t like it. He was angry that he was “required” to have sex with me. Perhaps we could schedule sex once a month. By the end of our marriage, we had had sex 18 times in two years, and it was all terrible. And painful. And somewhat violent. I didn’t know if I hated myself or him. After twenty years of marriage, I had never had one orgasm. He blamed me for that. I was tired of blaming anyone. I just wanted answers. I just wanted to be happy. I just wanted something better. And, I clung to a stubborn belief that I could get better regardless of what I had experienced in terms of sexual trauma–and, believe me, there was a boatload the size of the Titanic.
What I can say now is that all the time and effort I spent churning through resources on women’s health, sexual recovery, erotic intelligence, how-to guides on masturbation, reading the epic tomes of Dr. David Schnarch, and the hours I spent talking to the very few people willing to be open and honest about sexuality with me were not wasted. I did experience a recovery and healing in a kind of isolation. A very private and personal integration. And, it was challenged in every way when I met James, the man in my life.
You don’t know just how solid you are until it goes live. Will your foundations hold? Will all the work support you? There was a lot of room for self-doubt and fear. My ex-husband’s voice was in my head, but James was in front of me. One was real. The other felt real enough, but was it? I learned that I had to choose. One small choice after one small choice. Consistently. Who would I believe? The past or the present? On paper, it sounds easy. The present, duh. In practice though? I can’t tell you how hard it was and continues to be on the bad days. Yes, there are bad days. Days when I just want to, as Liz Lemon sang, “work on my night cheese” and hide in a hole. That’s okay. The sun rises. You will always have another day to try again. And another. And another.
There is no substitute for the kind patience of a person who really likes you and finds you to be utterly fascinating and beautiful. When that kindness and admiration–nay attraction–grows into love, you have a foundation for something exhilarating, healing, and, yes, very scary.
And that is one of the secrets to healing from almost anything. To fully heal you must fully risk again. And, everything in us reels at that. That sounds counterintuitive. Why would we put ourselves into a situation in which we could be decimated…again? Are you familiar with that tired, old cliché “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” To be frank, I think it’s a stupid thing to say. There is no comfort in being told that you didn’t die at the hands of some evil thing, thereby, the evil instilling you with strength. Nope. I don’t buy it.
I think there is a different meaning here. I’m going to change it. “That (good love) which did not kill you makes you stronger.” Do you see it? “That which didn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Perhaps you survived a terrible reality like domestic violence or a really horrible family involving extremes that are not mentionable in “polite” society. Maybe you survived a stranger assault, war, tragic car accident, terrible grief, difficult and prolonged illness, mental illness that won’t give way–I could go on. It’s all trauma in one way or another. To me, it’s all “bad love”. Why? Because we end up loathing someone. Most likely, it’s ourselves that we blame or hate the most. I’m not making light or being pithy. Toxic love in all its forms drives some of the worst behaviors known to humankind. Even war. Love of country…Love of ideology…Love of God used to exterminate and Otherize.
It is integrous, kind, honest, true, patient, loyal, and consistent love that makes us stronger–“That (good love) which did not kill you will make you stronger.” A true and honest love only makes us stronger. And, for better or worse, to experience that, you must risk your heart. You must make yourself vulnerable to someone. You must try trusting someone, and if the thought of trusting someone makes your stomach turn, then you aren’t alone. It is one of the hardest things to do. I know all about that. I’ve spent the past two years feeling as if I’m living in a K Drama. Thrilling? Yes. Terrifying? Yes.
There are many paths to take should you desire more. None are fast. None are easy. There are no shortcuts, but if you keep going you just never know what’s around the corner. Your traumatized brain might think, “Something terrible probably,” but if you allow yourself to wonder beyond that for a moment maybe not. Maybe something better.
So, keep going.
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.
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:
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.
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?
Is it a tall order? Maybe. But, every tiny effort is still an effort. Be proud.
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.
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.
After almost a year of grad school perhaps one might expect to feel like this:
Sometimes, however, I swear the doctors are looking at me like this ::cough::Dr. Hong::cough::
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.”
“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.
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:
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 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.
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:
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?!
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…”
“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!”
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.
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:
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.
All images are courtesy of Anne Taintor collection and annetaintor.com
“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
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:
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!