Nine Things I’ve Learned

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

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“Where do I begin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Becoming Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Ask for what you want and deserve.

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

2. Say no.

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

3. Speak up.

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

4. Stand your ground.

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

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

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

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

May you forge new victories as you keep going.

Further Reading:

Phoenix Rising

I did not do EMDR at my last session.  My therapist was correct.  My brain caught on very quickly that it was time to “open it up”, so to speak, and every unresolved trauma left came pouring forth  with relentless haste.  I was none too pleased about it, but, at the same time, I wanted to grind it out as soon as possible.

Let’s just get this done! I’m ready, but then again…

There were details emerging that I had forgotten.  I “forgot” them for a reason.  I never wanted to remember them again.  I had to go in my room and collect myself more than a few times.

One of my father’s preferred methods of behavior shaping was torture–animal torture in specific.  He would torture and kill animals in front of me making sure that I understood that the animal was a proxy for me.  If I were to ever disobey or defy him, then what I was witnessing in that moment would be done to me.  Yes, this is brutal and horror-inducing.  It was supposed to be, but my father had no problem doing that.  He had a craving for sadism, and he was very good at planning and carrying out torture in all its forms.  The US government had paid him to do it for years.  He had a gift after all.

Recalling it all in such detail was, needless to say, extremely unpleasant, and that is what was discussed in therapy.  How does one put meaning to the meaningless? Truly, how?! This is why some sorts of trauma–the nihilistic sort–are so hard to come back from.  Watching your parent torture and kill animals in front of you all the while knowing that he would really rather be doing that to you counts as an annihilating sort of trauma.  It breaks you down in a way that few other things can, and the brain can never make sense of it.  It is next to impossible to adaptively process it.  It goes right alongside something like incest.

So, what does one do? How do we adaptively process something so unspeakably horrible? Evil even?

My therapist actually hit a wall in session at this.  Speaking only for myself, I can usually process something if I can add meaning to it.  No matter how horrible, if I can take meaning away from it, then I can adaptively process it.  That is how I’ve managed to make peace and heal from almost everything I’ve experienced–even the trafficking.  But, some of things my father did have languished in a compartment in my mind, untouched, because I did not know what to do with them.  The time has come, and all I have been able to do is circle those memories like a wolf under threat.

During session, as my therapist sat in his chair looking puzzled, the story of a Jewish man came to mind.  He had survived Auschwitz and immigrated to America to begin again.  He lost his entire family.  All of them.  He was completely alone in the world.  He enrolled in medical school as a non-native speaker and became a physician.  He got married.  He had children.  He built a life with everything against him.  Can you imagine the horrors he witnessed? The depth and weight of the grief he carried? Can you imagine having no one to speak to about it? Can you imagine there being no one in the entire world left who knew you? You would be a stranger everywhere you went.  No friends.  No family.  No countrymen.

So, how did he get up again? That is the question I asked in session.  This man.  Many, many people have done what he did.  They overcame insurmountable odds and built something much bigger than they were.  What is that quality? Why even bother? I eventually said, “I think he must have continued on because he had hope.  Why else would a person continue to try if not for hope?”

And that was the moment that my therapist looked at me and said, “Is that why you keep going? In all the absolutely terrible things that your father did to you and made you witness, how did you continue to get up again?”

I had to think about it.  It was hope, yes, but it was something else.  He never broke me, and that is what he had tried to do.  Yes, he did torture me, but I never called him ‘sir’.  I never gave him what he wanted.  And, I always believed that if he was ever successful in breaking me down to a point that I did break, I would get up eventually.  I would resurrect.  He was powerful, but I was somehow more powerful because he could not snuff me out entirely.

And I was right.

And therein lies the meaning to all of the meaningless trauma.

If you are alive and breathing, then you were not completely annihilated.  You were not broken down into nothingness.  You may have seen and experienced things that you worry you won’t ever be able to tell another person lest you traumatize them in the telling.  I understand this.  But, your breath and heartbeat both tell you that you can rise again, and that means more than you might realize.

Your life might look like a pile of ash right now, but sometimes starting over from nothing is exactly what is necessary in order to build something new.  Discovering that you can’t be erased, that you have what it takes, that you are, in fact, a survivor removes the self-doubt that has kept you from getting up and walking an uncertain road.  Once you know, however, what you’re really made of, the uncertainties that lie ahead aren’t nearly so scary because you’ve already been scared.  The future? As uncertain as it is, you know you have what it takes now.

And knowing that you have what it takes to face every uncertainty is worth more than almost anything.  That is how you turn trauma into meaning.  Lead into gold.  That is emotional alchemy.  And that’s how you get up again.

So, keep going no matter where you are in your process.  You might still be dealing with lead.  Just get up.  Start walking.  That is how it begins.  Every story must have a beginning before you get to the middle.  And every narrative has a dénouement and a terrible villain; otherwise, there would be no need for a hero.

And every phoenix needs fire and ash before it rises again.

Keep going.  Make that your mantra.

 

The Event Horizon

I had coffee with a friend tonight.  I think it was just supposed to be an easy “how’ve you been” sort of coffee, but that’s not what it was.

How do I explain this? I have met few people in my life who experientially understand deep trauma, and, realistically, that’s a good thing.  I would rather not meet people who have suffered profound trauma.  The world needs less of that.  I would rather not cause my therapists to acquire secondary trauma just by being my therapist, but it happens.  Seeing one’s therapist cry is not a goal.  It’s painful.

So, my friend and I circumlocuted.  We talked around the subject of our current therapeutic circumstances because neither one of us wanted to actually get down to the nitty gritty.  We know each other’s stories, but neither one of us wanted to discuss details.  We are both neck deep, yet again, in the therapeutic process.  I know why she’s in therapy.  She knows why I’m in therapy.  We’ve both been riding the therapy train on and off for years.  We’re both tired of it.  When does it end? It does end, doesn’t it? Eventually?

What choice, however, do we have? Complex PTSD does not heal itself, and C+PTSD is not the same thing as PTSD.  There are different kinds of trauma.  Acute trauma exists.  It sticks with you for a while.  It’s painful, and it throws a wrench into the physiological works.  I don’t minimize it at all.  Profound trauma, however, that annihilates one’s identity is a different animal.  It changes a personality.  It can change the course of a life.  It can leave a person forever broken if not effectively tended to.

I wish I could understand it.  Why do some people find functionality in the midst of it and others wither and die? Theories abound, but that’s about it.  How is it that some people left Auschwitz, for example, immigrated to America with no family left alive, and started over successfully? How is it that refugees from war torn countries build new lives for themselves after watching family members, friends, and fellow countrymen die in front of them in sometimes very grotesque ways?

I have been a witness to extraordinary violence to both animals and humans, and I will always carry those memories.  That’s what the EMDR will be addressing.  My friend has as well.  She doesn’t know anyone else who has experienced anything close to what she has except me and I her.  And, much to my surprise, she actually understood what I meant by the term the Event Horizon.

What is the Event Horizon? Well, it’s the name I’ve given to an all-encompassing emotional experience that overtakes me out of the blue.  I dread it.  I first experienced it after my ex-husband moved out.  It was very surprising to me.  I was all but elated that I was free from the oppressive circumstances that I had no idea what this emotional shit storm was about.  It felt like a primal fear had taken hold of me, and the overwhelming nature of it was so strong that I felt like I might die.  My friend knew exactly what I was talking about.  She had the same experiences.

Really? I was relieved that I wasn’t alone.  I asked her what she thought this was about.  When I told my therapist about it, he just nodded and said, “It’s trauma.”  Trauma?! Well…I’ve been dealing with profound trauma since toddlerhood.  I’ve never experienced this before.  Why now? Her input? How many rounds of major trauma have I experienced? I’m on my third go-round: 1) Mother and Father 2) Abduction and trafficking 3) Domestic violence.  I think the domestic violence got to me in a special way, hence, the onset of the repeated Event Horizon experiences.

What fuels the Event Horizon experiences? Dread.  Fear.  Panic.  Inordinate grief.  Profound emotional pain.  The brain spins its tales.  All brains tell stories.  Brains do that.  My brain spins nasty tales based on past experiences except my past experiences are so extreme that, when in the midst of one of my Event Horizon experiences, I can’t be reasoned with.  I simply have to white knuckle it until it passes.  The stories my brain throws at me are all plausible based on past experiences.  Unfortunately, I’ve been kidnapped.  I’ve been raped numerous times in the trafficking environment.  I’ve endured the “breaking in” process.  I’ve seen another person murdered.  I’ve endured torture.  I’ve been betrayed by people I trusted implicitly.  These are experiences that are very difficult to process.  They don’t make sense.  They are hard to put meaning to.  What’s more, they profoundly erode one’s ability to trust others, and, honestly, they leave me feeling as if I’m on the outside looking in in terms of social interactions.  That is one of the primary and lasting effects of this type of trauma.  Where does one belong? What is normal in terms of life experiences? I can tell you what is normative for my life experiences.

Intellectually, I know what should be normal and healthy, but, on a deeper level, I wish I had more normative life experiences.

This is exactly why I will forge ahead with EMDR.  All of these life experiences, as bad as they were, can be adaptively processed and should be.  I don’t want to experience the Event Horizon anymore, and I don’t want to maladaptively identify with this trauma any longer either.

So, as I forge ahead, I encourage and even challenge you to do the same.  No matter what your trauma looks like or feels like to you, you don’t have to live a life beholden to it.  I refuse to.  So, I will keep going.  No matter how hard it becomes.

Fight for the life you want.  That’s a fight you and I will never regret.

The Red Herring Effect

I was about to hit my stride when I wrote “Your Narrative Brain and Trauma Recovery”, but then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came around; I became contemplative and pondered the nature of healing and what keeps us trapped in the same cycles.  What is the nature of this repeating trek around the same mountain? Why do we do this? Posing the question in different terms, what prevents us from actually progressing and stepping onto the path to a new place? A destination of our choosing?

I suspect that it has something to do with truth and our capacity for grief.  Resiliency in a word.

What is resiliency?

“Healthy, resilient people have stress-resistant personalities and learn valuable lessons from rough experiences. Resilience is the process of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. Resilient people overcome adversity, bounce back from setbacks, and can thrive under extreme, on-going pressure without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways. The most resilient people recover from traumatic experiences stronger, better, and wiser.

When hurt or distressed, resilient people expect to find a way to have things turn out well. They feel self-reliant and have a learning/coping reaction rather than the victim/blaming reaction that is so common these days.” (Al Seibert, PhD)

It’s the learning/coping reaction when distressed that I want to discuss largely because we live in an age that is saturated with information.  There is too much to know and too much information to sift through.  How do we discern good and useful information from bad and useless information? When does doing helpful research turn into avoidance behavior and an excuse not to engage in decisive action? The world has changed drastically in the last twenty years, but humans have not.  We are still the same.  We still need to cope.  We still need relief from our suffering.  Our maladaptive coping strategies just look more sophisticated, and we might look more resilient than we actually are.

What point am I trying to make?

Sometimes in our process of trying to shake loose our bonds, we might feel like we are doing a more effective healing work than we really are.  Using my own journey as an example:

It’s no secret that I hail from an abusive family of origin.  My father and his wife were paragons of godly virtue and morality in public but nightmares behind closed doors.  It was systematic abuse meant to breakdown my personality, and it was intentional.  After I left my family, I felt ambivalence towards my father, but I felt nothing short of hatred towards my step-mother.  It was white hot, and I felt ashamed to feel such intense negativity.  I wanted to rid myself of it.  Ground it.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t.  She bore witness to all he did.  She egged him on.  She suggested certain actions.  I believed that some of the abuse would never have even happened had she simply been silent.  I blamed her entirely.  To me, it was her fault.

But was it?

As I progressed through the therapeutic process, I observed that I had placed all the blame for my father’s abuse upon my step-mother because I could not come to terms with what was actually true.  It was my father who abused me.  My father.  And, fathers are not supposed to abuse their children.  There had to be a reason for the extreme scenarios that I experienced.  I felt that I could reason my way through my experiences, but logic simply does not apply to the excruciating pain left in the wake of trauma.  Was my step-mother responsible? Yes, she was.  She enabled the abuse, but my father was responsible for my well-being.  He was supposed to model paternal love, caring, and nurturing, and he did the opposite.  My step-mother had nothing to do with his failure.  That was all on him.

Sometimes, during our healing process, our mind casts out a red herring.  A red herring is something that is intended to distract us from the more relevant issue.  Sure, my step-mother and I had things to resolve.  She was culpable, but my focus on her guilt distracted me from the more relevant issue–my father’s misdeeds.  If I was ever going to heal, then I had to stop focusing on the lesser crimes, release my hatred, and turn my attention toward the real issue that I was so vigorously avoiding.  I had to accept the hard truth that my father failed spectacularly in his role, and I was suffering inordinately for it.  It was very hard to accept.  Why? His spectacular moral failures led to questions about myself that were too painful to ask much less answer, but that is exactly why the therapeutic process exists.  It provides us with the context to dig our way through and out of the mire of the grief, pain, and confusion that the trauma of abuse leaves us with.  It is imperative, however, that we use the desire for truth as our shovel as it were.

That relentless drive to know the truth of our circumstances as well as the truth behind our habits, coping strategies be they maladaptive or healthy, and those things that fuel our thoughts and beliefs is what goes to stoking resiliency.  I am convinced of this.

So, be on the lookout for any red herrings in your life.  They often feel like truth, and in some ways they are, but they can keep you chasing your tail and circling the mountain for years when, in fact, you really want to find the road that leads you to the life you most desire.

Further Reading:

 

 

What Your Brain Knows

Hello, hello, hello! I apologize for my absence.  I have been recovering from not a small surgery, and I don’t think I remember half of September nor the beginning of October at all.  I found a stack of bills last night that I have no recollection of receiving.  Mea culpa! I have been very limited in my physical activities as in no lifting anything larger than a loaf of bread.  This has rubbed me the wrong way to be sure.  I have had far too much time to think.  And the thoughts tend to bubble up…

Surgery and marital separation, at the same time, can be tricky particularly if one’s surgery was the result of injuries sustained within the relationship.  My attitude going into the surgery was one of “Let’s just wipe out all evidence that he ever hurt me.”  I had the hip surgery last year; a surgery required to repair an injury caused by him as well.  I felt pretty good about this year’s surgery.  It will be the last one.  I’ll be home free.  I am not in love with him anymore.  I feel no attachment to him.  I spent three years within the marriage mourning the loss of the marriage.  The actual physical separation was just a representation of what already existed.  It had dissolved.  For me anyway.  I had done my time and paid my dues.  I had been seriously injured twice.  By him.  The surgery? Piece of cake.

Not so.  There were post-operative complications.  It was my version of hell.  There were unforeseen familial complications for someone close to me while I was in the hospital.  My children were scared and stressed.  My house guest was stressed.  And, I was helpless.  And drugged.  But not properly drugged.  So many things went wrong.  I didn’t recover my full abilities for weeks due to hospital incompetence.

That sense of vulnerability and fear caused a trauma memory to emerge.  It happens.  For those of us who have been traumatized, we experience the re-emergence of old memories.  Sometimes it’s just a flash.  Sometimes it’s an entire experience, and it’s something that our brain took, put in containment, and stored away.  When it comes forward, it feels real and very familiar.  When I experience the restoration of a memory, my first response is always, “Oh yeah, I remember that!”  It’s as if I always remembered it.  A piece of the puzzle has been found.  “Hey, there’s that corner piece I’ve needed.”  After the memory resurfaces, I usually feel nothing.  There is little to no emotional content.  It’s like looking at someone else’s family photo: “Oh, that’s nice.  There’s Pam and John vacationing by the Black Sea.”  The picture, however, is only the beginning.

I dread the process of understanding the memory and why my brain chose that moment to release it.  There will be pain.  I will suffer.  It will take me to my limits, and I know this.  I used to fight this process and do everything possible to avoid it, but then I wouldn’t heal.  I also would not discover the purpose behind the memory.  Our brains are purposeful.  When our brains decide to release a memory that was deep sixed for years, the first thing to do is:

Ask why.  What is in this memory for me? What is this memory trying to tell me?

The memory that was suddenly staring me down was an event from my abduction.  A horrible experience.  No wonder my brain chose to keep it from me for so long.  I was nearly killed in the experience.  It was an experience of sheer terror.  I chose to sit in it.  To let it wash over and through me.  I chose to feel it rather than run from it.  It took me to my emotional and cognitive limits.  I asked myself what I was feeling.  What was I thinking? Words were hard, but, in the end, I heard myself say, “I feel so disposable.  I am so disposable.”

There it is.  Once I heard myself identify the core belief in that memory aside from profound fear, I started connecting the dots.  I grew up in a family of origin where I was expendable, and I am currently leaving a marriage where I truly did feel like I fell last on the list.  Like an option.  I was afraid.

“What if I really am disposable?”

I was reluctant to discuss this with my therapist.  I have not discussed any of my past experiences with him.  I’ve not had a need or even a desire to discuss any of it.  I’ve processed it as much as a person probably could, but I chose this therapist for a reason.  I chose him because he specializes in trauma.  It was time to take a risk and let him in on some of the old stuff.  So, I told him what I remembered.  I told him what I had processed on my own.  In all his skill, he saw what I could not:

“You survived something that no one should ever have to survive.  In that moment, when your life was being threatened, you did not beg for it.  You sat still and determined to play along.  You determined to find a way out.  You determined to get out alive.  And, then you did it.  To the people who had you, you were disposable, but, to you, you were not.  You fought for yourself.  Do you suppose that what your brain is trying to tell you now is that you have already survived the worst thing imaginable? You knew then that you were worth fighting for even when everyone around you was planning your death.  You know how to do this.  Even if no one knows what you’re worth, you do.  And, you’ll fight even unto death because you know your own value because you almost had to do that.”

He was right.  My brain did not bring forth a highly traumatic memory to torment me.  No, my brain was trying to tell me that I knew how to fight for myself.  I had already faced off with a formidable enemy.  I had already answered some big questions a long time ago.  I was not disposable.  Just because I was married to someone who hurt me doesn’t mean that I’m worth hurting or somehow expendable.

Why does this matter for you? For those of us who have struggled with trauma, we often run from the memories when they resurface.  Who wants to deal with that old shit again? Well, I am discovering that our brains seem to know better sometimes.  There is often a profound self-validation and communication that occurs within the self through these memories.  Nothing in our life experiences is quite as extreme as our perception of our own trauma, and that’s often why our brains bring those memories forward.  Our present fears feel huge.  Our looming anxieties can rule us.  The great and mighty “What if…” seems to stalk us, but our deep self knows better.  “Look,” it says, “look what you did here.  If you can fight for yourself there, if you can survive that, then surely you are resilient enough to make it through this.  Now feel it.  Feel how big you are.  You are bigger than the biggest trauma.”

I could not have done this kind of work five years ago.  I did not have the distress tolerance for it.  The feelings associated with the trauma would have overwhelmed me and set me back, but, as you build up your distress tolerance and inner resources, processing trauma can become something different.  Your inner self can begin to use your healing process not only as a means to heal you from your past but also to set a better trajectory for your future.

Prayer and Resiliency

Where does resiliency come from? I don’t know.  I’ve read that it comes from a sense of being loved.  Early in life, if a child senses that they are loved by at least one person, then they will have some kind of resiliency in the face of suffering.

What about in adulthood? What happens when our resources have run out? What happens when our parents have either died or are not available to us? What if our friends are nowhere to be found? What if we have friends, but our circumstances are too great? No friend could ever fix what is wrong.  What if our problem either lies within us or too close to us to adequately represent to another person without sacrificing what little self-respect we have left? How do you find your resiliency in circumstances like these? How do you start to gather momentum in order to change for the better?

I only know one way.  Prayer.  I know, I know, it sounds so passive.  Prayer? To a lot of people prayer might sound like the least effective thing to do.  Ever.

It’s not.  Prayer accomplishes a great deal in one act.  It centers you in on your emotions producing mindfulness.  It helps you stop judging yourself and your feelings as either good or bad.  Feelings are feelings.  They are neither good nor bad.  Prayer puts you in a position to ask for help which is often very challenging because so often the help available to us comes with conditions.  Prayer allows our inner man to inhale and exhale freely which is vital to physical health.  So often when we live in oppressive environments, our inner man is “corseted” and censored, always making his or her responses dependent upon how others react.  We are able to remove our bindings during prayer and find relief and release.  Prayer also connects us to God and energizes our soul.  We can express gratitude, grief, pain, fear, and any other emotion on the spectrum of human feeling during prayer.  We can lament.  We can scream.  We can laugh.  We can say nothing.  Simple acts can be prayers.  Groans.  Cries.  Tears.  Silence.  Even joyous smiles when directed upward.

Someone might say that they don’t know how to begin.  It feels awkward.  How do you pray?  Aren’t there rules? Don’t you have to begin with Thanksgiving? Isn’t there an acrostic? When do you confess? Aren’t you supposed to save “supplication” for last? To quote my Swedish grandfather, “P’shaw!” Throw it all out.  Prayer is your intimate time with God–when you are alone with Him.  This is a primary way that you develop your relationship with Him.  There are many books written on prayer, but, ultimately, you get to decide on how to be yourself with God.

Are there good books available? There are.  The best? The Book of Psalms in the Old Testament or Jewish Bible.  These are a collection of prayers, and they have been translated many, many times.  I am fond of this one:

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click image for link

The most famous of the Psalms is Psalm 23, but there are so many more that are equally moving–150 to be exact.  They capture what it means to be fully human and fully flawed.  They portray us in all our human splendor before God, and God responds to us with compassion.  The writers of the Psalms cry out, rejoice, run from life, seek revenge, beat themselves up, wallow, plead, praise and worship, glorify, dream, hide, and rest.  We can see ourselves in every prayerful poem.  We can use their words to give voice to our hearts and minds.  Our circumstances no matter how delightful or terrible can be found in the Psalms.

This is where I turn when I’ve run out of fuel.  When I don’t know what to say.  When I don’t know how to put words to the contents of my heart.  When I feel like I don’t have permission to even try.  I allow King David to speak for me.  Ever so slowly, I find myself praying his words and my soul is quickened.  I feel hope again.  I feel renewed.  I remember that I can keep going, and that’s resiliency–knowing that you have what it takes to continue onward because you are not going it alone.

You are seen by Someone greater.  Someone greater than your pain.  Someone greater than your oppressors.  Someone greater than your circumstances.

Even if you can only keep going for today.  Pray again tomorrow.  Strength rises with the sun.

This is how prayer can help you renew your resiliency.