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.

giphy__11_.gif

“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:

giphy.gif

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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:

Healing Past Trauma in The Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Release with Essential Oils

 

 

The FNG Asks about Sex

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

da3317521b9eb8277352041997d0525f--blond-men-dirty-blonde-hair-men.jpg

He even dresses like this! Total prep.

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

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

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

When-Your-Mom-Tries-Set-You-Up-Blind-Date.gif

This is the first thing that popped into my head.

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

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

BountifulCoolCreature-max-1mb.gif

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

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

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

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

“Jules, you’re smirking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know what he said?

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

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

Then we stared at each other.

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

For the love of….oh my sweet Lord…

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

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

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

And then he stared at me.  Again.

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you do it?

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

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

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

20171019_094534.jpg

The Daily Routine

Therapy in Pictures

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

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

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

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

“Have you had psychotherapy?”

“No.” (Maddow speaking)

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

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

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

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

images.jpg

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:

youthsm.jpg

32e1bfa6040f9562653c8c13a7d09054.jpg

regret.jpg

anne-taintor1.jpg

745a446c5bed84a581c33991b348cf6a--anne-taintor-mothers-day.jpg

fd870c286c2b4890234ebf6c7e0d4d19--humor-retro-retro-funny.jpg

1d10e94004447d357ccb67c028db09bd--anne-taintor-funny-ha-ha.jpg

6788.jpg

MD-caption375.jpg

4f090b71a95b072589fcc1154bb5fd9c--retro-humour-retro-funny.jpg

6faf8182b835df7963c6b11f65de6a66--anne-taintor--beds.jpg

Anne-Taintor-Cocktail-Napkins-I-dreamed-my-whole-house-was-clean_grande.jpg

This one is a magnet on my fridge. 

x1252287-Call-My-Mother-250x250.jpg.pagespeed.ic.k7cOe9_hXD.jpg

37258_terriblething-7783-731x1024.jpg

51a3TlpN91L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

01801_minivan-300x300.jpg

01866_village-300x300-1.jpg

magnets-funny-i-dont-recall-asking-for-your-opinion.jpg

01896_gratitude-300x300.jpg

01841_nexttrick-300x300.png

magnets-hmmm-i-know-i-walked-into-this-room-for-a-re.jpg

01755_everywhere-300x300.jpg

01857_themoment-300x300.jpg

01871_frosting-300x300.jpg

01853_nofun-300x300.jpg

01081_makeyourown-7773.jpg

01751_mascara-300x300.jpg

01894_todolist-300x300.jpg

01762_coincidence-300x300.jpg

01726_moderation-300x300.jpg

magnets-why-id-be-delighted-to-put-my-needs-last-aga.jpg

01890_magazines-300x300.jpg

 

anne-taintor-i-ve-put-on-my-happy-face-magnet-2.jpg

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

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

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

As always, keep going.

b3c8bea83b1581c2f3b89e7e6496af08--christmas-wishes-christmas-cards.jpg

 

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

How to Grow Up Again

I walked into my therapist’s office in March 2015 with a mind to figure out what was wrong with my marriage and, thereby, me.  I told him that I knew something was happening to me that was probably not good, but, seeing that I was in the center of it all, I could no longer discern what was true and false.   I needed an objective point of view to understand the situation.  I knew I needed help.

It is now mid-September 2017, and in two weeks my therapeutic relationship with my therapist will end.  Two and half years of therapy.  Wow.  It only feels like a few months, but my life is completely different now.

When I started the therapeutic process I decided to record the process here on my blog.  My blog was already well-established in terms of therapeutic topics, and I thought that it might be helpful to provide a look behind the curtain particularly for people who were suspicious of therapy or couldn’t find a therapist.  What do people actually do “in therapy”? Why go? Does it actually work? People like to say, myself included, to “go to therapy” when life becomes a shitstorm, but does it really matter? For the love of baby owls, why won’t people stop suggesting it? It seems as if we all know someone who has been in therapy for at least a decade, and they are almost worse now than before they started.  I’m not exaggerating on that point.  I do know someone who has been seeing a therapist for over ten years, and this person is no better now than when they started.  It’s…unsettling.

So, let’s get down to it then.  Let’s be real about it.  Why go to a therapist? Why pay for it? Why put in the time and effort when we all seem to know people who have done it and gotten nothing out of it?

I’ll start off by saying that you must find the right therapist for you if you expect success.  There must be a good chemistry for the work to be meaningful otherwise you won’t build trust and take risks in your disclosure.  Also, you won’t take their suggestions or comments seriously.  They will lack credibility.  You’ll stay entrenched in a defensive and suspicious posture.  I’ve experienced this numerous times with my daughters’ therapists.  There are myriad children’s and adolescent therapists in the world, and most of them seem to be mediocre.  I have observed them talking down to kids or simply pushing their own worldview onto them.  They start off sessions with their own agenda and expect the client, the kid, to adhere to their expectations.  They can treat kids like pets who must obey commands rather than like people with rights and personalities of their own.  It is a rarity to find a therapist who works with kids who treats a kid like an adult in the making.  When you do, you’ll find that the waiting list to see them is long.  A good therapist is recognized, and people want to work with him/her.

This process of finding the right therapist is the same for adults.  You have to interview a potential therapist.  Do your research.  Look at their CV.  Where were they educated? What is their certification? How long have they been working? I chose my current therapist because he had a PhD in neuroscience, and I thought that this PhD would pair very well with his therapy work particularly as it related to the profound trauma in my past.  I was right.  His knowledge was extensive, and I gained a far greater understanding of my brain and trauma than I ever had before.  Additionally, he had a great therapy bedside manner.  We worked really well together.

Once you’ve got the therapist, then you must have an idea of what you want out of the experience.  This is one of the most important aspects of having a successful therapeutic experience.  I’ve made a career out of going to therapy.  If you have complex PTSD, then you have to get to know the therapeutic process.  It is one of the primary highways out of the complexity of that diagnosis.  In “therapy speak”, a therapist will ask what your treatment plan should be.  This means, “Why are you here? What do you want? What do you want to accomplish when you’re working with a therapist?”

Even for me, a seasoned client, I find those questions daunting.  So, to get to the answer, I imagine how I would like my life or my inner life to look at the end of therapy.  If I’m coming into therapy an emotional mess completely incapable of handling conflict, then I might say, “I can’t tolerate distress.  I would like to increase my distress tolerance particularly around _______________.”  If I’m coming into therapy because I’m being abused by a partner or because I’m trying to put boundaries down with an emotionally abusive parent, then I might say, “I need help in figuring out what is happening with X person.  I feel confused, scared, and helpless, and I don’t want to feel like that anymore.  I want to get my personal power back and learn how to say ‘no’, learn how to put boundaries down, and then how to enforce them without feeling so afraid all the time.  How do I do that? And, if this is abusive in nature, then what do I even do about that? Also, how did it get to this point? I need help figuring out how I didn’t see this happening until it got so bad.” Essentially, what you are doing is giving a therapist a map.  You are starting at A and pointing to M on your personal map.  Your therapist will then help you create a roadmap using their training to get you there.  The condition is that you must show up on the scheduled dates and do everything that your therapist suggests.  You must do the work.

Therapy homework.  This can be the hardest part.  Talking to a therapist can be unpleasant, but it is the homework that matters more.  Whatever work you are told to do  you must do because this is what creates momentum.  This is what actually progresses you along your roadmap.  Every single person I’ve ever met who has succeeded in therapy does the homework.  They suspend their egos and submit to that process.  If they have to do a workbook, then they do it.  If they have to write “dead letters” to people who hurt them in the past, then they do it.  And they do it with 100% effort.  You will get out of therapy what you put into it.  This is why trusting your therapist is vital.  You have to believe that the work you’re being given matters particularly if it feels aversive to you.

Does it work? What are the results? I can speak for myself.  Almost fifteen years ago, I set out to do a deep and meaningful work with a therapist.  I thought that I had addressed past trauma and abuse involving both my parents, but, as it turns out, my past efforts had not been sufficient.  I was still stuck on the All-Good/All-Bad Child rollercoaster with my mother who has a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis, and I couldn’t get off.  I didn’t know what was healthy in terms of a mother/daughter relationship.  I worked with him for three years.  That work was one of the most significant therapeutic experiences of my life.  I am a changed person because of those years and no longer victimized by either of my parents.

Today, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago.  I believed that I had hit a dead end.  I believed that I had invested the best years of my life in a marriage that had become abusive, empty, and miserable.  What’s more, I believed what my then husband had told me about myself: I was a liability and no one would ever want me.  So why bother even attempting to build a better life? I was useless and worthless.  Knowing me was like walking through a minefield.  Truly.  I believed this, but I didn’t want to believe this.  I fostered hope that he was wrong.  That is what motivated me to find a therapist.  I had a kernel of hope inside myself that he was, in fact, lying to me.

Hope.  This is probably the most important factor in terms of why you find and stay in therapy.

Lastly, you finally get to grow up again and expand your emotional education–properly–when you go to therapy:

Therapy is our gateway to growing up.  When we find a therapist who we like and trust, we can actually do the work of maturing and growing into the adults who we have always wanted to be.  How?

  • A good therapist walks with you through those memories that are holding you back in order to help you resolve them so that you no longer carry them, and they no longer define you.
  • A good therapist helps you learn to talk about your feelings so that you can communicate effectively within your relationships.
  • A good therapist validates you and your life experiences.  This is key because we need validation to feel safe and sane.
  • A good therapist teaches you how to self-validate so that you are no longer beholden to others for your validation and sense of self.
  • A good therapist models empathy which, hopefully, will teach us how to do the same.
  • A good therapist teaches us how to be empowered in our relationships forsaking victim thinking, codependency, and caretaking.
  • A good therapist provides a reality check and tough love when necessary so that we learn what true accountability in relationships looks like.
  • A good therapist guides us into learning distress tolerance so that we can give up maladaptive coping strategies that harm us and our relationships.
  • A good therapist provides insights into what motivates us so that we learn to become curious about ourselves and why we make certain choices.
  • A good therapist legitimizes separation, individuation, and differentiation from our parents which is so often the root of our suffering.
  • A good therapist teaches us a better way to think and shows us where we are believing negative things and, thusly, how those negative beliefs manifest in negative behaviors.

Therapy is the environment in which we continue developing as humans except that we have the opportunity to develop into better humans.  Therapy is meant to teach us so that we are equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.

Who do you suppose does better in a crisis? The person who trusts themselves or the person who is rootless, anxious, and doesn’t trust anyone? Part of becoming an educated person is receiving an emotional education as well.  One of my favorite college professors once told a group of women that her goal in teaching us was to create educated women.  When asked what that meant, she replied, “To be truly educated means that you are critical thinkers.  It means that if you don’t know the answer to a question, then you know how to go about finding it.”

This is what it means to be emotionally educated.  It means that you are a critical thinker when it comes to yourself.  You are self-aware.  You understand your motives.  You know what you need.  You can self-advocate.  You can trust others.  You trust yourself.  You know how to ask for what you want, and you are not beholden to others for your sense of worth or sense of calm.  If you find yourself in difficult situations for which you are not equipped, then you know how to go about equipping yourself.  You know the skills you have, and you know the ones you need.  Lastly, you take responsibility for yourself–your actions, your feelings, your desires, and your needs.

This is what therapy can do for us.  All of those inadequacies that we see today? Those deficits in our personalities that we try to hide out of shame? Reframe them.  They are just opportunities when you put them in a therapeutic environment.  What if you simply need to learn a new skill? We will all be developing and maturing until the day we die, picking up more wisdom as we go.  Engaging in your own emotional education is not something to be ashamed of.  It should be celebrated.

Remaining emotionally illiterate because someone somewhere once said that only weak people see shrinks? I think that’s the least educated view of all. (Empowered Grace)

Find a Therapist

 

 

The Essence of Healing

I wanted to write something germane to your life and process.  Something that might speak to you.  To anyone.  To everyone.  Perhaps this might.

I go to therapy every Tuesday.  I like to think that I’m ‘getting it done’ whatever ‘it’ is, but, as with all sorts of processes, I stalled.  I wasn’t wasting time per se, but I wasn’t hitting it hard.  I’ve been at this for two years now which shocks me.  I want to finish it…whatever ‘it’ is.

Once again, I was in the Hot Seat, and my therapist was looking at me as he does.

“So, what would you like today to be about?” he asked.

I inwardly groaned.  I knew what was on my mind.  Fear.  I was afraid.  I had been feeling dread for a few weeks.  A nameless dread.  A creeping anxiety that would ooze into me and out of me at the same time until I felt paralyzed in both my body and life.  I couldn’t make choices.  It’s not that I couldn’t make good choices.  I couldn’t seem to make any choices.  As much as I’ve learned about cognitive distortions and mindfulness, I still felt caught up in the washing machine of my own inner turmoil.  It wasn’t depression exactly.  It felt like a flavor of anxiety.  A big anxiety.  Generalized.  A suffocating fog that shrouded every area of my life.

I knew what I was afraid of, and I feared that if I talked about it, then I might empower it.  I decided that I didn’t want to talk about it or even give it room; and yet it was taking up all too much room in me.  So, I attempted to name it.

I admitted to my therapist that I was very afraid that I would break apart at some point.  Now that I’ve written it out it seems rather harmless or silly, but that’s not how it feels.  The ‘what if’ questions were dogging me relentlessly.  “What if something happens to me that I can’t recover from? What if I can’t endure the pain? What if I am dehumanized to such a degree that I become a dispirited, soulless, desolate woman? What if something happens that I simply can’t bounce back from?” As soon as these questions begin, I freeze.  I have no answers for them.  I hold my breath.  I begin to feel a profound fear that shuts down my thinking brain and activates my limbic system.  There is no longer any reason.  Only a warped instinct that seeks to hijack all my rational processes and turns me into a reptile.

For months, I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it, then it might stop.  It did not.  It festered.  I cried trying to describe it.  I thought that perhaps just engaging in the act of sharing my turmoil might lessen the burden.  It did not.

After I had revealed my fears to my therapist, he looked at me quizzically.

“So, you are afraid of breaking? That something might happen to you that is so terrible you will not be able to recover? That you will become a shell of a woman?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Hasn’t that already happened to you?” he asked looking somewhat confused.

“Has it?” I asked beginning to feel confused as well.

“Well, how desolate were you after you returned from being abducted?” he asked.

“Oh my gosh, I was definitely shattered after that,” I said.

“And how empty and in despair were you when you came to see me two years ago?” he asked.

“I was about as low as I’ve ever been,” I admitted.

“How low were you when you cut your father out of your life? And your mother? How much anguish have you known all in all? How existentially destroyed have you felt?”

I had no answer.  I just sat there crying.

“So, it’s pretty clear that you have what it takes to heal, isn’t it?” he asked.

I didn’t consider that.  I didn’t want to consider that.  I felt exhausted.

“There is a limit to how much a person can actually experience in terms of pain.  In terms of physical pain, a person will pass out once that limit is reached.  In terms of emotional pain, you’ve probably reached that.  There isn’t another level to your pain.  You’ve been there.  You’ve done that.  You already know what it’s like, and you’ve already recovered from it,” he explained.

Honestly, I did not know that.  I kept anticipating an exponential increase in emotional pain.

“So, I have what it takes? I don’t need to be fearful that something will break me? I’ve already been faced with the worst and survived it?” I asked feeling suspicious.

“Yes.  Your fear is not based in truth although your past experiences certainly legitimize your anxiety.” he said.

“I’m afraid that I’ll have to do it again.  That something so profoundly terrible will happen to me that I’ll have to rebuild myself yet again, and I’m so afraid of paying the price again.  It is so hard.  It is excruciatingly painful.  I can’t begin to adequately describe how hard it was to come back and try to live again after being abducted and everything that entailed.  After my marriage.  After everything that happened within that relationship,” I cried.

“Do you know that you have what it takes to come back though? Should your worst fears come true? Do you have what it takes?” he asked leaning towards me.

And that’s when I was still.  I sat with the very things that had been paralyzing me.  I went back into the memories of my lowest, most broken places.  The moment when I knew that my captor was going to kill me if I didn’t make a break for it.  The moment in my marriage when I knew I was going to die from an autoimmune disease if I didn’t get out.  What did those moments have in common? How exactly did I survive and make it to where I am now?

Clarity.  In those moments, everything became crystal clear for me.  I felt little to nothing in those moments.  Suddenly, a much deeper instinct came online, and everything came into focus.  I heard a clear voice: “Run.  Get out.  Do whatever it takes.  It’s time.”  And, I did.  Worries about the future fell away.  It was very much like standing in the eye of a storm.  I grew up in East Texas, the land of hurricanes.  When I was a child, I once went outside when the eye of a hurricane was passing over our neighborhood.  The winds had been powerful and violent, and debris, pine needles and branches covered everything within walking distance.  The calm that descended upon us as the eye passed over was chilling.  My mother yelled at me to come inside, but I wanted to experience the ephemeral peace of these legendary storms.  This is comparable to what happened to me when I realized that I had to make big decisions about my own survival be it in life and death circumstances or in abusive relationships.

My therapist called those experiences finding “my essence”.  And, that is what I would leave you with.

I am convinced that humans can survive anything, but I have never been interested in survival.  I have always wanted to live a meaningful life, and my definition of a “meaningful life” has evolved over time.  Nonetheless, the idea that we have an essence that is unique to us and cannot be obliterated or annihilated by trauma encourages me.  It is fear of annihilation that was at the root of my profound anxiety.  How much betrayal could I tolerate? How much suffering could I overcome? What if I reach a point when I finally succumb to suffering and am left in desolation for the rest of my life?

I have to ask those questions as I venture into the darkness in therapy because, at times in therapy, we will stand eye to eye with the monsters.  Only you know who your monsters are, but I suspect that we all have at least one.  And, our monsters know our names and our softest spots.  They know how to kill us be it metaphorically or in real life.  Your courage and bravery don’t emerge when you’re on top of the world embracing the joy.  Your courage, your essence, is forged when you’re blinded by the utter darkness of your fear, pain, and suffering, and yet you choose to get up and act even if you are guaranteed nothing but more fear, pain, and suffering.  In my experience, that’s when your essential self lights up, and you can actually start to see again.

I am still wrestling with my anxiety, but it’s getting better.  No one said that the road to building a better life would be easy or even a fair process, but I can state this with certainty.  You will know what you’re made of as you engage in this.

Your essence will come forward, and you’ll find that you were capable of a lot more than you ever thought.