Nine Things I’ve Learned

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

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“Where do I begin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going.

 

 

 

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Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ

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

 

 

Making Changes on Purpose

I saw Jack, my still-feeling-new therapist, on Tuesday, and we had an almost adversarial session.  It didn’t feel therapeutic to me.  I felt as if I were there to challenge his ideas and assumptions of what survivors of trauma look like.  He consistently says, “Studies show…”  and “The brains of survivors of trauma show…”  and “Studies show that survivors of torture will believe…”

I know. 

I fall outside the results of whatever studies Jack is relying on.  Had I been “studied” a year or two after I left the trafficking environment? I don’t know.  I’ve been wrestling with the elements that make me a “survivor” since I was 16 years-old.  I cognitively know what is true.  The point of therapy for me now is to build a bridge into the future rather than get mired down in the present by fear as well as to resolve any emotional dissonance that remains.  Jack is still wrestling with his own assumptions about whether how I, as a survivor of profound trauma, present in session is possible.  “You shouldn’t even be able to live as you do.  You shouldn’t have succeeded.  I don’t understand.”

Oy vey! Well, I did.  Now what?

I think about other people who survived far worse, and what they accomplished.  How many Jews left the extermination camps, emigrated, and built new lives for themselves? Successful lives.  How many émigrés from war torn countries have done the same? Leaving everything behind, including family–if they even have anyone left–and settled in foreign lands, started over, and built something new while facing prejudice and social exclusion? Humans are built to survive and even thrive.  It is possible regardless of what studies show.

Think of epigenetics.  Yes, trauma is passed down through generational lines via changes to the genome.  Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tend to be more anxious and suffer from certain health and mental health issues due to genetic changes caused by the extraordinary suffering their forebears experienced in the Holocaust.  This would hold true for other groups that experienced extreme hardship like the Great Depression and civil wars.  My paternal grandmother and grandfather both died by suicide.  My grandfather was a veteran, but his great-grandfather was also a Russian Jew who most likely emigrated due to the social oppression that kept Jews restricted to the Pale of settlement as well as kept them socially and economically restricted.  My grandmother, an anusim, was never able to reconcile her family and ancestral history with her present.  She could not resolve the dissonance and make a choice for herself.  It is hard to overcome a deeply ingrained fear particularly when keeping secrets and lying are the family way even at the expense of one’s own identity and future.

What do we do then when people tell us that certain possibilities are out of reach for us? Do we believe them?

Nope.  We do not.

Perhaps it’s cliché or stupid, but I’ve come to believe that we are often able to achieve that which we want when we decide that we can.  When we begin to imagine it.  When we find our inner contrarian and make a decision to succeed no matter what anyone else says even while they’re quoting studies about what should be possible for ‘someone like us’.

“Psychologists tell us that by the time we’re in our mid-30s, our identity or personality will be completely formed. This means that for those of us over 35, we have memorized a select set of behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, emotional reactions, habits, skills, associative memories, conditioned responses, and perceptions that are now subconsciously programmed within us. Those programs are running us, because the body has become the mind. This means that we will think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, react in identical ways, behave in the same manner, believe the same dogmas, and perceive reality the same ways. About 95 percent of who we are by midlife1 is a series of subconscious programs that have become automatic—driving a car, brushing our teeth, overeating when we’re stressed, worrying about our future, judging our friends, complaining about our lives, blaming our parents, not believing in ourselves, and insisting on being chronically unhappy, just to name a few.”
― Joe Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

This is interesting, isn’t it? So is this.

“Reason this: When you think from your past memories, you can only create past experiences. As all of the “knowns” in your life cause your brain to think and feel in familiar ways, thus creating knowable outcomes, you continually reaffirm your life as you know it. And since your brain is equal to your environment, then each morning, your senses plug you into the same reality and initiate the same stream of consciousness.”
 Joe Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One

I’ve said it before.  The brain lives in the future based upon what it knows from the past.  I am the poster child for this phenomenon.  My family, my grandmother and grandfather, lived and died by this phenomenon.  What can we do about this? Oh, so much.

“Change as a Choice, Instead of a Reaction”

I, therefore, carefully make one suggestion.  What is one small thing that you could imagine changing? You don’t have to change it in real time.  Just in your mind.  You cannot make a meaningful change in your life, if you can’t imagine it first.

I’ll go first.  I have a habit of letting my mind run away with me.  It happens when I’ve done too much in a day or after I’ve had a migraine.  Suddenly, the script starts.  A film plays in my mind in which I’m all alone in my life.  I feel lonely and overwhelmed but stoic and contrarian about the situation at the same time.  Sort of like this:

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It won’t last long.  I’ll eventually end up crying alone in my room mumbling to myself:

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I was once caught crying in the kitchen by my daughter as I sniffled, “I’m going to die alone while trying to help refugees, but I’ll be eaten by wild dogs having helped no one…”  I am not lying when I say that I have always had a larger-than-life flair for the dramatic, hence, my mother’s terrible nickname for me:

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Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest French actress of the later 19th century

My mother called me ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ for the first 20 years of my life.  I hated it although it was perhaps earned.  Per my own suggestion, I am going to imagine responding to fatigue and stress differently by creating a narrative now–when I’m not stressed.  Then, when I’m stressed I will have this narrative to call upon instead of my brain trampling over me like a herd of terrified bovines.

Will it work? We shall see, but I’m doing this in the spirit of making changes as a choice rather than from a reactionary place.

If you want to read something that has the potential to introduce you to a very different way of thinking, then I recommend this:

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The FNG Asks about Sex

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

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He even dresses like this! Total prep.

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

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

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

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This is the first thing that popped into my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jules, you’re smirking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know what he said?

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

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

Then we stared at each other.

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

For the love of….oh my sweet Lord…

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

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

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

And then he stared at me.  Again.

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you do it?

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

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

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

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The Daily Routine

Therapy in Pictures

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

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

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

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

“Have you had psychotherapy?”

“No.” (Maddow speaking)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This one is a magnet on my fridge. 

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

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

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

As always, keep going.

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