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

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Reporting Sexual Harassment and Trauma

In a state of anxious frustration, I wrote about sexual harassment a few month’s ago.  Another student was sexually harassing me, and my school’s administration was less than stellar in their handling of the situation.  Well, they really didn’t handle it.  The situation is still “pending” in that other women have come forward with similar complaints about the same student.  I have learned that this student is a known offender, and the administration had known about his propensity to harass women for at least a year if not longer prior to my complaint.  And, they did nothing.  What’s more, he is studying to be a healthcare practitioner! Do you want to spend time alone in a room with a guy like this? I do not.  Alas, my school seems oblivious to the implications of graduating a predator, and I’m personally very alarmed by this.

I’m profoundly troubled not to mention I have two classes with this person. He sits directly behind me in one them and mouth breaths the entire time.

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Or, he turns around and stares directly at me glaring in a menacing way.  Either way, it is uncomfortable and disconcerting. Knowing now that the school administration lied to me about his history of harassment fires me up.  I am taking action, but, at the same time, I feel tremendous anxiety about doing so.  And this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of how both men and women must deal with social injustice in institutions.

Why is it so difficult and fear provoking? When faced with taking on an institution like a corporation or a college, why do so many people weight the costs and decide to absorb the inequity of the injustice?

The first reason is because institutions tend to exist well after complaints are made against them largely because they have almost infinite resources compared to complainants.  They often have a fleet of lawyers on retainer compared to the sole advocate that a complainant brings to the table.  This alone is often enough to deter a person from pursuing a complaint.  Institutions have financial resources that dwarf an individual’s bank account, and they have the will to go the distance in terms of the legal process.  Most individuals don’t have the time, energy, or money to devote to that process.

The second reason many people don’t pursue complaints against institutions is fear of retaliation.  People need their jobs, and students need to finish their degrees with the favor they’ve earned from their teachers.  Filing complaints can often obliterate favor, provoke bullying, and get you fired.  I was once fired from a job after I lodged a complaint of sexual harassment in my workplace.  The harassment was prolonged and severe.  A man in my office actually locked himself in the women’s bathroom with me and forced himself on me and engaged in forced sexual touching.  The company was in the middle of an IPO.  Rather than fire the man for harassment, the company fired me for saying anything.  This culture of gender discrimination is common, and it has become evident the world over what with the cascade of revelations following the Weinstein Effect and the #metoo movement.  So many men and women tolerated the intolerable for fear of retaliation.

I filed an official complaint with a governmental body that oversees colleges and universities, and I’m very fearful.  My fear is based in past experience with sexual trauma, and this is the third reason people often don’t report sexual harassment.  It provokes latent feelings of fear associated with past trauma that were never fully resolved.  In my case, it is so difficult to resolve the original trauma.  It is known on my blog that I survived human trafficking.  I was abducted when I was 18 years-old by a neighbor who masqueraded as a real estate agent.  In reality, he was a participant in an international human trafficking ring.  He was wanted by Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies.  I was taken across the country to a port city to be sold at auction.  Yes, there are super-wealthy men in the world who actually get together and bid on women in order to buy sex slaves.  If you’ve seen the movie “Taken”, it was startlingly similar to that except Liam Neeson didn’t rescue me.  I ran for my life and succeeded against all odds.  It was by far the weirdest and worst experience I’ve ever had.

I never had a chance to accuse my perpetrator in a court.  I did, however, live in fear of his finding me and taking me again for years.  He became the amorphous fear that haunted me.  He became the ultimate retaliation.  My escape and survival represented the complaint.  I was convinced that he was going to rain vengeance down upon me for staying alive.  Consequently, I learned to stay hidden in my life.  Don’t complain.  Be quiet.  Swallow mistreatment.  While my experience is extreme, it’s not difficult to make a comparison to other experiences.  When we have experiences in life that cause us to feel fear in terms of speaking up and self-advocating, we may discover that absorbing mistreatment is the better path if only to get us through the moments.  This might be adaptive in those moments, but, later on, this can become a habit.  This habit can become maladaptive later causing us to become victims of mistreatment and abuse.  We lose our ability to self-advocate and even begin to invite mistreatment largely because we lack a standard for how we should be treated.  We will tolerate anything because we are too fearful to say ‘no’.  And the fear is no longer valid.  The original object of our fear is long gone.  But, the fear remains, and the fear is no longer purposeful.  This purposeless fear is what I feel today.  It’s real, but it serves only to limit me.  It is purely trauma-based.

This is why I’m such a fierce advocate of healing trauma.  Our post-trauma brains served us once.  We survived our traumas, and that’s brilliant.  We should feel proud that our brains and bodies did that for us.  At the same time, post-trauma responses often become self-limiting because they do not serve us once the situations that cause trauma pass.  We must learn to deactivate the mechanisms in our bodies that keep us locked into Trauma Brain and Trauma Body so that we can do what must be done like report sexual harassment or advocate for those being victimized and not get triggered while doing so.

I do not know what will happen now that I’ve made an official complaint.  I’m not happy about this situation, but I did the right thing.  That has to be enough for now.

 

 

 

That Which Does Make You Stronger

I had an interesting therapy experience yesterday.  Jack is a very different therapist from my previous therapist.  The gap is growing wider forming a gulf that is coming to represent their differences, and I’m missing my former therapist more and more.  Alas, change is good.  Perhaps I was growing too comfortable.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what kind of work is going to be done with Jack.  I find myself feeling disdainful.  Unusually rigid.  Clinging to my own stubbornness.

He wants to discuss my sex life.  He wants to discuss my “getting out there” and dating.  I’ve got a lot to offer the world of men so he says.

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Uh huuuuuuuuh.  He wanted to emphasize that his office was a space for discussing difficult topics that may feel taboo.  Like sex and all the nuances therein.  Like…men and getting with them (my words not his).  You know that I’m uncomfortable when I increase the sarcasm.

“It might be hard for you to even think of having sex.  With everything that you’ve been through…but, we can talk about it.  I’ve had clients come to me who can’t masturbate or even have sex at all.  That’s okay.  I want you to know that we can talk about that.  I’m here for you.  This is my job.”

I didn’t know how to tell him at that moment, when he was staring at me like I was sexually constipated and frigid, that I have a boyfriend.

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“It’s okay.  You can tell me.  This is a safe space.”

I started trying to imagine walking in one day for a session with the intent to ask him about masturbation or a difficult nuance regarding having sex.  I ended up here in my head.

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I’ll tell you why.  If I want to talk sex, then I either talk to a close girlfriend with whom I’ve been talking sex for years.  Or, I’ll talk to the person with whom I’m having sex! It was a fair question for him to check in with me regarding sexuality particularly now that I’m not married.  He doesn’t know that I’m in a relationship.  I haven’t disclosed that to him, but he also hasn’t asked me if I feel competent sexually.  He made an assumption about me.  No, no, no, Jack.  Never assume anything about your clients.  It isn’t really fair to the one sitting in the Hot Seat.  He assumes that because I have past sexual injuries and traumas that I’m presently fearful, incompetent or deficient.  Whether he knows it or not, he was stereotyping me.

That being said, I will say that it is very important to discuss sex, but you have to do it with someone you like and with whom you have an established rapport.  A person you trust.  Someone who will have good insight.  A good listener.  And, a person who will not view you through the lens of past experiences because, if you’re anything like me, then you’re already doing that to yourself.  You want to share this aspect of yourself with someone who has a healthy view of sexuality and brings something complete and relatively unmarred to the table.  Someone who can see you in the present tense and imagine you in future tense, too.  This encourages you to be open.  Sex is one of the harder topics to discuss because there is so much shame and embarrassment tied up in it mixed with social pressures and judgment along with messages from our families of origin and religious upbringing.  We never have sex without bringing a slew of people with us it seems.  You want to talk to someone who likes themselves and likes sex.  That really matters, too.  And, you really want to talk to someone who wholeheartedly believes that recovery and healing from past trauma is possible for you.  Particularly when you do not.

For roughly two and half years, I wrote a blog about sex.  It wasn’t what one would call a “sex blog”.  It was a blog about sexual development and healing in the context of PTSD and the recovery of one’s own sexual health in a long-term relationship.  I really liked that blog and writing it.  For what it was, it was a successful blog.  It also marked the beginning of the end of my marriage.  My ex-husband used to put me in double-bind situations–no win situations.  He would complain about not having sex enough or my not seeming to enjoy sex.  I took his observations to heart and decided that I was done with allowing past traumatic events determine my sexual health and enjoyment.  I process quite well through the written word.  So, I decided to blog about the experience anticipating that no one would find the blog.  I was wrong.

Everything I learned, tried, failed at, succeeded at, and the effects it was having on my relationship I recorded.  How I felt, how it was affecting me in terms of trauma recovery, whether or not I could be present, how post-modern culture and religion were affecting my experiences of my sexuality, all of it–I wrote about it.  What I discovered was that I started to get better, and my ex-husband no longer wanted me.  He changed his stance.  He then complained that I was too demanding.  I was showing up for sex, and he didn’t like it.  He was angry that he was “required” to have sex with me.  Perhaps we could schedule sex once a month.  By the end of our marriage, we had had sex 18 times in two years, and it was all terrible.  And painful.  And somewhat violent.  I didn’t know if I hated myself or him.  After twenty years of marriage, I had never had one orgasm.  He blamed me for that.  I was tired of blaming anyone.  I just wanted answers.  I just wanted to be happy.  I just wanted something better.  And, I clung to a stubborn belief that I could get better regardless of what I had experienced in terms of sexual trauma–and, believe me, there was a boatload the size of the Titanic.

What I can say now is that all the time and effort I spent churning through resources on women’s health, sexual recovery, erotic intelligence, how-to guides on masturbation, reading the epic tomes of Dr. David Schnarch, and the hours I spent talking to the very few people willing to be open and honest about sexuality with me were not wasted.  I did experience a recovery and healing in a kind of isolation.  A very private and personal integration.  And, it was challenged in every way when I met James, the man in my life.

You don’t know just how solid you are until it goes live.  Will your foundations hold? Will all the work support you? There was a lot of room for self-doubt and fear.  My ex-husband’s voice was in my head, but James was in front of me.  One was real.  The other felt real enough, but was it? I learned that I had to choose.  One small choice after one small choice.  Consistently.  Who would I believe? The past or the present? On paper, it sounds easy.  The present, duh.  In practice though? I can’t tell you how hard it was and continues to be on the bad days.  Yes, there are bad days.  Days when I just want to, as Liz Lemon sang, “work on my night cheese” and hide in a hole.  That’s okay.  The sun rises.  You will always have another day to try again.  And another.  And another.

There is no substitute for the kind patience of a person who really likes you and finds you to be utterly fascinating and beautiful.  When that kindness and admiration–nay attraction–grows into love, you have a foundation for something exhilarating, healing, and, yes, very scary.

And that is one of the secrets to healing from almost anything.  To fully heal you must fully risk again.  And, everything in us reels at that.  That sounds counterintuitive.  Why would we put ourselves into a situation in which we could be decimated…again? Are you familiar with that tired, old cliché “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” To be frank, I think it’s a stupid thing to say.  There is no comfort in being told that you didn’t die at the hands of some evil thing, thereby, the evil instilling you with strength.  Nope.  I don’t buy it.

I think there is a different meaning here.  I’m going to change it.  “That (good love) which did not kill you makes you stronger.”  Do you see it? “That which didn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Perhaps you survived a terrible reality like domestic violence or a really horrible family involving extremes that are not mentionable in “polite” society.  Maybe you survived a stranger assault, war, tragic car accident, terrible grief, difficult and prolonged illness, mental illness that won’t give way–I could go on.  It’s all trauma in one way or another.  To me, it’s all “bad love”.  Why? Because we end up loathing someone.  Most likely, it’s ourselves that we blame or hate the most.  I’m not making light or being pithy.  Toxic love in all its forms drives some of the worst behaviors known to humankind.  Even war.  Love of country…Love of ideology…Love of God used to exterminate and Otherize.

It is integrous, kind, honest, true, patient, loyal, and consistent love that makes us stronger–“That (good love) which did not kill you will make you stronger.”  A true and honest love only makes us stronger.  And, for better or worse, to experience that, you must risk your heart.  You must make yourself vulnerable to someone.  You must try trusting someone, and if the thought of trusting someone makes your stomach turn, then you aren’t alone.  It is one of the hardest things to do.  I know all about that.  I’ve spent the past two years feeling as if I’m living in a K Drama.  Thrilling? Yes.  Terrifying? Yes.

There are many paths to take should you desire more.  None are fast.  None are easy.  There are no shortcuts, but if you keep going you just never know what’s around the corner.  Your traumatized brain might think, “Something terrible probably,” but if you allow yourself to wonder beyond that for a moment maybe not.  Maybe something better.

So, keep going.

The Neuroscience behind Feeling Stuck

I have recently been reading a lot of material on the endocrine system and neurology.  Why? Anatomy and Physiology II.  Brain, brain, brain, brain.  What I’ve learned, aside from more than I ever expected to know about hormones, is that distress of all kinds is really bad for the body.  Really bad.  It is chemically bad.  Our bodies secrete so many chemicals in response to real and perceived stressors, and prolonged exposure to those chemicals do damage to our vessels and surrounding tissues–to our brains.  We are not meant to marinate in our adrenal gland’s hormones, but we do.  More and more.  What is one stressor that might cause said marination? Trauma.  And, that trauma can be early childhood or yesterday’s car crash.  Time isn’t a factor.

Outside of A&P II, I’ve been reading about trauma and the brain because I want to find some answers to my own questions.  I came across a quote online somewhere a few days ago that said that trauma is an “unfinished event”.  Initially, I did not like this interpretation of trauma.  An unfinished event? What does that mean? It bugged me all week.  Then, I heard it again this morning! I was watching an explanatory video on The Hakomi Method in which Ron Kurtz, founder of the method, was illustrating a point by discussing a session he had with a client.  His client had an experience in session in which he recalled being hit by a car and waking up in the hospital with a priest performing something like a blessing or even the last rites over him.  He was consequently filled with dread in the past and in the present as he recalled it.  Kurtz explained that his client was experiencing an unfinished fear.  He had never had the opportunity to fully process that experience–or finish it.  So, the client’s wife, who had been present in session, held him in order to soothe and console him while Ron talked him through the rest of the experience.  His client finished experiencing his trauma in order to finish experiencing his fear.  He processed that trauma.  I was intrigued and emotionally stirred.

Dr. Mark Brady describes the early phase of recalling traumatic memories as such:

Extensive research suggests that early terrifying experiences take up residence in implicit (unconscious) memory networks primarily on the right side of the brain. These memories essentially compromise the flow of electro-chemical energy and information. In response to overwhelming experiences, our neural networks abruptly inhibit the firing of action potentials (nerve impulses) in the brain so as to cause the adrenal glands to stop flooding both brain and body with excessive amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. In the amounts generated by life-threatening emergencies, without this safety shutoff, that quantity of stress hormones would do even worse damage than the trauma itself. The lived experience feels like going numb or being checked out – dissociated. But that’s not the end of it.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

I am all too familiar with this experience.  Does it resonate with you? When I recall past trauma that has not been processed, this is exactly what I feel like.  I have, in the past, mistaken my numbness or emotional detachment for being completely fine.  I used to think that it meant that I was presently okay with whatever happened way back when.  Hardly.  Dr. Brady is describing the “back end” of your emotional and affected experiences.  The inner workings of your mind.  Whether you know it or not, your brain is your friend.  It is the modulator of your emotional experiences.  It allows you to recall and cognitively experience a memory, but it’s not going to allow you to experience the emotional contents of said memory at the same time–unless you go mining and break into buried compartments.  In other words, your brain is trying to titrate your emotional experiences so that you are not overwhelmed or overdosed by your own traumatic experiences.

Brady goes on to say:

“The brain knows when its functioning has been compromised by traumatic experience. As a consequence it seems to constantly attempt to identify or morph people, places and familiar environments into circumstances where its impoverished networks can be rekindled and activated, ideally for integrative re-connectivity. In both the incidents I’ve just described, that didn’t happen. Abdication (flight) is not integration.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

The aforementioned remark is absolutely vital to me in terms of understanding ourselves and creating a roadmap out of our suffering.  What do I mean by this? Take a moment to consider your uniquely personal Distortion Machine.  What is the Distortion Machine? It is the name I’ve given to that harassing voice inside your mind that never shuts up.  It is the Malicious Storyteller.  It is the voice that always says, “What if…what if…what if…” followed by hundreds if not thousands of possible detailed scenarios usually involving your downfall.

  • “What if you trust this person and they betray you just like everyone else you’ve trusted?”
  • “What if you try your hardest and fail?  Again.”
  • “What if your house is struck by lightning and burns to the ground?”
  • “What if you never meet anyone and you die all alone and they find your body all decayed and partially eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you really do look terrible in those pants and no one has the balls to tell you because everyone just feels sorry for you because they all know that you will never meet anyone and will most certainly die alone and will for sure be eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you’re just stupid?”
  • “What if your parents were right about you all along?”
  • “What if it was really all your fault?”
  • “What if you really do have a snaggle tooth?”
  • “What if no one really likes you at all?”
  • “What if you choke and you’re by yourself and you can’t give yourself the Heimlich maneuver and you die…once again to be found partially eaten by the neighbor’s Great Dane.  Or…just your cats?”
  • “What if you get in a terrible car accident because someone is texting while driving?”
  • “What if he decides he doesn’t want you anymore? Out of the blue? And you don’t see it coming? What if you can’t adapt to that? What if something terrible happens and it finally breaks you? What if…you just can’t get up again…?”
  • “What did she mean about you when she said that? What if she is looking for a way out of this relationship?”

Do you notice the mix of absurdity, fear, and preoccupation with the past that paves the road into your future? The past is informing the present which kindles anxiety and fear about what might happen in the near or distant future? Some of this seems absolutely far-fetched.  Lightning striking a house? Being eaten by cats? Choking to death? Car accidents? These are all examples of cognitive distortions that fall under the heading of catastrophizing, and I do this all the time.  My brain is usually set off when I’m relaxed and happy.  It’s as if it cannot stand to be at peace, and I cannot stand that my brain must kill off my serenity.

For example, if I get my hair done and it looks good, then I usually hear something like: “What if it all falls out? What if you get cancer and have to have chemotherapy and lose all your hair?” When I have a good coffee date with a friend, I might hear, “What if they get tired of you? What if they find out how weird you are?” I am left dragging my self-esteem and bedraggled brain home feeling like this:

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Why does this happen? I have an answer (sort of), and it begins and ends in your brain.  The first thing to understand is that our brains do not live in the past.  I thought that mine did.  I was wrong.  Our brains live in the future.  Our brains are continually looking for patterns based upon past experiences in order to predict outcomes so that we might have a sense of what to expect which allows us to plan a trajectory with a reasonable amount of certainty.  Our brains do this all the time with very few data points without your conscious input.  Also, our brains fill in the gaps between those data points with whatever is available be it past, present, or available data.  In other words, our brains make shit up, and we are completely unaware of this.  We are operating on false premises most of the time, but this is a necessary evil because we would not be functional or decisive if our brains failed to do this.

Think of all the unknowns that surround us second-to-second.  Is that coffee too hot to drink? Did that barista really put almond milk in my latte? Was that really a car backfiring, or was someone shooting a gun? Should I cross the street, or will a car careen out of control from out of nowhere and run me down? Is that dog friendly? Are all these strangers safe? Is there E. coli in my spinach leaves? Should I drink this water? How do I know that someone in this movie theatre isn’t concealing a weapon? How do I know that someone didn’t lick that penny that I just picked up off the ground? We are faced with too many decisions to consider on a daily basis.  Our unconscious brain must act for us all the time in order for us to maintain higher functionality–just to make it through the day.

Enter outlier events.  When you have trauma in your past, your trauma becomes a data point for your brain, but traumatic events should be logged under “outlier events”.  In other words, traumatic events should not be considered viable data points when your brain is constructing its premises and making its decisions.  Think of statistics.  How do we calculate an average? Before we calculate an average, we throw out the outliers: the highest number and the lowest number.  Then, we calculate our average.  Past traumatic events in our lives are part of the outlier numbers–the highest and lowest numbers.  Outside the bell curve if you will.  You cannot consider them as a possible data point for a future set of possibilities, and yet our brains do this all the time.

This is why my brain is the Malicious Storyteller.  The majority of my past events are highly traumatic.

  • “What if he turns out to be a liar and dupes you?”
  • “What if he tries to kill you?”
  • “What if you die in a terrible accident?”
  • “What if everyone leaves you?”
  • “What if it’s really true about you? What if you are disposable?”
  • “What if you get eaten by a wild animal while you’re still alive?”

I know that all of these sound ridiculous, but all of the aforementioned “What ifs…” have happened to me.  I have been duped.  I have almost died in a car accident.  I have been threatened with being eaten alive by wild animals while in the trafficking environment.  I have been tortured.  I have been abandoned and left to fight for my life.  I was young, and these events happened years ago.  These are all outlier events, but my brain does not know that.  To my brain, these are all data points.  These are legitimate possibilities that must be considered.  Some of these old traumas became new again in my marriage during re-traumatization.

Enter the habenula.  What is that? The habenula is part of the diencephalon and, together with the pineal gland, makes up a structure called the epithalamus.  It is a tiny mass of cells about the size of half a pea.  “The habenula tracks our experiences, responding more the worse something is expected to be,” said senior author Dr. Jonathan Roiser of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.”  (Medical Daily) .

The habenula is involved in many, many of your brain’s activities, but it really gets involved when your brain starts storytelling and predicting.

“Previous neuroscience studies have shown how animals will exhibit avoidance behaviors following activity in their habenulas. Researchers watched as cells fired within animals’ habenula whenever bad things happened, or were simply anticipated to occur. Activity in this region is known to suppress dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine not only enables us to see rewards, but also to take action and move toward them. Significantly, the habenula has also been linked to depression.

For the current study, the researchers began by enrolling 23 healthy volunteers. First, participants were positioned inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, while the researchers collected brain images of high enough resolution to capture activity in the tiny habenula. Then, volunteers observed a random sequence of pictures, with each followed by figures depicting the chance of a good or bad outcome. Occasionally, volunteers pressed a button simply to show they were paying attention. Watching, the researchers discovered how habenula activation tracked the changing expectation of bad and good events. In particular, Roiser noted how the habenula didn’t just express whether something would lead to a negative event or not, it also signaled (with its increased activity) “how much bad outcomes are expected.” (Medical Daily)

Now, with that in mind, take a look at this study.  Put on your thinking hat:

“Under repeated or continuous stress, animals and humans may show depression-like behaviour, as proposed by the ‘learned helplessness theory’64 and the ‘rank theory’112 of depression. In both schemes, depression is considered to be a form of behavioural adaptation to adverse conditions. More importantly, in the state of depression sensitization of the LHb-dopamine and LHb-serotonin circuits seems to occur (FIG. 2c). Indeed, in humans with depression and in animal models of depression the LHb (lateral habenula) becomes hyperactive12,83. This may cause the general motor suppression (through inhibition of dopamine neurons) as well as the mood changes (through changes in serotonin transmission) that are associated with depression.

Thus far, I have proposed that the habenula evolved as a general motor controller that was originally devoted to circadian control of behaviour. According to my hypothesis, at some point in evolution the brain areas that encode aversive signals acquired connections to the habenula. The habenula then became a suppressor of motor activities in response to, or in anticipation of, aversive events.” (The habenula: from stress evasion to value-based decision making)

What does all this mean?

“The researchers believe their study suggests how a hyperactive habenula might cause people to make disproportionately negative predictions, while also being involved whenever people feel pessimism and low motivation, or when they focus on negative experiences.” (Medical Daily)

What do I think this is? I suspect that this is a form of learned helplessness (LH) due to past exposure to trauma in which the victim of trauma had no control over the trauma and no means to escape the trauma.  There are numerous studies available for review on LH (search PubMed).  Clinicians are trying to assess how to help victims of trauma overcome LH as well as study the etiology of LH.  LH perpetuates depression, and perceived re-traumatization exacerbates LH in those with PTSD even when there is a means of escape and control over the duration and exposure to the trauma.  Based upon the animal studies, coping style and personality can often determine how one deals with later exposure to trauma or reminders of past trauma.  In addition to this, the neurochemistry of the brain is changed sometimes for the worse after trauma exposure hindering recovery.

Okaaaaay, but how can I make this practical? I like knowing what is happening in my brain.  It helps me feel better about myself for some reason.  My brain is just doing what it was designed to do (or getting in my way).  That being said, now what? What can I do to help myself?

  • Shut it down.  The Storyteller has nothing good to say.  It’s like listening to a maniacally deluded weatherman predict the weather:
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    “Run! Get inside! It will be raining fire and dragons! FIRE! DRAGONS! RUUUUUUN!”
  • Find and activate your imagination by bringing forth colors, music, scenes, and images that you like whenever you begin to hear the Storyteller’s voice. For some reason, the imagery that you choose to conjure which springs forth from the right hemisphere of the brain can often overpower the words of the Storyteller, which you didn’t choose.  This actually works.
  •  Change your language.  Stop referring to what caused your PTSD as a trauma.  Start using the word ‘injury’.  You were injured after all.  You do not have an illness.  You have an injury, and you are engaged in a process to heal from that injury that you received by no fault of your own.  You might be surprised at how effective this one linguistic change can be.
  • Change your perspective.  “One of the keys to Time Perspective Therapy is the realization that we always have the choice to change how we view the times of our lives. Over the course of Time Perspective Therapy, PTSD sufferers move away from a narrow focus on the traumatic past and a cynical present and the possibility of ever achieving a hopeful future. Instead they journey toward a balanced time perspective in which it seems possible once again to live a full and promising life.This concept is reflected in ordinary language that time perspective therapists use. Most people suffering from PTSD have already been labeled as anxious, depressed, or even mentally ill. When they hear these words, and identify with them, the possibility of ever emerging from such a state feels very distant. Reframing their ‘‘illness’’ as an ‘‘injury,’’ and recasting their depression and anxiety as a ‘‘negative past’’ that they can replace with a ‘‘positive present’’ and ‘‘brighter future’’—and ultimately with a balanced time perspective—may seem overly simplistic, especially to those trained in psychotherapy. But to PTSD sufferers, the idea of having a forward-leaning framework in which to understand and work on their issues most often comes as an enormous relief and a welcome ray of light in the darkness.  The image below illustrates how in Time Perspective Therapy (TPT), we show people how to lift their back foot that is stuck in the muck and mire of the traumatic past while standing firmly on the ground of the solid present, and place it into a brighter future.” (Your Brain on Trauma)
    Source: Noah Milich
    So, there it is.  There is so much happening in our brains all the time, and we don’t even know it.  We can, however, make small changes when we feel well or even relatively okay to create habits that will make all the difference when we don’t feel well.  When the Storyteller comes for us.  When it starts raining fire and dragons and Paradise is lost.  Or, at least, when it feels that way.  So, the next time you feel adrift, panicked, and awash in “What ifs”, remember your habenula.  Remember to throw out your outliers before you let your Storyteller even try to calculate potential outcomes.  And, don’t forget to activate your imagination and silence your verbal processing.  Take in some beautiful images and music to silence that Inner Torquemada and overcome that sense of learned helplessness.

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Is it a tall order? Maybe.  But, every tiny effort is still an effort.  Be proud.

Keep going.

MJ

 

The Significance of Being Seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

I answered honestly.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“She sounds fragile,” he observed.

“She can be, yes.”

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

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

I then moved onto my father.

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

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

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

“This is positively evil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In being seen.

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

Who sees you and loves you after having seen you?

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

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

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

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

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

The Trust Fall

I’ve written here before that I have migraines–chronic migraines.  Whenever a therapist gets wind of that, they always make some version of this face:

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“Oh boy! Somatic symptoms…”

Last week, I was doing the deep dive into some very old “stuff” with my therapist.  I leaned over and started rubbing my head which caused him to blurt out, “Are you getting a migraine?”

I wanted to say this…

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“For the love of God, no, no, and more no! Big barrel of nope!”

Instead I just politely said, “No, I’m just scratching an itch.  I’m fine.”  I really was fine.  I don’t know if you ever feel like this, but the experience of having a clinician or even a friend causally link physical symptoms like chronic migraines or autoimmune diseases to past trauma grates on me.  It has happened so many times over the years that I have developed a maladaptive coping strategy of hiding any and all symptomology in order to avoid oncoming interrogation and analysis.  Does stress trigger a migraine? Sometimes.  Alas, correlation is not causation.  Many other things do as well like aged cheese, sleep deprivation, and MSG.

Hiding one’s physical symptoms is not a good idea.  I freely admit this.  Pretending to be fine when you’re not isn’t a great approach in the long run.  I tell myself that I do it in order not to stress everyone around me.  I believe that my symptoms cause people more stress and worry.  My kids, however, are older now.  They know when something is off, and they know when I’m faking it.  It has been suggested to me that I stop hiding my symptoms and begin being truthful.

Well, that sucks.  You mean I have to start being truthful about how I feel physically?

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WHUT?! NO!!

So, what am I not being honest about here? I have a complicated health history that makes even the most steely physician cry.  This is why many people like to blame it on past trauma.  My past trauma is extreme.  All the more reason to play that card, but it would be premature and lazy to do that.

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with a blood disorder.  A really annoying blood disorder.  This blood disorder, however, explains a lot of my other autoimmune conditions quite nicely.  In fact, it could be the reason I have the other issues.  In other words, all my autoimmune diagnoses might be manifestations of this singular blood disorder diagnosis, and, from a diagnostic perspective, that’s pretty cool.  It could also explain my long list of allergies.  Imagine that.  One diagnosis explaining almost everything that is wrong with me–including the migraines.  It’s almost miraculous in terms of a diagnosis.  The treatment? Management.  Not cool.  High dose medications that control certain cells in my body.  That’s okay, I guess.

What’s the downside? Some of these medications just happen to lower the seizure threshold.  That’s totally fine if you don’t have a seizure disorder, but I do.  I’ve been seizure-free for 16 years.  What happened this week? I had a seizure thanks to all those medications.  What did I try to do? Hide it.  Was that a bad idea? Apparently.

My daughters were very upset with me.  Someone close to me explained to me why I needed to start including people in on these types of events.  Honestly, I’d rather go into my room, get it over with, and come out.  That is what I’ve always done in the past.  A question was asked of me, “Were you conditioned to do that?”

Well, my mother was not helpful, and my ex-husband always bailed when I was ill.  I learned to handle all kinds of health issues alone–even seizures.  This has become normal to me.  Is it normal? For me? Yes.  Is it normal? I did not want to answer.

Okay.  Would I want someone to have a seizure by themselves? Of course not.  There are myriad reasons why they should not.  I have a friend with a seizure disorder.  I have stayed with her during her preictal, ictal, and postictal times.  It would be wrong–almost immoral–to abandon her.

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“I have backed myself into the logical corner…”

There cannot be two sets of rules–one set applying to me and the second applying to others.  We treat others as we treat ourselves.  I have to give up this maladaptive coping strategy, and I feel suddenly very exposed and vulnerable.  I do not want to broadcast or share my physical symptoms.  Have a seizure? In front of people? 

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Can’t we say I did and then..not?

I guess not.

My boyfriend suggested that I treat it as a trust fall.  Trust fall?! Oh god…

He’s right.  I find certain things relatively easy, but this isn’t.  Telling people that I’m actually really sick and need legitimate help puts me in a very vulnerable position, and I hate feeling vulnerable in that way.  But, this is how we heal.  It’s how we allow people to get close to us.  I want to run off and be sick alone.  Like wild animals do.  They do it to preserve themselves.  That’s probably why I do it, but I don’t think I need to do that anymore.

I will say this.  Life provides us with many opportunities to heal–even when we are sick.

Just stay present.  You’ll see.

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If a cat can do it, then so can I.

Imposter Syndrome in Trauma Survivors

Here’s a story.  I’m sharing it because it might elucidate something for you.  I’ll open with a question.

Have you ever felt something like a fear of discovery? Like if people found out who you really were, then they would abandon you because, deep down, you’re really just a fraud?  As if you are not legitimate in some way?  You might even be broken or incapable.  You don’t really have a right to be here.

It’s called Imposter Syndrome.  Here’s a quick and dirty definition: “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” (Wikipedia)

Does this ring true for you?

This internal experience used to rule my life.  I didn’t even know that it was a “thing”, but it is.  The American Psychological Association discusses it, and the New York Times published an article elaborating on it (Learning to Deal with Imposter Syndrome).  It’s a very real phenomenon.  For people with profound trauma in their backgrounds, it’s even more relevant.

Why?

Here is my experience…

A while ago, when my oldest daughter was quite wee, I was getting to know a woman with a son close in age to my daughter.  She was asking me the typical “Let’s Get to Know Each Other” questions.  I was young and naive, and I had no problem engaging in social niceties.  I did not realize that people rarely wanted truthful answers.  So, when she asked me about my familial background and I answered truthfully, I was unprepared for her response which went something like this:

“I do not want to hear terrible stories about your life.  I can’t tolerate things like that.  Please don’t share such things with me.”

I was gobsmacked.  I had only said that I had a difficult relationship with my mother.  She had a history of depression and multiple suicide attempts.  I didn’t describe in detail how she did it.  I wasn’t reliving trauma in front of her.  Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of such a reaction, but I felt a very particular sting.  I couldn’t name it, but I respected her boundaries all the same.  Whenever I saw her after that I simply smiled and said, “I’m fine.  How are you?”  That was what made her feel happy.  I felt like a phony, but I get it.  I grew up within the trappings of the nouveau riche country club crowd.  Authenticity isn’t exactly a welcome guest.

A few years later, I met and became friends with another woman who, as our friendship deepened, pressed me for more intimate details about my past and present life.  I was wary.  I had never quite felt like my past life circumstances were my fault before, and I was beginning to feel under the microscope–judged.  It wasn’t my fault that my mother was mentally ill.  It wasn’t my fault that my father was a sociopath.  Admittedly, I came from unusual circumstances, but I didn’t see myself as taking the blame for their bad behavior.  Their problems did not originate in me.  All the same, when I began to share some information, this woman responded in much the same way as the aforementioned woman.  Remarkably, she, too, could not bear to hear that children were abused and mothers attempted suicide.  She didn’t want to hear that fathers could be bad, and young women could be trafficked.

“I don’t like this story.  I don’t want to hear it.  It’s so negative.  Tell a different story.”

Well, shit, I don’t like it either, but she asked.  I was attempting to be authentic while, at the same time, not go “too deep” as it were.  How does one form meaningful relationships with people when the past is so full of terrible stories? And why was I starting to feel so, for lack of a better word, broken? So rejected? As if I were the one who had done something wrong? I started to feel like I had to redact my own history in order to be socially and interpersonally acceptable.  So, I did just that, and I was not quick to reveal myself to anyone.  I adopted a persona, and it worked because I was raised to “try harder” in order to earn acceptance anyway.  Not approval.  Approval was The Dream.  Acceptance, on the other hand, felt attainable.  If your efforts passed muster, then you were found to be acceptable.  Tolerable.  Adequate.  Lacking in interest, and that was a very good thing because if you weren’t of interest, then you weren’t open to criticism and a potential target for abuse or terroristic threats.  These new experiences with social rejection felt eerily similar.  Suddenly, approval was off the table as was a chance at intimacy and connection.  Social acceptance and invitation became the options.  Not inclusion.

I was learning quickly that many people were not interested in anything profound and meaningful particularly if it challenged their worldview, and suffering challenges paradigms.  This is why so many people grapple with theodicy.

Years later, in a small group, I revealed truth about my past.  Again.  With disastrous consequences.  My greatest fear at that time was that if I told the truth about past trauma I would be seen as inherently tainted–illegitimate–and, henceforth, at fault.  I feared social alienation and rejection.  That is essentially what happened.  It was a devastating betrayal, but it was the greatest catalyst to healing I’ve ever experienced. Good ultimately came from that circumstance.

Sometimes wisps of this dynamic appear even now in statements like this: “Tell me something about your childhood, but don’t tell me something about your father.  I don’t want to hear about how he killed an animal in front of you or something awful like that.”  Yes, this is a boundary.  I don’t want to violate anyone.  People do have a right to determine what they do and don’t want to hear.  For example, someone could say this: “Tell me a story about human connection that you’ve experienced, but don’t talk about sexual connection.  I don’t want to hear about past sexual encounters.”  That’s a boundary.

What is the difference between the two boundaries?

My sexual encounters were by choice but trauma is not.  Generally, unless there is a kink at play, people don’t require a witness to the sexual narrative in order to experience validation, acceptance, and approval in the context of relationships.  In the context of developing relationships, however, people do, at some point, need a witness during the process of narrative exposure in order to feel minimally acceptable, and optimally approved of, particularly if there is trauma within their narrative.  Being told that their narrative is not tolerable is, in part, stigmatizing because it casts a pall on the personal experiences of people causing them to experience less authenticity within their relationships and even within their self-perception.  Necessary deletions of one’s personal narrative made in order to survive socially in different contexts affects the healing process.  We cannot integrate properly after trauma if we can’t even talk about what happened to us because other people find our stories unpalatable.

Yes, the stories are bad.  That’s why trauma survivors suffer so terribly.  Part of being compassionate people is listening and acting as witnesses to those who are suffering in silence and solitude fearing that no one will ever hear their entire truth and still want and love them after disclosure.  This is one of the unbearable curses of living with trauma.

This is why the variation of Imposter Syndrome in survivors of trauma needs to be addressed.  The ontological loneliness is real.  The fear of being discovered is real, and it’s legitimate.  The way out is telling our stories.  All of them.  To very safe people who will sit with you while you lay them out.  They won’t judge you.  They won’t blame you.  They will act as witnesses to everything you have heard, seen, and experienced.

And, they will accept you as you are today.  They will approve of you no matter what you did in the past.  And, why would anyone do that, you ask?

Because your past self got you to where you are today, and that’s something to be very proud of.  Regardless of your past experiences, you’ve made it this far.  That’s a story worth telling.  Shamelessly.