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Archive for December, 2012

The kindness of strangers

Yesterday was a very difficult day, because I was in an accident, but I was astounded by the amount of kindness shown to me by complete strangers.
There was the nurse who pulled over right after the accident to check the other ladies and me out and was so supportive. The state trooper who apologized for having to write a ticket, but it’s required when there is an accident with two vehicles. He also obliquely gave me instructions on how to plead not guilty. The EMTs who did their job efficiently, yet kindly. The folks at the tow place who gave me rides and who took care of Georgia during the night. The man at the tow company who gave her his lunch, so she could have breakfast (it wasn’t needed, but it was very kind.) The clerk at the motel who gave me lowest rate that she could. The night clerk who hunted down a cell phone charger for me. The morning clerk who was horrified when we realized that I was misinformed about their pet policy and I could have had Georgia over night- she is going to try to get a reduction on the bill and it calling to make sure that the main number for the motel gives out the correct information.

For me this was just a huge reminder of how there are so many decent people out there! We hear about all of these horrors, but the majority of people are actually decent. 🙂

For those who are wondering, I am doing better today, although I am exhausted and getting sick.  I was able to get a rental car in the morning, pick up my poor dog and get stuff from the car, and get myself home by about mid day.  I don’t seem to have whiplash, which is great, even though I am still a bit sore.  The main effect on me right now is that I am starting to have some programed in responses to the accident about how I am bad, etc..  😦

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Shock in real life

Today, I was in my first ever real car crash. Almost 30 years of driving and only a couple of fender benders until now- that wasn’t too bad.

I was driving home from my therapy session and a snow storm suddenly hit. I was on the highway and cars stopped ahead of me and I tried to stop, but despite having slowed and left lots of space in front of me, it wasn’t enough. I changed lanes to avoid a truck and then went into the left hand margin to avoid rear ending a car. Another car was already in that margin and I tried to switch into the lane again to avoid it, but couldn’t. There was no traction on the road.

In those few seconds when I realized that I was going to hit the other car and I couldn’t do anything more to avoid it, my heart stopped and I remember thinking,”oh my God. How bad is this going to be?”

I hit the other car and sat there stunned for a bit, then managed to pull off the road, so traffic could get past. I realized that I wasnt hurt badly, even though my neck hurt some. But I started shaking, convulsing really. I knew that it was shock and I knew that the best thing that I could do was to let my body shake and basically metabolize the fight/flight response. I stayed seated in the car and didnt even try to get out, but instead just stayed in a warm and contained space. People kept on coming to the car to check on me, while waiting for the EMTs to come and check me out. I kept on shuddering and had trouble talking.

I first called my husband and let him know what was up. Then I called Mama Bear who thankfully answered the phone and had her help me get through my reaction.

The EMTs were worried that I was hurt more than I realized because of the strength of my shock reaction. I explained that I have PTSD and that was complicating my response.

Because I was experiencing some discomfort, they wanted to take me to the emergency room, but my instinct was that if I went into such a stressful environment, it would make things a lot harder for my system. I wanted to get home and go to my doctor instead.

Well, I’m still not home- there is no rental car to be had and my car is not drivable. I am in a motel room for the night. But at least I am fairly healthy and I have been slowly letting out more and more of my reaction. I let myself shake when I need to and let my body shut down and go to sleep abruptly for about 1/2 hour.

At least I have learned to listen to my body and try to give it what it tells me that I need.

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Every once in a while I experience something that is very unpleasant and confusing, and I am wondering if others out there experience something similar…

It only happens when I am experiencing an extreme amount of stress and I think that I need to be under stress for a period of time before it will happen.   I am then deeply triggered by something and connect strongly with memories from my childhood.  At that point, the me who has been developing an understanding of how to care for myself gets lost and is no where to be found.  I become more and more distressed and drawn ever more deeply into feeling/memory states.  I kind of know that I should be able to care for myself and that there are things that I have learned that will help me to ground and start to extricate myself from those states, but I cannot even begin to puzzle out what those skills might be.  I tend to draw inward and isolate myself from sources of help.

It happened this evening as strongly as I can remember it ever happening before.  This time, rather than being in a single memory state, I experienced myself as bouncing between different ages.  Even though I reached out to Mama Bear, it was almost impossible for me to communicate, which made it difficult for her to help me.  I felt trapped within a cage of confusion and pain, and I couldn’t manage to reach through the bars in order to get the help that I needed in order to get out.  She asked me what I needed and the response that I got was that I needed to disappear.  It didn’t even occur to me to tell her that was my response, instead I acted out trying to disappear and told her that I needed to get off the phone.

Unfortunately, what I needed to disappear from wasn’t Mama Bear, but it was something that I carried inside, so instead I was left alone with it.  And I felt tossed between so many different fragments of what seemed to be memories.  And it was highly distressing for me to experience myself being tormented by the memories fragments.  Sometimes there were images, sometimes there were sensations, and sometimes my body just acted out something and all I was aware of was a sense of desperation and wanting to escape.  When I experience myself at different ages, my sense of my body changes and in particular I perceive my hands changing size to what would have been appropriate for that age.  I was appalled when I realized just how small my hands were sometimes today and I felt like I just wanted to scream and crawl into a corner to hide.  And through all of this, I was unable to do any of the things that would normally help me draw back from being so thoroughly triggered, not because I couldn’t figure out how to make the coping skills work, but because I had forgotten that any of those skills existed.

It is frightening to me when it seems like I lose my connection to the most functional part of me, and I tend to panic, however that panic only serves to reinforce the distressed state that I am already in.  And did I ever panic tonight!  Eventually, I responded to a message that Mama Bear had sent and told her how badly I was being triggered and how all of the memory fragments were just too much to deal with.

And somehow that action seemed to help me to break out of feeling frozen in a helpless place.  I started to move and fairly soon I was able to drag myself out of bed and I started to reengage with my normal life.  And I slowly started to connect with the part of me that is most functional and capable.

One of the things that disturbs me the most about all of this is that I am used to thinking of the memory states as parts, but I had been thinking of my main self as being that more functional self.  Now I don’t think that it is.  I think that I have built this more functional self over time and it is generally engaged, but some times it is simply gone.  So who am I?   I don’t know the answer to that question, and I am trying to not be frightened by the lack of understanding.  After all, I can feel that I am really here and that I am connected to all of me, more or less.  But I am experiencing a bit of a crisis of identity at the moment.

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Something different happened tonight, and I am trying to figure it out…  It wasn’t “bad different.”  It might even be “good different,” although it definitely wasn’t “easy different.”

Over the course of the day, I have experienced a slowly building pressure.  Thankfully, it wasn’t the “something is coming and you had better brace yourself” pressure, it was more of a “pay attention” sort of pressure.  But it still was a bit concerning, because I just didn’t know what it meant.

Now, I know that I am in the middle of another transition in the way that things are working internally and how the greater me is managing things and taking care of all of myself.  If I’m honest, I suppose that the last few months have been a long period of transition, with things changing bit by bit and step by step.  But those changes mean that I often feel at a loss as to just what it is that is going on.  Yesterday’s nagging bits of body memories would have been a sign that I was likely heading towards more and more intrusive memories, while today’s bits of body memories are more likely to mean that I am feeling vulnerable for some reason and so I am being reminded of times when I was very vulnerable, but it is unlikely that things will progress any further on their own.

These are very positive and welcome changes, but I am accustomed to being familiar with how my mind works and how I react and feel as a result, and it is unsettling to me that I don’t understand what is going on inside of me.  However, I am trying to relax my grip and let go of my attempts to control how things happen and instead to allow whatever develops, to develop.

So, this evening, I realized that I was feeling the urge to “sit down with myself,” whatever that might mean.  I made myself a nest in my bed and sat down in the middle of it and tried to open myself to sitting with a vulnerable part of me that I could sense.  And it was like there was a dialogue.  I have had dialogues with parts of me before, but they usually happen when the parts are terrified or overwhelmed and my main focus tends to be on trying to get those parts to pay attention to where and when all of me actually is and reassuring myself that despite what I seem to be experiencing, I am actually safe.  Tonight was different.  That part of me that I was aware of was calm, if unhappy, and in need of feeling “understood and heard.”  To begin with, I found myself mostly just being there and building a foundation of solidity for this part of me to sit on, and then there was an exchange where I found myself saying, “It is OK for me to know what happened.  It is hard for me to experience it, but I can know.  It won’t crush me.”

And then I started to get more details on a type of abuse that happened with my grandfather.  I was slightly inside the memories, because I knew that they were happening to me, but I didn’t feel the overwhelming emotions that normally go along with memories.  I have long been aware that there was a collection of similar, but slightly different events, so this wasn’t entirely new, but it contained more information than I had previously remembered about what happened at different times.

And I’m trying to figure out how I am responding…  I am remarkably calm, but I don’t think that I am numb.  It is more like I have an understanding that I don’t want to become emotionally engaged with these memories right now.  I know that they are there and I have acknowledged to myself that this whole class of abuse horrifies me, but I am not feeling horrified at this moment.

I am aware of how confused I felt then about what he was doing, and even from my adult perspective, it seems bizarre.  After I emerged from this communication, I started to think, “This is just too strange.  It makes no sense to me that he would choose to do these things.  Certainly no one will believe me, because it just doesn’t make sense.  I’m not sure that I believe myself.”  But then I remembered that there isn’t anything about sexually abusing a child that is normal or makes sense and I can’t judge his actions by normal measures.  My fear about whether other people would believe that he actually did those actions probably has more to do with my wanting to reject the experience than it does with whether other people would believe me.

And thinking a bit more, I can see that the horror isn’t because what happened is any more horrifying than any other sexual violation of a child (at least not from an external perspective.)  My horror comes from the fact that these actions made me feel experimented upon and less than human.  They robbed me of my sense of dignity and they made me completely aware that I had no control over what happened at the hands of my grandfather.  I don’t even think that they tended to be particularly painful, although they were certainly uncomfortable and resulted in some bizarre sensations for me.  There were other things that were far more painful, but it was like there was something about this that threatened to crush the me out of me.

And I need to accept what this part of me is “telling” me, that he did do these things, that I felt almost destroyed by them, and that I know that what he did was very, very wrong.  I think that enough of me understands now that what he did isn’t going to happen to me again and that he is dead and so it is impossible for him to pose any threat to me at all.  This frees me up have the memory there, without it being a force that will suck me inside the memory.  It is more like the part of me that holds the memories is sitting there next to me, and I can touch her pain and shame, but I can also hold for that part of me the knowledge that while what he did felt shaming to me, this really isn’t something that I should feel ashamed about.  It was all him.  I can also hold an awareness of the pain and grief and acknowledge that those emotions are really there for me in relation to the memories.  To my amazement, I find myself responding with compassion for the child that I was and the person that I am now for needing to deal with these experiences and a desire to surround the hurt parts with a gentle sense of calm, comfort, support, and healing.

Things really are changing and I am strong enough now to take it in and accept that, “Yes, he really did do those things.  And it was horribly, horribly wrong for him to do them to me.”  And I also have the confidence to balance the knowledge that the bad really did happen with the certainty that, “He will never be able to hurt me again.”

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These last few days, I have been very busy dealing with some changes that are happening in my life.  There are for the most part welcomed changes, but they are also very large changes that will require a great deal of adjustment on the part of my whole family: my husband, daughter, and myself.  I know full well that we will have ups and downs while dealing with them, but I also believe that once everything is settled out, all three of us will be much better off than we are currently.  It may take several months for us to get there, but we will eventually get there.

I feel more hopeful and energized about my daily life than I have in too long, and I am getting done far more than has been my norm lately.  That is a very good thing because I have a ton to do in the next month!  Over all, I am much happier with life, and I am experiencing a lot less pressure from trauma related issues.

With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder how much of my difficulties over the last year were triggered by my feeling helpless and trapped in a situation that I didn’t like, but felt like I had to make the best of.  I wasn’t being honest to myself or to my husband about how difficult the situation was and how profoundly uncomfortable I was with it.

As a result I ended up connecting with memories of times when I was absolutely helpless and in a situation that was terrifying and very painful.  Even though my current situation wasn’t even remotely on the same scale of difficulty as what I experienced as a child, too many of the beliefs and emotions that I was experiencing were similar.  I believed that I could not express or even accept in my own mind that my needs and desires were legitimate and every bit as important as those of the other members of my family.  I was convinced that if I tried to talk about them, I would evoke a reaction of anger that would result in abandonment.  I even took on responsibility in my mind for the changes of mood in my husband.

Remember how I talked about recognizing how much transference was going on with Mama Bear?  Well, this was my reminder that transference doesn’t just happen in the therapeutic relationship; it happens in real life as well.  Looking back at it, I believe that I have spent the last several months reacting to my husband based on the expectations and survival strategies of my childhood, even though he did nothing to directly elicit those sorts of reactions. 

Now, none of this is unidirectional or simple cause and effect, of course.  I suspect that the issues over fully being in relationship with myself and others were already slowly working their way to the surface anyways and would have needed to be addressed in one way or another.  I also suspect that I really needed to deal directly with some of the memories that came up.  And it is obvious that I very much needed to come to a place where I could fully believe that my trauma reactions are fully legitimate and that I had to have been hurt very badly as a child in order to be so traumatized.

So as feelings of helplessness were triggered by my life situation, connecting me to memories and very, very painful issues, the memories themselves reinforced my experiencing myself in the same way that I did as a child.  My boundaries between then and now became completely blurred for a time.

I wish that things hadn’t played out in the exact manner in which they did.  It made for a miserable several months for me, reduced my ability to be fully available to my daughter during that time, and impacted my relationship with my husband.  Being half way in a challenging now and half way in a terrifying past is a painful way to exist and it made me a much less effective parent and partner than I might have been.  But honestly, I didn’t feel like I had much choice at the time, and I may not have.  I may have needed to work my way through most or all of the memories as well as struggle with the different ways of experiencing myself.  I will never really know, though.

All that I can do is to be understanding that it was a very difficult experience, I have worked hard at dealing with it and made the best decisions that I could at the time, and that I seem to be coming out the other side stronger than I was when I went in.  I have a better understanding of myself at both the heart level and the intellectual level.  I am learning how to be more aware of myself in the now, rather than so easily be carried off to painful places.  I am learning to catch myself as I have reactions to people in the now that are largely based on then traumas and as a result I have a hope of keeping myself from becoming fully entrenched in the then.  I am starting to feel at a deep level that it is OK to fully experience myself and to accept that other people can and do love the full me, not just some convenient parts of me.  As I said to Mama Bear, “It just hit me, not only is it OK to be fully me, but I have people in my life who want for me to be all of me!”

So, bit by bit, I am learning to live from the understanding that while I may not like some of the things that I have done, reacting from a place of shame in regards to every misstep doesn’t help me to do better.  It only cripples me and keeps me from finding the strength to do better.  And this comes out in the most mundane areas of my life, things like not dealing with a pet insurance policy that I tried to cancel after my dog died, but the company continued to charge me for.  It makes no sense for that to be something to be ashamed of; I just need to find the backbone to call the company and demand that they give us our money back!  Yet, I somehow feel shame in regards to it.

I am slowly learning to fully believe that I really do have deep worth and that my needs and desires are important enough to be taken into account, even when they are at odds with others.  It is not egotistical or self centered to believe these things about me.  I deserve to be able to take up space in this world.

I am coming to understand that I can learn a lot about how I experienced myself as a child and what I thought my place in the world was, based on how I interact with others now.  And I don’t react in less than ideal ways because there is something intrinsically “weak” or “perverted” about me.  I have those reactions because I was hurt badly and not helped by my parents to deal with the hurt.  This really isn’t about me being a “bad” person, but rather an injured person.

And while those injuries are so difficult and painful to heal because they go to the core of how I learned to be in the world, I can heal them well enough to be able to work around the parts that will never fully heal.

I am reminded of my experiences after I severely herniated a disk in my neck early this year.  At first I was in so much pain that it was difficult to move or do anything in normal life, but through time and a lot of work in physical therapy things got better.  I have now healed it to the point where I generally have normal function, but I will always have to be aware of what I do and how I do it, otherwise I am liable to re-injure myself.  I need to pay enough attention to my neck, so that I am aware of the first signs of the injury being re-aggravated, but that is something that I can do automatically and with no conscious thought.  This injury will never fully go away, because it can’t be undone.  I will always have a disk that was herniated and there will be times when it really affects my ability to function.  However as long as I do my exercises, remain aware of how I am doing things, and take extra steps to care for myself when the injury starts to flare up again, I can still lead an active life and do most everything that I could before the injury.

It’s pretty much exactly the same thing with the psychic injuries that I am healing.  They will never be erased, because there is no going back in time and keeping the abuse and neglect from happening.  But through work and good self care, I can get to the point where I am able to do most of what I would have been able to do, if I had grown up in a healthier family.  However, in some ways this is better than with the physical injury, because there are some things about it that can be turned to advantages.  I probably have a greater depth and ability to connect with the hurt places of other people than I would have had, if I had never been hurt by my family.  I am building an awareness and confidence in my strength and ability to handle the worst what can only be earned by successfully struggling with that which seems to be impossible to deal with.  I have a deep appreciation for the beautiful things that I do have in my life, particularly my husband and daughter.  There are times when I experience a profound gratitude and joy for the fact that I am alive, which I suspect can only come from having confronted a fear for my survival.  And recently, I was talking with a friend who revealed to me that she had also had many of the same experiences that I have had.  I discovered that I was able to simply be with her in a way that was based on my understanding from the inside what it was really like, and by being with her, she felt less alone than she had felt before.  But this wasn’t only good for her; by experiencing that I was able to help her because of who I am, it helped to heal some of my own shame.  There is real good in the person who I am, not just despite what happened, but also because of what I have done with what happened to me.

It is a relief to finally come out of a time of great confusion and pain, even if I am a bit afraid to rely on my ability to stay in this better place.  But right now, I don’t want to dwell on those fears, instead I want to grasp a hold of the hope and promise that things really are getting better for me and I am no longer so stuck in the past.  I am not fooling myself; I know that I have plenty of pain/grief/rage/you name it that I will need to work through. But if I can learn to do that work while remaining ever more firmly grounded in the now, the time in between will continue to look more and more like the life that I want to live.  And I will come to experience myself more fully as I am, both with the warts and the strengths that come from the totality of what I have lived through.

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After last night’s post, I have noted what I have been experiencing today in regards to feeling triggered.  Unfortunately, today has been a hard one, so there has been a lot to note.

Last night, someone asked me a question about why I don’t seem to be angry at someone from my childhood with whom, by all rights, I should be furious.  I explained that every time I try to work on issues around this person, I fall apart, so Mama Bear and I are intentionally not targeting issues related to him for now.  There are many other things for me to deal with, and hopefully as I practice mindfulness and deal with other issues, I will become strong enough to go back and do whatever work it is that I need to do around him.

I thought that I had kept things general enough that I wouldn’t have triggered myself, but I seem to have been wrong.

This afternoon I decided to do a new yoga video, for both the exercise and the calming effect.  I didn’t feel really upset, but I was aware of feeling a bit unsettled.  Less than 10 minutes into the video, I suddenly began to have body memories and intense feelings of fear and rage.  I managed to mostly ground myself, but I haven’t been able to completely shake the body memories for the last 7 hours.  After about 2 hours of dealing with this, I started to notice signs of an impending migraine.  This was definitely a time when the intrusive memories preceded the migraine.

I now wonder whether there is something going on in my brain that is similar for the two issues, which is why it isn’t uncommon for them to go together.  I do know that a medication that I have been on helps with both the flashbacks and the migraines, so it does make sense that something similar is going on.  The mind is a very mysterious thing.

While I have managed to avoid getting a full blown migraine today, I have gone in and out of the body and emotional memories for too many hours.  I keep on trying to focus on where I actually am, and I find that chatting with friends about mundane things tends to help me to disengage from the memories the most.  But repeatedly, I find that I have gone back to the memories, without even being aware that I have done so.

I find myself just wanting to cry from the frustration and misery of dealing with this.  I am at a point where I am no longer able to think clearly about mindfulness techniques that might be helpful.  So I have come to the conclusion that, for right now, the best that I can do is to keep on trying to ground and remind myself that I am safe and when and where I am and to just keep in mind that this will pass before too long.  I am not really trapped or helpless, I am just having a pretty miserable experience at the moment.

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Yesterday, I had a horrible migraine from around 11AM to 10PM or so.  One of those where I had to lie down, otherwise I was going to fall over and my head felt like it was going to explode, I was in so much pain.  I had swirling light patterns, trouble talking, and extreme light and smell sensitivity.  It was one of the worst ones that I can remember having.

And as I lay there in the dark, willing myself to fall asleep and avoid the worst of the pain, I realized that I was also dealing with intrusive body memories.  This was not the first time that I have noticed that I was simultaneously battling a migraine and intrusive memories.  Generally migraines come on fairly slowly for me and it can take quite a while to realize that is what I am dealing with.  So I had been thinking that I was dealing with the intrusive memories first and then because of the stress I developed a migraine, but now I suspect that it is the other way around.

As I have become more mindful of what is happening when I first start to notice intrusive memories, I have come to see that I may be overly sensitive to any internal changes, especially uncomfortable ones.  Mama Bear herself has said, “You are unusually sensitive to any changes in your internal and external environment.  So much so that you may be inadvertently triggering yourself.”

I hate to say it, but I suspect that she is correct, once again.  I don’t like the idea that I may have played some part in how easily I have been triggered over the years, but at the same time I can see that if this is happening, being aware of and working with that tendency may allow me to avoid being drawn as deeply into a memory.

How does this triggering work?  Something happens to cause a change in how I feel inside; for instance, I am getting sick, and so I feel weak, spacey, and just plain off.  But because I am hyperalert to my internal states and I am so worried that another flashback might come up, I focus strongly on the sensations, which in turn then magnifies those sensations and I am reminded of some memory.  At that point, there is a chain reaction that takes off, and I am smack dab in the middle of an intrusive body memory.  This all happens very, very quickly, so I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

It also works with external factors as well.  Something comes up in my everyday life that leaves me feeling vulnerable and uncertain, but I so quickly focus on those feelings, that I don’t even notice that they first came up because of a present day situation.  Instead, by focusing on the feelings, they are magnified and I end up feeling frightened and completely vulnerable, which reminds me of experiencing those feelings in an abusive situation, and I am once again drawn into a memory.

How many times has this happened over the years?  I can’t imagine that it is a newly developed tendency, and the realization that I have made things so much harder on myself over the years leaves me feeling mad at myself.

But I am trying to keep in mind that the hyperalertness was a survival skill that I developed as a child.  It served an important purpose, it’s just that right now it isn’t helping me; in fact it is making things worse.  I didn’t set out to make things harder on myself, I just wasn’t sufficiently aware of what I was doing, so it was inevitable that the cycles of being triggered would be enacted over and over.  Of course, each time I was triggered into experiencing an intrusive memory, it would only reinforce my perceived need to be as alert as possible to any signs that a memory might be coming up.

So I am trying to be more mindful of just what is going on at the very beginning of the cycle and often I can see that what ever change in state that is a part of being triggered actually started before the memories started to come up.  I then acknowledge that the memories are there, but try to shift my focus away from them and recognize that they didn’t come up on their own, but something in my current internal or external environment helped me to connect to the memory.  It isn’t the case that my mind has brought the memory up because there is something that I need to learn from it, so there is no need for me to focus on it.

As with any of this mindfulness stuff, it is very slow going to make any changes in how I am handling things. And I have to be very, very deliberate.  But hopefully it will become easier as I understand better what I need to do and get more practice at it.

Even beyond the direct benefit of hopefully reducing the frequency with which I am drawn into an intrusive memory, I can see that learning to influence what happens can help me to feel less helpless in the face of the memories.  I don’t have to just endure experiencing whatever comes up and try to stay in contact with the here and now as best I can.  I can help myself.  I may have been helpless as a child, but I am not now.

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