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Archive for August, 2013

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Today has been a day of contrasts…

This morning was actually a very nice morning. I felt as “normal” and contented as I have felt in a long time and we went out to a local festival and had a charming, lovely time. For awhile all felt well with the world and I looked around at the other families and remembered that this is what life can feel like.

But by the time we got home, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t stay awake and fell into a deep sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up, things were different for me.

I felt so bleeping sick and tired of dealing with everything related to the trauma. It felt like enough to make me just want to scream. Unfortunately, that also translated to being just as sick and tired of dealing with myself. I didn’t quite hate myself, but I was full of self contempt and couldn’t find a scrap of compassion. Everything that I thought about felt self indulgent, attention seeking, and pathetic.

Then I was reminded that Mama Bear has asked me to start reading “The Mindful Way through Depression” from the beginning again. So I read chapter one again. For the third time. Or maybe the fourth. And it made me think about the way that my negative self thoughts and emotions were reinforcing each other. I couldn’t make it all go away, but somehow just taking a bit of a step back and observing what I was doing helped me to disengage enough that I didn’t feel quite so horrible.

And then I was able to pull together dinner for my family and propose a fire outside and making s’mores. I actually found my way back to feeling a bit normal and able to enjoy being with the two people I love the most.

But by the time my daughter went to bed, I was a mixed up welter of emotions- anger, grief, confusion, resentment, shame, and who knows what else… I don’t seem to be able to think in a straight enough line to be able to really figure out exactly what any of those emotions are related to. It’s all just swirling around and around. And I’m back to being so very, very impatient with myself for not being able to handle all of this any better.

Maybe tomorrow will be a bit more clear.

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Artist: Rob Harrell

Artist: Rob Harrell

OK, so I know that I dissociate. And I know that dissociation basically is a disconnection of experiences. And I have been aware of how it is difficult for me to identify internal sensations. Over time I have been working on experiencing myself as having some solidity, which is slowly getting better as I practice mindfulness and grounding techniques. But this morning, it struck me that it goes beyond not feeling fully solid; I don’t experience my body as my own. I don’t mean it in a psychological sense of feeling as though it belongs to my abusers (although I do struggle with that issue as well), but rather as a physical day to day experience.

For instance, this morning, I was looking at my arm and when I touched it with my other hand I realized that the experience was as if there was one arm and then, separately, there was another arm. Both of the arms seem to travel up and connect to some sort of vague something. I “know” that they are connected to me, but I don’t experience them as being pieces of me. When I thought about it, I realized that the same sort of thing was true for my legs, but broken down a bit more. My thighs are separate, but they attach to my calves and feet, and then they also attach to a vague something, instead of my torso. Those body parts are there, but I’m lacking a sense of continuity with them; it’s as if it’s too overwhelming to experience them as belonging to the same body. Each body part seems entirely separate from each other, rather than being parts of a single whole.

Thinking about this and trying to figure out whether the body parts feel as though they are mine at all, I experience a conflicted internal reality. I think that some internal parts may have memories associated with certain body parts and so won’t accept ownership of those body parts. I also believe that some aspects of me have a harder time accepting that I have a body at all, while a few actually enjoy having a body some of the time.

And then there is my torso… For the most part, my torso seems to be “no man’s land” and thinking too much about any any portion of it as being mine is threatening enough as to start to bring on a headache and make me want to start to cry.

Actually, there is a difference here. I have realized that intellectually, I know that these body parts are mine. I can look in the mirror and see my whole body and I know that it belongs to me. But I just cannot experience my body parts as being parts of me.

Within me there is a part that is furious that I have a body and that I can feel physical sensations. It wants to destroy my body. No, not just destroy it, but obliterate it, so that there is no chance of feeling anything again. When I first recognized this part a month or so ago, the intensity of the rage and the desire to utterly destroy my body frightened me. Not because I thought that there was chance that I would harm myself that way, but simply because I had never experienced such a powerfully dark side within myself. Now, I can feel the terror that this part carries underneath the rage, and I can experience her as a frightened child who just wants to make the bad stuff go away, rather than a major destructive force. This part doesn’t even understand that destroying my body would mean killing the whole me. She doesn’t want for all of me to die, she just wants to know that she is safe from ever being hurt that badly again.

And not being able to experience my body parts as mine is a different facet of the same fear. The fear that if I own my body and someone does something horrible to me, then I won’t be able to survive experiencing it. But by living the way that I am right now, I am cut off from a large part of what I could experience of life. The irony of this is that tactile sensation may actually be my most vivid sense. Or maybe that is exactly why it causes so many problems; when I allow myself to really connect to the tactile information that is coming in, especially when I am out in nature, it’s almost like putting the world into technicolor as opposed to sepia.

Realistically, whether I have managed to integrate ownership of my body and the sensations I feel or if I remain just as dissociated from my body, if by some chance I should be assaulted, trapped, and physically violated, my mind will revert to dissociation as a defense mechanism. Experiencing myself physically in the now isn’t going to take that last resort protective ability away from me. And there is nothing in my day to day life that is horrible for me to experience, so it really is safe for me to have a body now. It wasn’t when I was little and there was nothing that I could do to physically get myself away from what was happening. Not experiencing myself as owning my body was the better alternative then, but that was then and today I live in a very different now.

I feel so much grief over the fact that I have these parts that are either terrified to have a body or loathe my body simply because it feels. Part of me knows that there is joy to be had in having a body. But first, I need to help these parts of me that desperately want nothing to do with my body.

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OK, this is going to just be some blathering “out loud” to try to see if I can start to figure out what I think/feel would be right. I’m also hoping for some feedback (please be kind to me!)

I think that one of the quandaries faced by trauma survivors is “How much do I tell my child(ren)?” and “When do I tell them?” We all want to protect our children, but we all know that if we are in an active phase of the healing process, there are daily signs that something is very wrong.

Even though I did not specialize in counseling children, I do know that if something is wrong in the family and the child has no idea what is wrong, he/she most likely will wrongly conclude that he/she is the source of the problem somehow. So when I went back into therapy and things started to become difficult for me, I knew that I had to say something to my daughter. This was right around her 7th birthday, so I kept it very simple: my grandfather had hurt me when I was a child and while physical hurts from that long ago, sometimes “heart hurts” are much harder to heal. I was working with Mama Bear to try to heal so my heart wouldn’t hurt so much. This was back when I was commuting 2 hours each way to therapy and on one family trip to the city my therapist was in, my daughter and I went to have juice and cookies with Mama Bear in her office, so she could meet Mama Bear and things would be a bit less mysterious to her. (Well, OK, Mama Bear also was dying to see her, since she had last seen her as a baby.)

That all worked for then, but she is older and more sophisticated now, and this has been going on for almost two years. She is smart and has noticed the lack of contact with my parents. But she doesn’t ask me questions, because she knows that while I will answer questions about most anything, there is a lot here that isn’t age appropriate and so I won’t tell her. But I can see the questions in her eyes some times.

I am at a loss right now as to whether to say anything more now. If not now, then when? I can’t just wait for her to ask, because I had to stop the questions back when she was an overly inquisitive 7 year old who had no clue that there were some things that she really didn’t want to know about. I think that she is starting to understand that there are terrible things in the world, but she still doesn’t really get it. And I just can’t see that it would in any way be good for her to learn that by being told that her mom was terrorized, never mind brutalized by mom’s grandfather.

Of course, there is a whole range of detail between “heart hurt” and “rape.” So do I include the fact that my grandfather touched me sexually during one of the times we are talking about safe touch and how important it is for her to not only feel able to say no, but that I want for her to feel safe to tell me if anything should happen? Or not? Would that just be a burden for her to carry? I don’t want to burden her and leave her feeling that she needs to take care of me. I already battle the care taking tendency in her.

So, I think that I have concluded that I leave it be for now. But one thing that I don’t want to have happen is to have her get to well past the age when she could have handled knowing and then find out somehow. (I’m thinking late teenage years or older.) First of all, I don’t want for it to become a shameful secret. Secondly, I don’t want for her to feel hurt that I didn’t trust her or think that she was mature enough to tell her.

Now, she’s 8, turning 9, so it isn’t like she is going to reach that point any time soon. On the other hand, she’s matured an awful lot in the last 2 years, with a lot of that coming in the last 8 months or so. I suspect that in the next year she is going to become far, far more sophisticated than I am ready for her to be. Who knows, maybe her curiosity will overcome her inhibitions about this topic and she will start to ask questions again? I fear that long before I am ready to say something to her, she will be ready to know more.

But, really, what do you tell your child about something like this? What emotions do you allow to show? How do you help them feel safe, even while learning that Very Bad Things happen to people they love?

I just have so many confused, tangled up thoughts about all of this. But maybe if I start trying to sort them out a bit here and there, I will have made more sense out of things by the time my gut says that she is old enough to know more. I hope.

So, thoughts? I would especially welcome experiences from parents. What did you do that worked? What would you have done differently? I know that every child and situation is different, but I would value your hard won experience.

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Artist: Sabin Balasa

Artist: Sabin Balasa

It hit me tonight. Any of the things that I fear happened to me really might have happened. I think that up until now, most of my mind didn’t really think that they could have happened; instead those parts were just trying to be supportive of the traumatized parts that do believe. However, between understanding better and coming to accept that the way that the dissociation worked for me makes sense and having an outside observer validate that there was something disturbingly off in my family when I was in middle school, I’m suddenly left feeling that there is no where to hide. My mind really could have so effectively locked away any or all of the things that I have experienced that seem to be memories. It’s not my imagination- there really was something off with my dad.

But I’m finding that this new understanding is too threatening and I can’t allow it to remain too close without my getting overwhelmed and starting to dissociate, so instead it is like I have to place it in the middle of the table in a room in my mind. I can walk around that table and examine it from all sides and slowly learn to tolerate being near it. I can spend as much time in or out of the room as I need to. Eventually I will be able to pick it up and make use of that understanding.

I can’t help but want to swear a whole string of cuss words though. This is real. #$@%^&&$$#@^$^# This is real!!! How can this be real?!?

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One of the questions that I have been troubled by for decades is “Is it really possible that I could have so effectively dissociated the abuse that when I entered adulthood I had no memory at all of being abused?” It just seemed impossible that I could have blocked it out so well that nothing started to leak through until after I was married.

This question was one of the things that I was bold enough to ask Mama Bear about in the letter I mentioned in Struggles with Transference- Part 1. I had been avoiding asking it for ages, I think because I was afraid of what either answer would mean. But I’m at a point where I want to put to rest whatever I can, both so I am not distracted from the really difficult work and because I deserve to have whatever relief I can.

We spent a bit of time looking at this question in today’s session and Mama Bear said, yes, even in cases where there aren’t completely separate alters, it is possible to dissociate so completely that large chunks of memory which contain the abuse are blocked out. She talked about how the fear related to severe physical or psychological harm could cause that much dissociation. She then mentioned that there may also be a strong pressure to have no awareness of the abuse, because that is the only way to maintain important relationships.

I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when she said this. Here was the missing piece that I had not been considering. I could understand dissociating the abuse while it was happening or immediately after it, but what could have possibly maintained such an impenetrable shell around the memories for a couple of decades? Here was my answer: it was the need to preserve my relationship with my mother. I still am frozen by the fear that I cannot have my mother and also be honest about the abuse, even though I am no longer dependent upon her and haven’t even seen her for a year and a half. When I had been dependent upon her, it would have been beyond unthinkable for me to do anything to risk that relationship. I could not have allowed myself to know something that would have torn the family apart, because I have always feared that she would choose my father over me.

And suddenly things make sense to me. The idea that the fear alone had maintained that level of dissociation just didn’t ring true for me. My guess is that the danger of being physically harmed had vanished long before I left for college. But I would have done anything to maintain my relationship with my mother. I recognized that in Struggles with Tranference- Part 2. So, yes, I would have bent myself into whatever dissociative pretzel was necessary in order to preserve my relationship with my mother.

And when you take into account that it was after I got married that things started to leak through, then the relationship component makes even more sense. In fact, it was on our honeymoon that the emotional flashbacks really started to come through while we were making love, so as soon as I was certain that I had someone else in my life that I could rely on, the barriers started to come down.

I think that I can finally let this go and realize that completely dissociating the abuse for that long is not a far fetched idea. In fact, it is what makes the most sense in my situation.

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Artist: Roy Kanwit-     Taconic Sculpture Park

Artist: Roy Kanwit- Taconic Sculpture Park

In a recent post, Attachment Girl wrote a brilliant piece (Time to Run: The Power of the Amygdala) about how easily the amygdala is activated when under perceived threat, the rapid escalation of intense emotion and utter irrationality involved, and the role of the therapeutic relationship in relearning how to deal with situations that trigger a trauma reaction and how to calm the “hamster amygdala”. I highly recommend it.

In part 1 of Struggles with Transference, I described a situation where I walked into the session with my amygdala probably already partially activated and on the lookout for other signs of danger. When I saw that look on Mama Bear’s face, my amygdala went into over drive mode and all rational thought went out the window until Mama Bear was able to get me to start to analyze the situation. The brain functions that are required for analysis (among other higher brain functions) are incompatible with the amygdala running amok, so the shift in focus facilitated my calming down.

But what was it about Mama Bear’s look that triggered me so badly? Waking up from a nap later that afternoon, I could see my mother’s face overlaid on Mama Bear’s face, with the grim look in her eyes that she would get when she was really mad at me. I had magnified Mama Bear’s look to match my mother’s and then reacted to her exactly as if she was my mother. The thing was that if you had asked me before yesterday whether I react to my mother in fear, I would have said, “No!” But I have and I do. Every time I become anxious and shaky about confronting her, I do. Every time I avoid telling her what I need to tell her because I am too nervous, I am reacting to my mother in fear. It isn’t an “I’m afraid that you’re going to come after me and kill me” kind of fear, so I wasn’t conceptualizing it as fear, but even so, I do have a lot of fear that is related to her.

I am generally pretty good at recognizing when I have cast Mama Bear in the role of my mother. I may not be able to prevent the dynamic from playing out, but at least I can keep in mind that this is transference and I’m really reacting to my mom, not to Mama Bear. Not with this one! This is a dynamic that has played out between us 4 or 5 times now and I have never suspected that it was related to my mother at all. In fact, the fear is closer to the intensity that I associate with my grandfather, so I thought that it was related to him, somehow. This is not going to be easy to work through, but it is timely, because later on in the same session, we started to talk again about how I really need to figure out how I am going to deal with my parents. And there are very good reasons for me to figure it out sooner rather than later.

When I “saw” that image of my mom’s face overlaying Mama Bear’s yesterday, I also experienced something. I don’t know if it’s a literal memory or a representation of dynamics that my mind has pulled together to illustrate a point about my relationship with my mother, but it has a feeling of substance and meaning, so I’m going to pay attention to as something that is important to me. In it, we are in a department store and I have done something that has gotten my mother really upset with me. She says something along the lines of: “I just don’t know what to do with you”, turns around and stalks off, leaving me there. There are feelings of panic, shame, self loathing, desperation, and abandonment. I know that I have to completely make up for whatever it was that upset her in any way that is possible.

One of my fears about confronting my mother in even the slightest, most gentle way possible is that she will get upset and “I will betray myself.” I have never been able to figure out exactly what I mean by that statement; all I know is that it would undo a lot of the work that I have done over the last year or more. But in light of yesterday’s insight, I can see that in the face of my mother’s anger/distress, I feel an overwhelming need to capitulate and cast myself into whatever mold I believe that she wants/needs. I fear that I will throw all of me away in a child’s panicked response to fears of abandonment and rejection.

This sense that I will not be able to hold true to myself has been a huge stumbling block in regards to dealing with my parents. It doesn’t matter what I decide that I want to do with them, if inside I am convinced that “I will betray myself.” If I don’t believe that I can take care of myself, then I will keep on finding ways to avoid dealing with my parents.

I have no clue as to how to deal with this and I certainly hope that Mama Bear does, however I finally feel like I am starting to get a handle on why it feels so impossible to address anything with my parents. Maybe I can find a solution to this problem that I have felt tangled up in for so long.

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Artist: Mark Horst

Artist: Mark Horst

“We have stuff to talk about.” Mama Bear had a very serious look and she got straight down to business at the very beginning of the session.

“I know,” and I felt myself bracing for what might come and the very beginnings of feelings of panic.

I walked into my Wednesday session dreading it because I knew that I had written a very long e-mail to Mama Bear over the weekend that was incredibly honest about everything on my mind that I have been afraid to say to her. Things about figuring out what happened with my father, trying to figure out how to deal with my mother, questions about memory and dissociation and whether this whole thing could be true at all. Basically, I bared my soul in 2,000 words. Needless to say, it was an intense piece of writing. Mama Bear has been trying to work with me to reduce the amount of intensity that I am experiencing between sessions, so I knew that she wouldn’t have been thrilled to see the amount of turmoil that it represented. When I went into the session, I already felt like I had done something wrong and that I was in trouble.

I don’t remember what Mama Bear said next, all I remember is looking at her eyes and being stuck on how very serious they were and I felt more and more as though I was in trouble and increasingly young and frightened.

Mama Bear stopped, “What is going on, C?”

I struggled with what to tell her, because I felt ashamed for having the reaction that I was having. I was convinced that my reaction was wrong, so I couldn’t tell her about it. And the fear and sense of being in trouble continued to build.

“I really need for you to talk to me about what you are reacting to, because I don’t know.”

I found myself curling up in a ball.

“Do you feel young?” I nodded. “Do you know what age?” I shook my head. “Can you find your adult to help you tell me what is going on?”

I continued to struggle to say anything at all and I found myself shaking my head, because so much of me was determined to not reveal what a “stupid” reaction I was having. I felt frustrated because I could feel the minutes of my session ticking by, being wasted by this internal impasse that just felt so stupid, so I said, “Never mind. Just keep on going, please.”

“No. I can’t do that because I don’t have all of you here with me right now and I don’t know what is going on. I need for the adult you to join us so this child part can speak through you and tell me what is going on.” She fetched a pad of paper and pen and put them on the coffee table in front of me. “Here, write, engage that prefrontal cortex of yours. Your amygdala is way over stimulated.”

I took a few deep breaths and started to talk, although it felt as though I had to force the words through some thick substance that didn’t want to let them go. “I feel in trouble. I did something bad.”

“Who said you were in trouble? Who said that what you did was bad?”

I knew that she was trying to get me to analyse what actually had happened, rather than just respond to the trigger. It worked, too, because as I talked, I continued to calm. “I know that you didn’t actually say that I was in trouble or that I did something bad. That was why I felt so stupid about the reaction, and then I felt so ashamed.”

“Because you were doing things ‘wrong’?” Mama Bear knows that is my persistent struggle.

“Yes.”

She sighed. “This has happened before. Every time I start to talk to you the way that I did today, you have this reaction. It is a combination of a reaction to what is happening now and you also are strongly reacting to something remembered. I am not angry with you. I do not think that you did something bad. I am glad that you were honest. But I am concerned and we need to figure out solutions to some problems because you are getting hurt the way that things are happening now. I don’t like seeing you get hurt.”

And we moved on with the session from there. I thought that the matter was taken care of for now, but then later in the day it hit me, I knew exactly what I was reacting to.

To be continued in Part 2

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