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Archive for January, 2014

Katie Pasquini Masopust Riohondo

Katie Pasquini
Masopust Riohondo

Mama Bear and I have decided to change up how we are using our session time, for now. We are working through “Coping With Trauma-Related Dissociation” chapter by chapter, using one of the two sessions each week. There is a lot that is going on inside of me, much of which I simply don’t have a handle on. I don’t fully understand how things work inside of me and I am afraid of most of what I do understand.

Something from the first chapter that made a great deal of sense to me was a theory of the etiology of dissociation: Children are born unintegrated. They do not yet have either the brain development or the experience to have developed a coherent sense of self. It’s more like they are pockets of experiences, sensations, emotions, needs, etc.. If they are raised in a “good enough” environment, where they have caregivers that are able to attend to their needs and they do not experience traumatic events, over time they tie all of these separate pieces together into a more or less coherent whole by around age 5. For instance, a baby experiences frustration when she has something taken away from her and she gets angry and cries. When the parent mirrors “I understand that you’re angry Sweetie, but you can’t pull on the lamp cord, it isn’t safe,” the parent helps the child to link together the physical sensations of anger, the emotion of anger, the cognition of what just happened, and provide a context as to why she this wonderful thing was taken away from her. Then if the parent hands her a pull toy on a cord and says, “Here, you can pull on this. See, the doggy comes to you,” that parent then helps the child to successfully transition from an angry/frustrated state to one where she is exploring something else interesting. The parent is helping the child to learn to be resilient and develop coping skills.

These sorts of experiences needs to be repeated thousands of times over the course of early childhood. When that happens, the brain makes certain connections that allows the child to be able to identify with her emotions (even if she can’t actually name them) “That’s an angry feeling.” She is able to identify what her experience is, “Bobby hit me.” She knows her response, “I want to hit him, but I also know that I’m not supposed to.” Things may still be fairly loosely tied together, but by this point, the basis for a unified personality has been established. The brain has learned how to create the connections that tie together a person’s experience of behaviors, emotions, sensations, and cognitions.

On the other hand, if the child is exposed to chronic trauma during those same years, particularly if the caregivers are the source of the trauma or at the very least do not have the capability to provide a “good enough” developmental and attachment experience for the child, something very different happens. When a young child is exposed to terror, pain, and experiences that they simply can’t understand, their brain can’t put them together in the same coherent way that the child who was angry did. When they are left alone to deal with such overwhelming experiences, the brain can’t achieve the developmental task of piecing things together into a whole that belongs to the child. In fact, joining them together probably only increases the distress. So the child is left with the experience being separated into its various components. This separation of experience is dissociation. When the child is subjected to trauma after trauma and is never given a chance to process what has happened or get any help with dealing with such experiences that seem to blast the mind, the mind learns to turn to dissociation as a coping mechanism and dissociative parts begin to be formed. The more that this is done, the more firmly the parts are established and a dissociative disorder is developed.

The degree to which the dissociative disorder develops seems to depend on many things, including internal factors, such as the biochemistry of the individual, mitigating factors, such as the intervention of any bit of support or assistance along the way, and compounding factors, such as the severity, frequency, and age at which the abuse started.

Having the development of complex dissociative disorders explained to me in these terms finally made sense to me, when it hadn’t ever quite made sense before. In that way, it was reassuring- this was the response of a normal brain to an extremely abnormal situation. But at the same time, it was very challenging: my brain works this way because I was repeatedly traumatized at an early age and I didn’t get any help dealing with it. And so a bit more of the denial that a corner of me holds on to crumbled away.

I felt furious and I wrote to Mama Bear: “I am so angry and have so much grief that my members of my family hurt and failed me so badly that I’m left with a brain that chronically dissociates. That I wasn’t taught better ways to cope and I was so overwhelmed by the abuse over and over that this is the best that my brain could do for me. And here I a decades later still trying to put the pieces back together.

“I am angry because this isn’t something that I’ve pretended or somehow created. This isn’t playacting. It isn’t a case of if ‘I only try hard enough I can make it all go away.’ This is real. It isn’t accidental. There’s no, “Oops, now how’d you get a dissociative disorder?” It isn’t because there is something intrinsically wrong with me. It isn’t because I’m crazy. It is because members of my family hurt me that badly time and again.”

There’s that part of me that would rather that everything was my fault, that somehow I caused everything. But that isn’t what happened. I didn’t cause it; I’ve just been struggling to deal with it for most of my life. As weird as I feel for having these parts, the problem isn’t me. It isn’t that I have the parts or that I experience things in this odd way. It’s not that the way that I kept sane was to not allow these parts to come together. The problem is that the men who were supposed to protect me instead hurt, terrified, and shamed me so badly that I thought that I was going to die with my grandfather and it simply felt unbearable with my father.

I don’t want for it to be real. But it is real. The only good thing about it being real is that if it is, then I’m not imaging the fact that what I’m doing is helping. I can keep on getting help to deal with it all. I can keep on getting better. And maybe one day I will feel myself as more of a whole that can work together, rather than these separate, hurting parts.

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Roberta Baker Veiled Woman with Spirit

Roberta Baker
Veiled Woman with Spirit

I have become increasingly aware over the last month or two of just how terrible I am about self compassion. I was better about it for a bit towards the beginning of getting serious about the mindfulness meditation, but then it seemed as though the internal directive to treat myself harshly redoubled and I was harsher than ever, when I most needed to be kind.

Last week, while I was searching for MP3 recordings of mindfulness meditations to download onto my phone, I stumbled across an audio training program of 6 sessions on mindfulness and self compassion. It’s called “Self Compassion, Step by Step” and it’s by Kristin Neff. It combines some “lectures”, exercises that are designed to demonstrate what she is talking about, and meditations to put it into practice. Dr. Neff comes across as being gentle, compassionate, and genuinely wanting for the listener to benefit from learning how to be more self compassionate. Based on the first 2 sessions, I highly recommend it, if you are at a point where you feel like it is right for you to work on mindfulness and self compassion. You can get the series either through her web site or via Amazon.

I find that I have to take the series in measured doses, because it has a real impact on me. I’ll listen to a session or part of a session, wait a day or more for my system to process what I have heard and practiced and then listen to the next. Tonight I listened to the end of the session on Loving Kindness and I found that it reached deep inside of me. (As I understand it, compassion is being with the self or other in you or another’s suffering, while loving kindness is about being with the self or other and wishing good things for yourself or them.)

When it got to the meditative practice, she had the listener first imagine a being (person, animal) that the listener has very positive feelings towards (I used my daughter) and imagine saying, “May you be safe. May you have peace. May you have health. May you live with ease.” Then the listener transitions to sitting with the other and including both parties: “May we be safe. Etc..” Finally the listener transitions to “thanking the other and letting them go” and just practicing the loving kindness on herself. “May I be safe. May I have peace. May I have health. May I live with ease.”

This is where things got very intense for me. It was like most of my energy was focused into the “may I have peace” portion of the mantra. The others still mattered, but they were more at the surface, while I could feel the section on peace being drawn deep inside. It was like I could feel it flowing and swirling around and between my different parts, going deeper and deeper and it suddenly became clear to me what a profound lack of peace I have lived with my whole life. I have been able to find periods of happiness and I am establishing more and more safety, but peace? No peace. How can there be peace when at some level I am always managing the trauma reactions?

“May I have peace.” As I felt this part of the mantra swirling down among my parts, bathing them in something soothing, I started to cry. Sometimes crying hurts, but this time it didn’t. It didn’t really “feel good” either, because it was deeply felt and deeply connected to a painful place, but as the tears ran down my face and fell onto my hands held over my abdomen (where is seems that my most vulnerable parts shelter), it was as if they were being offered as another soothing balm to all of me that has felt the never ending acid of being betrayed and hurt by those who should have protected me. There is no peace when I try to believe what I was raised to believe: the sky is green and the grass is blue. Such craziness only leaves me with a sense of everything being wrong for now and always. But today, I realized that I can wish for peace for myself. I can work towards that peace.

So after the meditation ended, I mentally “wrapped” myself in a blanket of caring and “sank” into the wish for peace for all of me. All of the traumatized parts. All of the aspects of me that struggle to cope- no matter how badly they botch the job sometimes. The me that is afraid to feel the pain of life. The me that tries to pull it all together. Every bit of me that is so thirsty for peace.

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Lorraine Roy Fissure 5

Lorraine Roy
Fissure 5

I’ve been talking for some time about how much I struggle over what what may or may not have happened with my father. My problem is that I am strongly divided about what happened. There are parts of me that are convinced that he abused me and those parts seem to be able to give me at least a basic idea of what happened. On the other hand, there is a part that is close to the surface that labels those memories as being impossible and wants to believe that my parents cannot be as dysfunctional as I believe. This part is strong and “loud” because I have functioned from her for most of my life.

I have felt for the last couple of months that I’m in a bind: if I believe what the younger parts say happened, then I start to feel crazy and like I have made the entire thing up. The guilt builds, as does the sense of irreality. Eventually I doubt myself and start to think more from the denial part. However, once I buy into the denial, the younger parts start to panic and push back. Sometimes I get intrusive memories in the form of emotions/ sensations/ or narrative memories. Other times I experience self destructive urges. And a few times I have experienced crises with Mama Bear. Basically, it triggers all of my fears about not being believed and being left all alone with the abuse. If I can’t even be relied upon to be there for myself, then who can be trusted?

My sympathies lie more with the young parts that are desperate for support and I have been trying to force all of me to accept that my father abused me, but it just isn’t working. I think that I have to accept that it simply won’t work that way. There must be some reason that I need for part of me to believe that all of this is a mistake and I need to respect that need. As uncomfortable as it is to be of two minds about whether my father abused me, I don’t think that the situation is going to change in the immediate future. It certainly isn’t going to change because I tried to force the change.

I want for things to be black or white here. I want to be able to say, “yes he did” or “no he didn’t” with confidence and move on from there. But I have to learn to live with both at the same time.

I can see one benefit to me, though… I have to learn how to be OK no matter whether he did or did not touch me sexually. It enables me to see that it is my making things OK for me that is the key, not whether or not he sexually abused me. He could have done the worst things that I can imagine and that wouldn’t make me any less safe right now than if the things that I used to think were dreams really were only dreams and he never touched me. My safety now does not depend on what he did then; it mostly depends on what I do now. I was clearly harmed by our relationship, no matter how that harm came about. What he did and “how bad” it was won’t dictate whether or how much I heal, though. Lots of factors will influence my healing, but what my father did to me 3 or 4 decades ago will not dictate my life now. I refuse to let it.

I guess that my message to the young, traumatized parts who keep on telling me about bad things happening is, “You are not going to be abandoned. When I am with you, I believe that my father did sexual things that he shouldn’t have. I will keep on doing my best to help you understand that we/I now exist in a very different time and place, so the hurt and fear can become less. I think that things can get a lot better for all of me.” My message to the denial part of me is, “Yes, the thought of those things happening with my dad seems pretty far from reality. Nothing like that should ever happen. It should be impossible. But sometimes things like that do happen. It was possible for his dad to do them to me, after all. However, if I need to leave room for doubt, then I won’t fight it, but I’m also going to try to not encourage it.”

Have you had to learn how to live with being completely divided about something? How have you dealt with it?

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Leah Day Shadow Self- Goddess series

Leah Day
Shadow Self- Goddess series

I had a profound experience today and parts of me inside are still taking it in.

I’m not sure whether I mentioned it, but I had a very nasty fall almost two weeks ago and I have been in pain ever since. As you can tell from my most recent post, things have been challenging for me emotionally, as well. As a result, my back and shoulders became even more of a mass of tension and discomfort than is normal for me. When it got to the point where not only my hip was interfering with my ability to sleep, but my back was as well, I knew that I needed to take action to get some relief.

I am taking a break from the massage therapist that I have worked with since I was pregnant with my daughter. (That makes it sound like I get massages all the time, when 2 or 3 a year is good for me, but the point is that we have a long term, previously very trusting relationship.) My dad inserted himself into the relationship and bought a package of 6 massages for my birthday last summer. My massages with her have turned into an exercise in not getting triggered, unfortunately. She did nothing wrong at all; the problem simply is that my dad is now associated with massage and her. I hope to eventually fix that, but I’m not there yet.

Anyways, that meant that I wasn’t able to turn to her for help. Our local food coop has a massage station set up at certain hours, where you pay a dollar a minute and pay for however many minutes of chair massage you want (or can afford.) Mama Bear had talked about the massage therapist who runs the program in glowing terms, and according to the on line schedule he was on duty this afternoon, so I decided to go and see if he could help me.

Well, not only is J. a gifted massage therapist and he helped me to get considerable relief from the physical pain that I have been experiencing, but the experience was important for me on another level.

One of the things that I have learned about massage is that it is most helpful for me if I try to receive it in as mindful of a state of mind as possible. About 1/2 way through the massage, I became aware of the fact that I was not only experiencing the massage on a physical level, but it also was affecting me deeply inside. This stranger whom I had only met 15 minutes before was treating me with kindness and with a real desire to help me feel better. I hadn’t considered before how much can be communicated through touch. Most of the massages that I have had with people other than the woman I normally work with (A.) have been more or less helpful and the therapists have ranged from friendly and clearly desiring to help to business like. Never before have I experienced such an intense experience of presence. Even with A., she is there and I can feel the caring and nurturing coming off of her, but it is quieter.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in a thinking state, just an experiencing state, otherwise I probably would have started to doubt what I was experiencing. Instead, I realized just how much my soul needed to experience that kindness. While accepting the physical impact of being abused has been an important part of my recent healing, it also left me in a state where I was parched for physical kindness. So being able to sit there, in a light trance state, soaking in the physical kindness and care that was being given was tremendously healing for me. Parts of me inside were able to absorb the experience of having someone use touch in a healing way. Use touch in a healing way– the thought makes me cry in grief at what was and hope at what can be.

And this was a stranger. As I absorbed the sense of kindness coming off of this young man, there was a sense of wonder inside that there really are people out there who treat other people well. There are men out there who act out of a desire to help others. Not just the few men that I know and have tested out over time, but men that I have never met. There really are men out there who don’t secretly want to hurt others. The world really is a less dangerous place than my insides believe it to be. It’s like the difference between the world being a war zone and the world having some safety in it.

Right now my insides feel the way that they do sometimes after a breakthrough with Mama Bear. There is a sense of wonder and hope that things actually might be better than I thought they were- almost a giddiness.

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Leah Day Torn Tree

Leah Day
Torn Tree

Some days, the best that a person can do is to just hold themselves as gently as possible and do their best to not be hateful to themselves. Going forward is impossible. Going backwards would be all too easy. The urge to give in to the desire to drown in self hatred feels almost impossible to resist.

Sometimes a person might start to slip- hopefully not too badly- because it can feel as though you are being unrelentingly drawn down through a funnel into a dark pit. It seems as though all of your instincts are shouting at you that you have to be hurt. “You have to pay in blood and pain.” It doesn’t matter that you have no idea why or who or what you have to pay for. You start to see images of blood- blood pooling, blood swirling in water. Even though you have never cut, you start to think about what it would be like.

Then, deep in your brain, you hear the word, “slut.” And it is like you are pulled into a nightmare world of imagined sexual degradation. It is as if your mind pulls out all of your worst fears and you know that is all that you are good for. It is like you are being told that you are trash that any man should be able to use and that you have to be available to be used.

Then the despair hits- “I can’t abandon my mother and if I stand by her, then I can’t be true to myself.” And it feels so overwhelming that it is intolerable to live with. You find yourself making plans as to how you could kill yourself and arguing with yourself about how in the end your spouse and child would be better off without you.

Your mind continues to go round and round in a self destructive haze, desperate to act out the desire to harm yourself. Eventually, in desperation, you do something slightly harmful, allowing you to break out of the cycle. But that brings its own sense of shame that you have harmed yourself. You take yourself off to the couch, wrap yourself up in a blanket, curl up with the cat, and concentrate on breathing until you are finally able to reach through and give yourself a bit of comfort.

That was last night for me. Today has been an exercise in trying to not slip back into such a damaging place. It is pretty obvious that I have some very young, very traumatized parts that are currently in a tremendous amount of pain. So I am doing my best to be as gentle and non-judgmental with myself as possible. It occurred to me last night, after I finally calmed myself, that in some ways I had been acting like a panicked animal, caught in a trap, that was trying to gnaw its leg off in order to escape. There was a characteristic of desperation about all of the impulses that were thrown at me last night.

I’ve also realized that while I am dealing with some difficult things and am probably prone to being triggered right now, I also have something going on biochemically that probably is exacerbating the effects. So, a trigger that might otherwise be a 6 or a 7 is turned into a 10 or more. Historically, when I return from a trip to a very sunny place during the winter to a very dark home, I go through a depressive crash. I think that is happening right now, but it is intertwined with being so triggered, that it is hard to untangle what is going on. It actually is a big help for me to realize that this completely over the top reaction might not all be me- it might partially be my brain reacting poorly to the lack of serotonin. This is one of the things that Mama Bear has been trying to help me learn to recognize- my reactions aren’t always entirely about the trauma. Sometimes they are biochemical- for instance, we are wondering if the antidepressant that I am on is making me anxiety prone. Sometimes they are more about current issues than past trauma. Learning to not attribute everything to being a trauma reaction can be useful.

Anyways, I am no longer experiencing the urge to heap self hatred and thoughts of self harm on myself and I sincerely hope that I am done for now. It isn’t entirely gone, though. I can still sense just around the corner of my mind the simultaneous understanding of what it feels like to know that telling myself to harm myself is both the wrong thing to do and yet to also believe that it is the safest/best/most pain free thing to do. I know, it makes no sense.

Inside, I am in disarray and shock to some extent. I have a session tomorrow and to some extent I want to work on what some of the triggering factors were, but at the same time, I also just want to work on putting myself back together again, so I feel secure.

I don’t understand why I go through these very destructive self hate storms periodically. I think that this is the third time that it has happened. I don’t think that they are going to stop, though, until I come to some resolution about my parents.

I know that I can’t be the only one out there struggling with thoughts/impulses of self harm. I also know that I have no idea of what the best course of action is for anyone else. However, I do invite anyone reading to take a steadying/grounding breath with me and for this moment do the best that you can for yourself. That’s what I am going to be doing- moment by moment.

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My vacation reminded me that not only is going out and living good for its own sake, but it can even help with healing. On the drive to the airport for the trip back home, I realized something that astonished me and made me start to cry in gratitude, because unexpectedly I had been given exactly what I need right now.

You see, before I left, I was one stressed out puppy. I was experiencing a “perfect storm” of dealing with very distressing material in regards to my dad, being convinced that I am on the brink of losing my mother, the pressures of the holiday season, the stress of needing to travel when I really didn’t want to travel, the fact that I was traveling to about 20 miles away from where I lived between the ages of 6 months and 6 years, alarming migraine symptoms that resulted in my having an MRI, and finally I was experiencing brief periods of loss of time, which is very unusual for me and no one knew if they were neurological or dissociative due to all of the stress.

As a result, I was in a bit of a mess when I flew out to the West Coast to visit with my husband’s family. One of the things that I was really worried about was my mother in law asking awkward questions that I just didn’t have the resources to deal with, but right before we left, my husband let her know what topics were out of bounds on this trip. That made all of the difference. I was able to relax and we did eventually talk about about some of those same topics, but it was on my terms, so it was my choice to share. As a result, I experienced her attention as caring, rather than being intrusive. While I have always known that it was meant as caring, her questions in the past have only made me want to run, so this shift was a relief for me.

In fact, given the proper boundaries, being with my husband’s family turned out to be a healing experience, rather than the stressful experience that I had anticipated. What a delightful surprise! One of the things that we did differently this time was to break up the time that we spent with people, and we traveled up the coast, staying with different family members. We spent a lot of time hanging out, doing low key activities, like going to the beach, taking walks, and tide pooling together. New Years Day was spent entirely outdoors with my sister in law, enjoying her company, my husband and daughter, the fantastic weather, and the amazing sea life. Days like that help to heal my soul and they provide a calming, wholesome memory for me to come back to in times of distress.

I loved watching my daughter play with her cousins and aunts and make those connections that I so dearly wish that I had with my own family. It was healing for me to watch her settle into feeling secure and loved in the arms of her extended family. Families don’t have to be like the family that I grew up in. My husband’s family is not perfect, but it is loving and supportive and several family members have made an effort to improve upon what they were raised with, so it isn’t stagnant and stuck in dysfunction. It’s reality. My little family with my husband and daughter isn’t perfect, but hopefully we can provide a good enough environment for my daughter to take what we give to her and improve upon it for the next generation.

We spent a couple of days with the other young family in his extended family- their children are 7, 4, and 4 months. That time probably was the highlight of the trip for me. I saw another family where both of the parents came from backgrounds where they had been badly hurt at some point, and yet they have worked hard to heal that hurt, grow, overcome their limitations, and continually strive to learn to be better partners for each other, parents, and fuller people. Once again, they aren’t perfect, but they are kindred spirits in understanding what it means to struggle over and over, fail, pick yourself up and keep on going. They also manage to have faith that while things are hard, they will find a way to make everything work in the end and they remember to have joy in each day. Such a good reminder to find the joy, no matter how small, even in the midst of the struggle.

Unfortunately, the trip wasn’t without bumps. I received a call on New Years Day from my Dad’s phone and even though I didn’t answer it, I was triggered and ended up in a very bad state the next day. I tried my hardest to get myself out of it, but finally conceded that I couldn’t do it on my own and called on Mama Bear for help. At another point, I had to deal with something intrusive in regards to my dad, but at least I was able to put that away by myself. On the other hand, I learned that the trip didn’t have to be problem free in order to be a good thing for me.

The time that I spent connecting with the various people in my husband’s family was far more important to me than I realized while I was doing it. Reflecting on it, I think that I may have let them in more than I have dared to in the past. Somewhere along the way over the last couple of years, I really have learned how to start to open my heart more.

So what was this realization that I had in that predawn car ride to the airport? That I was leaving feeling like I had been loved by my husband’s family. Really feeling that there are people out there who love me, beyond just the few that I have regular contact with here was profound for me. I am someone who is worth loving. Someone who naturally loves and is loved in return. I don’t have to hide behind walls. It is safe for me to exist. I am not going to be rejected for being me. No matter what happens with my parents, I still have people around me who will love me. I’m not going to end up all alone, if I find and tell my truth.

This current realization doesn’t solve everything, of course, but some greater chunk of me is shifting. Tiny bits of me had been taking it in before, but now this larger part of me has experienced being loved, even in the face of starting to deal with what I most don’t want to deal with. I’m interested to see how it plays out both in my everyday relationships and in therapy.

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