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Posts Tagged ‘body awareness’

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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I did something for myself today that I have needed to do for awhile. I got a massage. I haven’t gotten a full massage in 3 or 4 years- only targeted ones when I was doing physical therapy for the herniated disk in my neck or quick chair massages. This might seem like a bit of an odd time to decide to get one, since I have been having trouble with being triggered, but I have also been holding so much tension in my neck, shoulders, and back that not only was I in pain, but I have been experiencing numbness extending down into my fingers. Experiencing pain in my body is triggering itself.

I have a history with this massage therapist (A.); we started to work together when I previously lived in this town and I was pregnant with my daughter. She helped me get through a difficult and frightening pregnancy and then she helped me get through nursing. While I hadn’t seen her in about seven years, in my mind, she is an established safe person. I don’t think that I would have dared to try a massage just right now with a new massage therapist, because if it started to go wrong, it could go very wrong. My first attempt at massage went quite wrong. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like and I ended up being massively triggered, which required that I flee the massage. While I was in that triggered state, I found myself on a pedestrian bridge that was several stories up and I briefly, but seriously considered throwing myself over the side, until I was able to force myself off it and to contained place where I could pull myself back together. So I don’t lightly go into a massage and I recommend that an abuse survivor considering a massage have a good idea of how they will react and a back up plan in case they don’t.

As I said, I know A. fairly well, I live only 5 minutes from her office, and my husband’s work place is only about 5 minutes away. I felt that I could manage in the off chance that something massively went wrong.

We started out chatting a bit to catch up on life history for both of us over the last several years and then I told her about the state of my body. I reminded her that I was sexually abused and told her that I have been doing some intense work recently and that while I thought that I would be OK with her, she needed to be aware that the potential was there that I might not be. Her response was, “I will be sure to hold you sweetly and gently with that knowledge.” One of the nice things about working with A. is that she doesn’t get all freaked out by the mention of sexual abuse, but she also recognizes the seriousness of it and how it can come out in the body. Frankly, it was healing to be able to calmly remind someone that I had been abused knowing that she could handle the information appropriately and I didn’t need to worry about it. It is so different from telling most health care providers.

We started the massage, and during the massage, I noticed several things. First, I am much better able to tolerate being in my body during a massage than I ever have been in the past. This was a huge surprise to me, because I have been so aware of how dissociative I have been lately and I would have expected the opposite. It makes me wonder what sort of progress am I making that I have no idea that I am making. Second, I was able to work with the massage for the first time and just let myself be in it. I didn’t worry about whether she was going to be able to resolve a particular knot; I decided to trust her and her knowledge of the human body and try to just breathe as much as possible during the massage. That was an unexpected benefit of this mindfullness stuff! 🙂 Third, at one point, I could feel a young part starting to get upset and I started to “talk” to that part about how not only can touch be safe, but some people even use touch to help to heal. That is what A. was doing with me; her touch was a caring, healing touch. I felt like several little ones gathered around the table for a bit, marveling at the fact that A. really was touching me in a way that helped me and I had no concern that she would do anything harmful to me. Fourth, soon after that and towards the end of the massage, I felt like there was a connection with the hurt in me that I was able to just sit with, and then I felt myself cold and I started to tremble. It didn’t feel a bad sort of shaking and I know enough from doing a bit of sensorimotor reading to know that trembling can actually be a sign of processing or release, so I just let it be. A. was working on my feet at that point and while she slowed the work down, became even more gentle, and spent a bit of time laying her hands on me and just breathing, there was no sense of worry from her. She was just a calm and soothing presence.

When she finished and left to let me dressed, she also told me to take as much time as I needed, so rather than trying to force it to stop, I let the trembling develop into something stronger and then it felt like my body was trying to expel some of the pain. After she came back, we talked for a bit and she just sat with me while I grounded, because at that point, I had started to dissociate. She told me that she was glad when she first saw me get cold (I needed a blanket) and then the trembling develop, because that meant the the parasympathetic system had been involved. And healing of trauma can occur when there is activation of the parasympathetic system.

I went in today hoping for some relief with my muscle tension and not only received that, but also had an experience that was healing to me in other ways. What an unexpected gift. And what a reminder of how while the brain stores the trauma, there is a mind body connection in trauma that is so important to remember and something as simple as touch can activate that healing. That is part of the reason it is so important to me that Mama Bear will hold my hand when a child part is struggling.

The massage was expensive and I had used gift money to get it done. I wasn’t anticipating doing another one until around Christmas, but this was so valuable that I’m considering talking with Mama Bear about it. I wonder if I schedule a massage a day before a therapy session, there might be a way to then piggyback some of the gentle healing benefits of the massage on the the therapy session. Whether or not I coordinate it with therapy, it may be valuable enough for me to find some way to manage a massage every 2 or 3 months during this difficult period.

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Today has continued the trend of being difficult, but not impossible.

I think that the hardest thing is that I am having trouble feeling fully “me” today. There are some times when I feel like there is an overlay of a slightly different experience on the way that I am experiencing things. Usually it goes on for an hour or two, although in times of significant stress it has gone for days, maybe even weeks at a time. Today, it has persisted almost all day long.

I feel like my body is two different sizes at once. There is the body that I can see, which obviously is my adult body, but it seems like there is a ghost image of a body that is smaller. If I close my eyes, I can both feel where my fingers are physically in contact with the keyboard, and I have a physical sense of fingers that are shorter and palms that are smaller.

Today, I have only spoken from my adult voice, but I have felt the urge to say things differently. It is like a voice that sounds differently and uses different words is just behind my own voice.

I am both aware that I am an adult who is quite tall and very able to take care of herself and I feel small and so very physically vulnerable.

I think that I have only moved in my normal way today, but there is a strong awareness of another way of moving.

There is an eerie sensation of not being the only one looking out of my eyes.

I know that this all means that I am partially stuck in a memory state/part and I really need to be better grounded in the here and now. In fact, I have been aware of memories being right there, pushing at the edge of my awareness, several times today. I even know what some of the content is, enough to know that I really don’t want to remember. It isn’t violent, but it involves clearly feeling what it was like to feel my grandfather’s body in contact with mine. I think that there is little to no sexual content, but the thought of experiencing that skin on skin contact just makes my skin crawl and leaves me wanting to crawl into a safe corner and cry. It’s just too real.

So far I have managed to keep it to knowing that the memory is there, if I were to let down the barriers and allow myself to fully remember. Earlier, I almost sent my daughter and husband out of the house, so I could have the privacy to fall apart and cry and scream, but I know from past experience that indulging in the urge to do that doesn’t “just get it out of my system,” but rather it seems to set it there more firmly. It activates more of the trauma responses. Even though the urge is to act out my fear, I know that the best way to help myself is to work to calm my system as much as possible and let this pass by me for now.

I just don’t want to do this alone. I am tired and still drained and frankly ill equipped to deal with caring for myself while experiencing such difficult memories. Besides, I don’t have to do this alone and it really does help to have Mama Bear there, making sure that I don’t end up getting completely sucked into and stuck in the experience.

There are times when “I” know something, but so much of the rest of me is close to the surface and the rest of me doesn’t have the same understanding. I know that the vulnerable, hurt parts of me will listen to Mama Bear though. So, earlier in the day, I sent an email to Mama Bear: “I don’t have to remember, right? It is OK to at least say, “not right
now.” I’m trying to convince all of myself of that.”

This was her response: “You have remembered many times. You don’t need to keep thinking about it in order to know what has happened. It is not only fine for you to ground and enjoy the now, you owe it to yourself and the life that you have made to care for yourself and to live the now. You honor your full self when you calm yourself and allow yourself to live that life that you have so beautifully made.

Most of me was able to hear her and settle a bit better into today. My hope is that maybe tomorrow I will even more fully and concretely be me. At least I can hope for that.

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“I am trembling again, why am I trembling?”  That’s a question that I have been asking myself a lot lately, because much of the time I have been going around with this trembling inside that I have been told isn’t even visible from the outside.  I don’t seem to feel afraid; in fact I can’t seem to figure out at all what emotion I am feeling.

Then a few days ago, I was reading a book on mindfulness and the author wrote about the importance of not blocking the feelings that you are feeling right now.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, right!  He has no idea of how intense and overwhelming these feelings are.  It seems crazy to consider just letting myself fully feel whatever is right there.”  After all, I was well aware that I had been blocking something and had been miserable and dissociative all day.  But then it occurred to me that by working so hard to keep whatever I was afraid to experience at bay, I had instead tied myself to it for the full day.  I knew that I was afraid that if I let down my guard, I would experience a flashback, but I suddenly wondered if a flashback where the worst would likely be over in 5 minutes was actually worse than being dissociative and miserable for days and in the end having the flashback break through anyways.  So I decided to take a chance, gather together many of my grounding and self soothing items, and let the walls down.

Or I should say, I tried to let the walls down at first.  I knew that I felt glimmers of something, but I felt like whatever was there for me to feel was on the other side of the room.  I felt myself starting to tremble again, and I automatically clamped down on the movement and I lost the tentative connection to what I had been starting to feel.  But why did it seem so important to me to not shake if my body wanted to shake?  What could shaking really hurt?  So, I took another chance and stopped inhibiting the trembling, which grew and grew into full body shaking, and then the grief hit and the pain started.   I hadn’t been blocking a flashback, I was trying to avoid feeling immense amounts of emotional pain.  As I cried and rocked, holding myself, it felt like sobs were burning me as they worked their way up and out.  I was appalled at how bottomless and intense the pain felt, but an instinct also told me that as much as it hurt, holding it all in was worse for me.

I cried like that another 3 or 4 times over the next few days, although each time did seem to be a touch less intense.  This grief didn’t seem to be connected to any particular memory, but it was grief over having been the child who experienced being abused by men I should have been able to trust.  When asked what it was about, I wanted to say that it was about the totality of the experience.  I didn’t seem to be capable of thinking about what I was feeling, I just had to endure it and comfort myself as best as possible, while keeping faith that I would eventually move through the pain.  Perhaps most importantly, I also discovered that letting out this pain was leaving me free to feel OK some of the time.  Despite the intensity, it wasn’t an inescapable trap.

So I have been thinking a bit about this experience and how I seem to keep emotions locked in my body.  I had been vaguely aware before that I was doing this, but now it had become crystal clear to me.  It had also become obvious that all of the trembling, the twitches, and other movements that I have been inhibiting are physical signs that I need to express something, but am blocking it.

Obviously, blocking strong emotions is rather counter productive when in session, so now I am faced with the idea of letting my body move the way that it wants to move while at therapy.  Frankly, I am frightened by the idea, not so much because I want to avoid feeling those intense feelings, but by the thought of someone watching me.  It feels dangerous somehow, although I am unclear as to why it feels dangerous.  But I can feel that there is so much there which I have been blocking, which I need to process.  When I relax from clenching myself, I feel the desire to push someone away and the need to hit.  This is important stuff that I have been cutting off from myself, so I simply am going to have to find the courage to “just let it out.”

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One of the things that I have struggled with over the years is experiencing myself as having solidity.  Not just being emotionally and psychologically solid, but actually physically having solid form.  At its worst, it is like I experience myself as a phantom.

A lot of that has been due to low level, habitual dissociation which created a disconnect between myself and my physical sensations.  With a lot of work, I have broken the habit of existing in the world on an everyday basis that way.  How is that done?  Basically by going around day after day saying to myself, “This is my skin, which surrounds my whole body.  I can feel my shirt touching the skin on my arm.  I can feel my weight in the chair.  I can feel the breeze on my face and it is cool.  My daughter’s cheek feels soft and smooth.”  By being mindful of what I was actually experiencing, I slowly demonstrated to myself that most of my physical sensations were either neutral or even pleasant.  And I thought that the problem was solved.

But it isn’t so simple, because while I learned to connect with the physical sensations related to my interfacing with the outer world, I forgot that about the internal sensations that we all feel.  What internal sensations?  Think of butterflies in the stomach, or suddenly feeling cold, or realizing that your jaw is clenched.  One of the things that can be done in trauma therapy involves tying together internal sensations and the emotions and thoughts that go along with them.  So, over the last several months, Mama Bear has been asking me, “What are you physically feeling in your body right now?”  At first when she asked me that question, it terrified me, because somatic flashbacks were always right under the surface, so she stopped asking the question until we got the hyperstimulation under control.

However, after she went to a week long work shop on Complex-PTSD, she started asking the question again.  I kept on drawing a blank, side stepping the question, and talking about something else, without even really noticing what I was doing.  (The mind is tricky that way!)  Finally, yesterday, when she asked me that question 4 or 5 times in the same session and I could only answer it once, it finally dawned on me that most of the time I am completely unable to recognize what is going on inside my body.  I could vaguely tell that I was feeling something, but I had no idea what the sensation was or even where it was located in my body.

The one time that I was able to identify the sensation was quite useful, because I realized that I felt like my throat was closing up on me, at a time when I was struggling to express feelings of anger at and betrayal by my mother.

I also realized that it is no wonder that I often feel like my body is an empty shell these days, if I can’t feel what is going on inside of it.  This is something that I need to pay attention to, because I have found that the more solid I feel, the more confidence I have while interacting with the world.  When you feel solid, you know that the world can bump you a bit, but you can still remain whole.

So on my drive home yesterday, I started to try to pay attention to my internal sensations.  Notice the word “try.”  I thought that it would surely be easier when I was in a neutral situation and not under any stress.  I suppose that it was marginally easier, but I was only able to identify the internal sensations in the vaguest way.  And to my surprise, I was only able to do it for a minute or two at a time, before I started to feel overwhelmed.  I can see that I am now in for a lot of practice at slowly learning to both identify and tolerate feeling what is going on inside.

So, now I am really curious…  What is it like for you when you try to pay attention to your internal sensations?  Are you aware of them most of the time?  Does it take a lot of concentration?  Are you basically blind to them, the way that I am?

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