Gaslighting. Part 2. The lasting impact.

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This might be a disjointed post, but that mirrors the state of mind I’m in when I’m experiencing the impacts of gaslighting.  Gaslighting is a term for prolonged emotional and psychological abuse which is designed to make the victim doubt their own perceptions of reality.  It’s a particularly harmful type of abuse and the impacts of it can last for years after the abusive relationship ends.  The lasting impacts of gaslighting can be invisible or vague to the outside eye, but are extremely powerful and terrifying to the survivor.

Much gaslighting and emotional abuse is perpetrated by sociopaths and various types of narcissists.  These folks lack empathy.  They lack the ability to understand the feelings of others.  They can exhibit levels of cruelty that are difficult to fathom, but they often “pass” as normal, functional human beings.  They often have good jobs, and often live ordinary lives.  They can often appear to be quite charming, especially in short controlled (always by them) interactions.  The cracks in their normalcy only begin to become evident when you get to know them over longer periods of time, then the signs of missing empathy and humanity begin to peek through.  But by that time you are quite likely hooked, trapped and unable to escape.  For those that have only short interactions with the sociopath/abuser, they may continue to think that he is a basically “good person,”  model employee, good father etc.   This can add levels to the gaslighting, because the victim/survivor has difficulty being believed, when her abuser has so much “street cred” as a decent person.

My abuser regularly spreads lies about me.  He tells anyone who will listen how crazy I am.  He also tells people in the community, including people who interact with my children, how crazy I am.  He tells them how I never took care of my children, how I never bonded or attached to them (they were both raised with me as a stay home mom, exclusively breastfed etc), he even lies and says they were in daycare from birth!   He tells people what a good caring person he is, how sad it is that despite his love, he just wasn’t able to cure my severe mental illness and the marriage ended.  These are the type of lies he tells to others.

While we were together, he used my PTSD against me.  Basically saying that it was because I was crazy (from being abused as a teenager) that I didn’t like what he was doing (abusing me) and that any “normal woman” would be okay with it.  He used me being “crazy” as a trick to keep me trapped for years in the relationship.  When I tried to get away he threatened me saying that the police wouldn’t believe me because I was “crazy.”

All this is emotional abuse.  It’s all gaslighting.  It all made me and makes me doubt my own reality.

Being abused over a long period of time is complex.  Because the abuser is also someone you are in a relationship with.  You never really know when the abuse will happen and when things will be “fine.”  You never know when you’ll sleep through the night and when you’ll wake to be assaulted.  You never really know…

Thus for many survivors (myself included) waiting can be a huge trigger.

One way that I try to cope with ongoing fears of abuse is by never upsetting anyone.  This means that I worry a great deal that anything I say or do, or don’t say or don’t do, or might say or might do, or might not say or might not do…might have terrible consequences for me or someone I care about.

Gaslighting has conditioned me to believe that everything is my fault. That I’m potentially to blame for everything around me.  And it has made me unable to adequately determine what is and is not my fault.  It has left me with very poor conflict management skills.  In a conflict situation, I freeze.  I say or do whatever I think will get me out of the situation quickly.  I say or do whatever I think will be safest in that moment, which isn’t necessarily the best option long term.  My PTSD brain kicks in and I don’t behave in a rational thought through manner.  I don’t have control over this.  I’m not being passive aggressive.  I’m not being manipulative. I freeze.  Or I’m trying to stay safe.  Even if there is no ACTUAL danger, in my  mind there is.

Gaslighting and triggers related to gaslighting leave me doubting myself in every possible way.

I can go to work, give a presentation, feel good about myself, feel I did an adequate job and then go home.  An hour after arriving home I can be completely convinced that I made a horrible mistake, said something offensive, said something my coworkers would not have said, said something that could cause irreversible harm to someone, embarrassed myself, brought shame on my organization, made all my coworkers hate me etc…

It’s an extreme reaction!

I’ve spent entire weekends ready to quit my job, convinced that a single email I sent has ruined everything I’ve worked for in 4 years.  That everyone will hate me and want me fired.

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the impacts of gaslighting that still remain in my brain.  I literally doubt reality ALL the time.  I somehow think I’ve done something wrong, even when I have done nothing at all.

I need a lot of reassurance.  This isn’t entirely because I lack confidence or skills.  It’s because I can, at a moments notice, begin to doubt everything I knew to be true a few minutes early.   I can get to a place where I even doubt I was abused.  I can believe that maybe I’m exaggerating.  Maybe I made things up.   I need reassurance about things most people consider self evident.  I know it’s frustrating for those around me.  I know it doesn’t always make sense.  I know you wish I could just love myself.  But I can’t.  I need your patience and reassurance.  I need to hear that you believe me.  I need to hear that it’s not my fault.  And I’ll need to hear it again tomorrow.

These are the lasting impacts of emotional abuse perpetrated by a narcissistic abuser.

How to cope with chronic suicidal thoughts…

People who don’t struggle with chronic suicidal thoughts sometimes imagine suicide as the type of crisis that happens in the movies.  And it can happen this way, but not for everyone.  You know the cliched scene (we’ve all seen it) someone loses their job, breaks up with their partner, makes a terrible mistake, suffers the loss of a loved one etc. and they spend a dark night contemplating ending it all.   Maybe they reach out, a friend comes over, makes them tea, stays up all night and talks them through it.  Or maybe they are taken to a hospital emergency room, where staff admits, them and they are released a few days later, on medication and thankful that they are still alive.

Yes, single episode suicidal crises happen.  They are terrifying and frightening and can be medical emergencies.  If you are struggling with this type of crisis, you are not alone.  Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.   There is help available, even though reaching out can be scary.

But what if this isn’t your experience.  What if, like me, you struggle with chronic suicidal thoughts, on and off, for decades?   What if suicidal thoughts and suicidal impulses became, during times of trauma, part of your coping mechanisms?  What if suicidal thoughts, ironically and paradoxically both threaten your life and help keep you alive?  What if it isn’t just “one long dark night”?  What if it isn’t something that a trip to the local emergency room and a short psychiatric admission can even touch?  What do people like me do when they hit a rough patch?

It’s complicated.  It’s complicated for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s very hard to even talk about suicide.  It’s not an easy subject to bring up.  I’m always afraid that people will either overreact (ie. treat it like the suicidal crisis described above and call emergency services) or under react (and ignore my disclosure or not offer support).  Let’s face it, most people aren’t comfortable talking about suicide.  If someone asks me: “How are you doing today?”  they don’t want to hear “Actually I’m dealing with suicidal thoughts at the moment, thanks for asking.”  It’s just not something I can say.
  2. If I do disclose that I’m having suicidal thoughts, most times people just sit there awkwardly.  Try to figure out if I’m joking or serious.  And then change the subject.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, just as awkwardly, feeling guilty for making the situation awkward and not just saying “I’m fine.”
  3. See point #1.  Talking about suicide is a societal taboo.  I’ve had these thoughts for 20+ years.  I’m still alive and I’m still finding it difficult to talk about them.  There is something about this that doesn’t quite make sense.
  4. There is an incredible amount of shame related to this societal taboo.  This means that not only do I feel suicidal, I also feel ashamed about it.  I also feel afraid about the consequences that could occur if people find out and misunderstand what chronic suicidal thinking means (aka…911 calls, police, hospitals).
  5.  Suicidal thoughts are not a “cry for help” or a “way to get attention.”  Most of the time I deal with suicidal thoughts alone and people aren’t even aware that I’m having them.  Even when I do disclose, I generally minimize how bad they are.  I try to cope by myself as much as possible.  Self harm has also been a very private thing in my life.  For something to be a “cry for help” generally other people need to actually know about it!  It would be more accurate for me to describe the suicidal thoughts as a way to gain control, the ultimate control, over an overwhelming or out of control situation in my life.  It’s also related to obsessive compulsive thinking, and in that way can be circular and very difficult to control.  Sometimes I have intrusive thoughts about suicide that are obsessive and not related to anything in particular in my life.  They are disturbing to me and they are  unwanted, arriving in my brain suddenly and then leaving.

So how do I cope with these chronic, obsessive suicidal thoughts?  I use some combination of the methods below, depending on what type of thoughts I’m having, how long they last and how severe they are.  It can be helpful to make your own “safety list” with various ideas that you can use when your suicidal thoughts make an appearance.  I suggest that you create a variety of coping ideas, because chronic thoughts of self harm are very persistent and won’t likely go away with the use of just one distraction or grounding technique.  If you are lucky enough to have a supportive partner/friend you can give them a copy of your safety list and they could help you use some of the skills in a crisis situation.  For some folks, taking medication or calling a support line can be items on their lists.

  1. Delay. Delay. Delay.
  2. Distract. Distract. Distract.
  3. Remind myself of reasons why I need to stay alive (aka my kids)
  4. Listen to nature sounds on Spotify.
  5. Get in a safe space (aka my bed, under lots of warm blankets, away from anything potentially dangerous.  This works best for the most severe thoughts when other techniques may not be safe)
  6. Take a walk outside, ideally in nature.  Breathe, move my body.
  7. Drink a hot beverage (tea, hot chocolate, coffee)
  8. Reach out to a trusted friend (I may or may not tell the person I’m struggling)
  9. Blogging (others may use journaling, art or other creative outlet)
  10. Helping others, volunteer work, helping a friend in need (this works very well for me, but caution as it can lead to burn out if this is your only coping tool)
  11. Disassociate or zone out (ensure that it is safe to do so)
  12. Pay attention to your environment.  Count things you can see, feel, touch, hear.  Ground yourself in the present moment.

If you are coping with chronic suicidal thoughts, I hope that reading this post helps you to feel a little bit less alone.  If you don’t struggle with them, I hope it helps you to understand them a little bit and maybe allows you to help others around you who might be living with them.  Many people live with suicidal thoughts for years, it’s exhausting.  So very exhausting and nothing at all like what is presented in the movies.  But it has to be better than the alternative.  So I keep trying and keep breathing!  Keep hoping that it will get easier for all of us!

What does “fully recovered” mean?

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I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder.

The best books I’ve read on this subject are “Life Without Ed” and “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” by Jenni Schaefer.   These books promote the message that it is possible to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder.  They give me hope that anorexia isn’t something I will have to struggle with for the rest of my life.   I’ve read the books at various times when I’ve felt overwhelmed or hopeless and they have always helped me stay positive.  I truly admire the author’s dedication to having a life free from ED, or in my case Ana.

But if I’m 100% honest with you, I’ve never even TRIED to be fully recovered.

I’ve been in imperfect recovery for years.  At times this has meant being at a healthy weight, but still struggling with unhealthy thoughts and habits related to food and restricting food.  At times, this has meant slipping back into controlling my body,  purposefully eating less and obsessing about taking up less space.  I know how imperfect recovery works.  It keeps me “functional” and sometimes even “looking healthy,” but inside I am never truly free.  The thing with imperfect recovery is that Ana still controls my life to varying degrees, depending on how much I’m struggling.

It’s not possible to tell by looking at a person whether or not they have an eating disorder.  Being at a “healthy” or “normal” weight means nothing.  Being at a “healthy” weight doesn’t even mean a person is medically stable or in recovery.   In my current situation, my weight is higher than it’s been in  years, but my eating disorder is causing me MORE trouble, not less.  I feel exhausted mentally and physically most of the time.

I’ve been in hospital treatment programs in the past.  Inpatient programs where I was “forced” to eat large quantities of food.  I was supervised after eating, a staff member watched me to make sure I ate all of my meals and snacks.  I followed the rules because I had to, even though I was there voluntarily, I was able to comply because it was required.

But let’s be honest.  I never attempted to be fully recovered.  I have never, in 20 years, been even willing to CONSIDER giving up Ana as a coping technique.  I’ve used it to varying degrees at various times, but I’ve never committed to letting Ana go.

I stayed in treatment until I was functionally recovered.  Until I could eat without panic and physical discomfort, until I could have the energy to get through a day, until I could think more clearly and re-engage in life.  Then I discharged myself every time.  I wanted to be healthy and eat, but I didn’t want to gain too much weight or give up my obsessive compulsive thoughts and habits.  I wanted to be in control, even of the recovery process.  I told myself I could do it by myself, I could do it my own way, I didn’t NEED the program.

I was told again and again that I needed to follow a meal plan and eat mechanically for at LEAST a year before trying things on my own.  I was told again and again that I needed to gain to my goal weight and maintain it for a year in order to recover.  I was told again and again that I needed to stop controlling food and my body in order to heal.  But what did I do?  I poured out my juice when nobody was looking.  When I got out of treatment I stopped drinking juice altogether because it was unnecessary!  I cheated in a million little ways.

When I was younger, I thought I knew better.  I thought I could do it on my own.  I thought I could let go of the horrible life threatening aspects of Ana, but hold onto the comforting habits that kept me slim.  I thought I would be happy about 10-15 pounds below my “goal weight” and that I would be medically stable.  I thought Ana and I could dance together this way forever.  I thought I could have Ana on my terms, not hers.

But I’m not a teenager anymore.  I’m pretty close to my “goal weight” now, but I feel worse physically than I have in years.  I can’t push my body the way I used to.  I get migraines, physical body pain, exhaustion and lack of patience.  I don’t dance with Ana anymore…instead we are plodding, dragging through life, in a way that has very little meaning to me.

Because I have never embraced “fully recovered,”  I have instead remained sick.  Because let’s be honest about this too, if Ana is driving, I’m sick regardless of my weight.

For a long time, imperfect recover was enough for me.  It was such an improvement, I was proud of myself.  People stopped bugging me about gaining weight.  I was able to eat most things without panic.  I was able to eat around other people.  I was able to attend social events.  I was more relaxed.

But even at the BEST of times, there were always rules, calculations.  I always felt that I deserved to eat only as much as I needed to survive each day.  Never more.  I wasn’t starving myself literally, but I was starving my soul.  I was depriving myself of more than food, I was depriving myself of joy, connection and abundance.

Recently the stress in my life has been almost more than I can bear.  I’ve been waiting for 5 months for the outcome of a year long family law trial.  I’m waiting for a stranger to decide the future of my children.   Many important aspects of my life are quite literally out of my control.

I struggle daily to accept my body at this weight.  I struggle daily feeling like I am too big, seeing parts of my body as fat, living with body distortions and hating myself.

I struggle daily with the lack of control and the waiting.

And quite honestly, I CHOSE to let Ana start driving again.  I saw it as a necessary evil, to help me keep functioning and keep moving forward through each day.  I opened the door and let Ana right back in.  I welcomed her. I almost felt happy that I had a way of modulating and distracting from the unbearable stress.

I changed a few things here, a few things there.  Nothing drastic, but small changes.  I felt okay about it.   Maybe I could lose just a few pounds.  But it isn’t really about the weight, though I might say that it is.  It’s all about feeling in control of my body and thus, my life.

Irrational.  Magical thinking.  Self-destructive.  Self-punishing.  Illogical.

But even though I’ve let Ana drive many times before, always with varying degrees of disastrous results, I STILL believe deep down inside, that she is my friend who will NEVER leave me.  I love Ana for getting me through years of sexual and emotional abuse.  I love Ana for never letting me down, for always being there.

But Ana is an abusive partner.  She isolates me.  She makes me say no to eating dinner with friends because she makes me ashamed and afraid to eat in public.  She makes me tired from restricting food.  She makes me impatient and she makes me struggle to connect with those around me.  She helps me to disassociate by numbing out through the physiological effects of semi-starvation.  Ana is abusive even when I let the door open a crack.  Ana is abusive even when I’m not emaciated.  Ana is abusive even when you see me eating.  Ana is abusive right now.

Ana tells me that I don’t deserve to eat.  That I don’t deserve to take up space.  That I’m bad or weak for needing food to survive.  Ana tells me that the high of restricting food means I’m strong.

Ana lies.  She lies like any abusive partner.  She gaslights me.  She lulls me into thinking she is caring for me while she is trying to destroy me.

Today, I am at the stage of contemplating full recovery.

When Ana drives, I eventually feel like life is not worth living.  I can’t imagine living another 20 years this way.  Half living, half dying.  I’m tired.

To me, full recovery means more than changing my eating habits.

Full recovery means letting go of giving meaning to food.  Letting go of believing my food intake or weight has anything to do with my worth.  Letting go of trying to control my body as a means to feel safe in this world.  Letting go of believing that being thin will protect me from being raped again.  Letting go of trying to disappear to stay safe or avoid hurting anyone.

Fully recovered means eating when I’m  hungry and stopping when I’m full.  Fully recovered means going out to dinner with friends, even if I ate lunch.  Fully recovered means eating lunch daily. Fully recovered means eating 3 cookies.  Fully recovered means breaking all my food rules, even drinking juice!  Measuring nothing, counting nothing, giving food no value other than nutritional.  Fully recovered means not cheating, by holding on to “just one or two habits.”   Fully recovered means committing to staying alive until my natural death.  Fully recovered means learning to like myself, then learning to love myself.  Fully recovered means reconnecting with the world, trusting myself and opening myself up to others.  Fully recovered means healing from years of abuse, by self compassion rather than self hatred. Fully recovered means accepting my natural body shape, no matter what size that turns out to be.

Fully recovered means letting go of fear.

I hope fully recovered means living with joy.  I hope that one day I will experience fully recovered and it will be wonderful.

Today, I still feel lost and stuck in survival mode. If you have tips for finding “fully recovered” please share them in the comment section below.

Firsts.

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<trigger warning for graphic descriptions of self harm and eating disorder>

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “firsts” of my mental illnesses.  We all have memories of the first time we did certain things or had certain experiences, but for people who have chronic mental health struggles over a number of years, not all “firsts” are positive memories to celebrate.

When I was experiencing my “firsts” of mental illness I was a teenager.  I was 15-17 years old and I didn’t have any idea that my experiences were those of specific mental illness, let alone what those mental illnesses might be.  I thought that I was going crazy.  I thought I was the only one.  I was afraid to tell others what I was experiencing internally.  Until I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 20 years old, most of my “firsts” made little sense to me.

The first time I experienced what would become anorexia I was about 16 years old.  I’ve written about it in another blog post.  I was physically sick and hadn’t eaten for a few days.  I felt mostly better and wanted to go to school.  I remember my mother telling me I had to eat something if I was going to school.  I took a granola bar and started walking down the street to meet my boyfriend at the time and to catch the bus.  I remember feeling light, empty and powerful.  I remember feeling the sense of white, blank emptiness that I now associate with disassociation.  I felt like I could take on the world.  I felt like I could survive without food and that I’d actually be more powerful.  I loved that feeling and I chased after it in various forms for the next 20 years.  I believe this moment is the one I chose anorexia as a coping technique for the sexual and emotional abuse I was living with.  At that time I wouldn’t have identified it as an eating disorder, nor would I have identified my relationship as sexually and emotionally abusive.  It was just a feeling I had, of realizing that disassociation was more comfortable than pain.

I remember the first and one of the few times I tried (unsuccessfully) to purge after panicking about eating.  This I described in another blog post.  I remember crying and sitting shaking on the floor of the downtown public library.  My crime?  Eating a whole cookie rather than half of one.  I remember I had been reading books about eating disorders, secretly, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

I remember my first panic attack.  I was in Grade 12, 17 years old and extremely ill from anorexia.  I was attending school despite the fact that my weight was well under 100 pounds at close to 5’9″.  I remember feeling driven.  I remember feeling an intensity of moving forward that wouldn’t allow me to slow down or calm down.  I had to keep “doing” and trying to be perfect at everything.  I had to follow all my rules or something terrible would happen.  I remember there was one day I had a math test.  I believe it was Grade 12 Calculus or some other horrible subject.  I had been doing well in school despite my illness.  But that day somehow my brain just wouldn’t work.  I remember sitting in the classroom, the desks were arranged in rows, one in front of the other with the blackboard at the front.  I remember all the numbers and letters swimming around on the paper.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t think of how to solve the problems because everything was spinning and I felt like I was being crushed.  I felt nauseous and I realized that I was about to cry.  I remember bolting out of the room and into a stall in the girls bathroom.  I remember sitting there crying, shaking and feeling terribly upset that I couldn’t do the test.  My thoughts were racing around and I just wanted to go home.  I remember another student from the class coming in to check on me (it was a male teacher).  I remember being somehow glad she was there even though I was embarrassed.  I made up some excuse about being sick and not being able to write the test.  I think I went home.  I wouldn’t have known at the time that it was a panic attack, but it was and it was probably related to extreme lack of nutrition and just pushing myself too hard on no fuel.

I remember the first time I cut myself as a coping technique for stress.  I was about 18 years old.  I had just started taking SSRI medication for depression and anxiety after about 2 years of fighting with my parents and my doctors.  I never wanted to take medication.  I think deeply and instinctively I must have known that my mental health problems were situational, but that knowledge was too terrifying to face, so I blocked it out.  The first time I engaged in cutting I  used a pair of scissors that I kept in my bedroom.  I used to make just one small cut.  I would do it once a week in the exact same place, just under where the band of my watch lay.  So I could hide it carefully.  It was ritualistic, very controlled.  I don’t remember exactly why I started doing this.  It became part of my routine as I gained weight and somewhat normalized my eating behaviour. I needed something else to help block out the memories of the abuse.

I remember the first time I considered suicide.  I was probably about 17 years old, but I might have been 18.  I remember being at a party at a friend’s house.  Radiohead OKComputer was playing in the background.  Music I always associate with the “saddest of the sad” times.  It was raining outside.  I remember sitting on the couch looking out the back sliding door.  It was dark outside, evening.  The rain was falling really hard and there was thunder and lighting. I felt like I was in a trance.  Looking back I realize this was also an example of disassociation.  I remember feeling incredibly alone and disconnected. I was AT the party but not part of it.  I remember being at home that evening.  My bathroom had green tiles.  Small square tiles with white grout.  I remember just sitting there staring at my razor.  Thinking about cutting myself, thinking about dying and ending my life by opening up my veins.  I just sat there for a long time thinking about it.  The images of the green tiles and the emptiness of that moment are burned into my memory.

I remember my first flashback.  I was 18.5 and with my first love, my first real connection after the abuse and the severe anorexia.  I remember we were in my bedroom and we were kissing.  It was consensual and I wanted to do it.  He was lying on top of me. I think he might have been about to unbutton a piece of my clothing or something like that.  Suddenly I was crying and shaking and it wasn’t him there.  It was my ex boyfriend, who had so many times taken off or unbuttoned my clothing when I’d clearly said now.  It was him on top of me and I was afraid.  I had no idea what a flashback was, I didn’t know I had PTSD.  I just had an intense physical reaction to what was happening.  My boyfriend stopped immediately.  I remember him leaving the room briefly to give me space.  I remember feeling scared and embarrassed.  I don’t really remember the explanation I gave to him.  Some of my memories are less clear, but I think over time I had told him that my last relationship had been difficult.  I don’t think I fully understood myself at that time that it had been abusive, and that this type of reaction was a normal one for survivors.

I remember the first time I cut myself deeply enough to need stitches.  I was 20.  I was at university.  I remember buying the craft knife at the university book store. I remember walking home.   There was  a bridge on the campus and for months I thought about jumping off it every day.  I knew that I was going to cut deeply.  It was planned and premeditated.  I remember disassociating and thinking only about the injuring.  I remember wanted to make sure it was deep enough to need stitches.  I remember walking to the hospital which was on the campus.  I walked across a field to get there.  It was May or June.  I remember the doctor stitching up the wound.  It was a medical student and I remember feeling afraid.  I remember the resident coming to check the work and commenting that the stitches were incorrectly done.  I remember wondering why the resident didn’t fix them, but I assumed that because the wound was self inflicted they thought I didn’t care about scars.  In the end that wound healed badly and caused me chronic pain until it was fixed about 7 years later by a plastic surgeon at that same hospital.   I remember feeling nothing.  I remember feeling nothing about the injury and having no emotional or physical reaction until the day I went to the health clinic to have the stitches removed. I fainted when the doctor took them out.  My body felt the trauma suddenly and all at once the disassociate wasn’t there.   From then on I always took my own stitches out so I could control the process and do it in a way that I would not feel as much pain.  The ritual of the whole thing was an important part of the process of disassociation for me.

It’s a sad list.  Really sad.  Because some of these firsts are clearly in my mind that pleasant memories I would like to remember.  The way that PTSD stores traumatic memories and erases positive ones is deeply frustrating.  Because the long term consequence of disassociation is memory loss, and rarely losing the memories I wish would disappear.

Picture was drawn in September 1999