All mixed up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post.  Even tonight as I sit down to type this, I’m not clear on what I’m going to write about.

I’ve been focused on my children and my family for the last few months.  It’s been difficult to connect or find the energy to do much other than collapse on the couch to watch Netflix at the end of each busy day.  I have my children with me full time now.  Their father moved to another part of the country and they haven’t seen him since October.  He didn’t plan a visit for Christmas.

We are all of us coping with this abandonment in different ways.

For me, there has been an incredible amount of anger.

I don’t feel comfortable in the anger.  I don’t feel comfortable with how little patience I have and how quickly I snap at people or shut them out if they cross a line from support into offering advice.  I’ve isolated myself more than usual.

The anger is just barely covering a deep well of sadness and fear.  Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed with the amount of trauma my small family has endured in the past few years.  I worry about the impact it will have on my children.  I worry about not having the right help for them.  I worry about not being patient enough.  I worry about being a solo parent, all the responsibility on me.  I worry about the lifelong impact of parental abandonment after years of emotional abuse and neglect.

I think about the research that has been done about adverse childhood experiences  (ACEs) in relation to trauma theory and the negative impact on health.  For those who might not be familiar with the research, here is a visual representation:

 

My kids have experienced emotional abuse and neglect and physical neglect at times.  I don’t know for certain about physical and sexual abuse.  I may never know.  They have a parent with a mental illness.  Their parents are divorced and their mother is a survivor of family violence.  There is a history of substance abuse on both sides of their family (though not with either parent).

I try not to think about it.  I try to think about the research on resilience which shows that if children have even one positive, consistent and stable adult in their life, it mitigates the impact of ACEs.   I try to believe.  I need to believe it is true in order to function on a daily basis, rather than fall into a pit of hopeless despair.

My older child was recently diagnosed with learning disabilities.  This did not come as a surprise to me.  For two years her father refused to consent for the testing to be re-done.  Earlier testing had been inconclusive for a number of reasons and it was recommended to be repeated.  He refused to agree.  He denied she had any learning issues and blamed me for instilling anxiety in both my children.

Yesterday, as I listened to the feedback from the psychologist.  I heard her saying again and again how different aspects of the test results, including some of the discrepancies between the recent and prior testing, could be linked to the impact of trauma on a developing brain.

Essentially, she was talking about the impact of ACEs on my child’s brain.

I felt numb.  What reaction is normal?  How can a caring parent just accept these things?  How to function and keep moving forward, filled with the knowledge that my kids have experienced trauma?

Intellectually, I know it isn’t my fault.  I know I’ve done the best I could.  But the dark voice inside tells me that it is my fault.  That I never should have had children.  That someone with a mental illness like mine should never have been a mother.  That I never should have had children with an abusive partner.  That I should have left him sooner.  That I should have stayed with him to protect the kids…

All the ways…all the blame.

I push it all down.   Try to keep busy.  Try to block out the thoughts and worries.  Turn on the TV.  Pick up my cell phone.  Browse the internet mindlessly for hours.

In the evening, I feel a sense of panic.  I’m a fraud.  I’m not capable.  I find myself thinking old thoughts, falling back into old thought patterns.  “I can escape my responsibilities by hurting myself”  and “It’s too hard.  I can’t do it. I’m a failure”  I think about self harm and suicide.  Then berate myself for how literally insane it is.  I can’t die.  I’m simultaneously gripped in a tight knot of constant fear and terror about dying and leaving my kids alone with their father, and desperate to escape from a life that often feels TOO painful to endure.   I think about suicide and actively wish I was not alive, while at the same time worrying about getting sick or having an accident, and the consequences on my children if I’m not here 100% of the time and 100% functional.

It’s exhausting.  I honestly want to sleep and watch TV, curled in warm blankets, for many days.  I want to escape from SO much responsibility.  But I can’t.  I get up each day, and I function.  I do ALL the things.  I keep going, because I have to.

My mind is a bit all over the place recently.  Instead of having a certain set of trauma memories and flashbacks which bother me consistently, I have been experiencing mixed up flashes of a whole spread of my traumatic experiences.  Memories popping into my mind, unexpectedly, and me pushing them back down again.

I started a new job, teaching a course at the university I went to during the years before my separation.  Going back to the campus brought back memories of those two years, when I was so unwell, cutting myself and ending up in the emergency room on a regular basis.  I received ECT the week I completed my last semester.  I felt depressed and trapped and I hadn’t yet made the connection to my abusive marriage.  During those years, it was still JUST ME.  I felt like I’d exhausted every treatment option and I was ready to give up.  I wrote a post-it note suicide notes to my children but then went to the hospital and had my injuries treated.  I felt like I was falling into pieces and not able to put them together again.  I never felt calm or safe.  I had nightmares and woke up screaming and trying to escape from imagined abusers.

My brain also dredged up memories and flashbacks of the undergraduate professor who sexually assaulted me in my apartment, less than a year after my graduation.  It happened in December.  I sat frozen on my couch while he touched me.  I didn’t fight back, I didn’t say no.  I just froze and disassociated, my eyes fixed on his black and gold scarf.  I was powerless to stop him. The only reason it ended was that at some point he noticed that I was completely gone and even he didn’t want to touch a statue.  It took what felt like hours before I could even speak to ask him to leave.  I remember crying, but as a statue would cry, tears moving over a frozen face.

In a way, I feel safer now that my ex-husband doesn’t live in the city.  But I still tense up when I see a car like his.  I still get jumpy at night sometimes, thinking I hear someone in the house.  I still get anxious about something happening to the kids, even a minor injury, that he might get angry about.  I am in equal parts afraid he will respond to my mandatory email updates about the children, and furious that he ignores me so completely.  I feel at the same time invisible and caged.   I feel trapped in a cage.

The cage of abuse and trauma.  I don’t know how to escape and I don’t know how to release my children from the cage either.  When abuse has gone on for so long, the abuser doesn’t even have to be in the same city, or have contact with you, to control you with the fear of what MIGHT happen.  The bars of the cage are memories, fears, and what ifs.  The fear alone is enough to modulate our behaviour, even with little or no contact from him.

I’m tired.  I get tired of hearing myself say that I’m tired.  But I’m tired.  I’m always tired.

Yes, there are good days and things to be thankful for.  This post isn’t ungrateful or dismissive of the blessings in my life.  It’s more to say that no matter how bright the joys and how wonderful the blessing, I still feel caged.  I still wonder how it can be possible to “live a normal life”  or “be healed” or “recovered”  after so much trauma.

I know it’s possible.  I know that ACEs aren’t a death sentence.  I know that our family has a lot of support, a lot of strengths and a lot of STRENGTH.

But some days PTSD makes it hard to be optimistic.  Is a bird in a cage optimistic about escaping?  Or in captivity do they gradually stop singing and lose their vibrancy?  A bird doesn’t belong in a cage.

And neither do I.

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Not my art.  Taken from Pinterest online

You need a lot of energy to be sick.

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Another stereotype or stigma that I’d like to debunk right now is that people living with disability or chronic illness are lazy.  That they have SO much free time and can “do whatever they want” because they are unemployed.  We’ve all heard versions of this abelist stereotype.

It’s just not true.  People living with chronic health issues are as varied and different as people who are well, healthy, neurotypical or able bodied.  They are not lazy.  Being disabled is not a lifestyle choice.  Some people with disabilities are able work/volunteer/attend school and some are not.  Some have varying abilities depending on symptoms on different days.  Some people (like me) are “high functioning” (I HATE this term) and work full time, parent, take care of a house all while living with a high level of chronic pain and various chronic symptoms of mental illness.

But whether you are working or not, raising kids or not, volunteering or not, on social assistance or disability payments or not…I can say with 100% certain that being chronically ill is a lot of work.  I’d even say that it’s a full time job.  So we aren’t lazy, we are warriors.   Our work just isn’t valued by society, and a lot of it is invisible labor just to survive.

Please don’t perpetuate this stigma.  And please trust that each individual person knows what they can and cannot do.  If someone with a chronic illness is not working/volunteering/attending school it’s probably because their symptoms are too severe and they are not currently able.  Or maybe their workplace/school is not accessible for someone with their particular health issue.

It’s NOT because they a) don’t want to, b) aren’t trying hard enough, or c) are lazy.

Tonight, I have almost no spoons.  I drifted through the day, feeling foggy and having trouble concentrating.  I crashed on the couch and struggled to get up again.  I feel mentally and physically exhausted.   I didn’t run a marathon today, I didn’t work out…but I DID expend a great deal of energy coping with my health.

Before work I had a doctors appointment.  It was a new doctor, so there was stress and anxiety last night and this morning.  I got test results that weren’t what I was hoping.  I got requisitions for blood work.  I booked two follow up appointments.

Then I went to work.  Tried to focus, tried to get things done.  Took a break, got the blood work completed.  Went back to work for another hour.  Left at 3:30pm for a counseling appointment.

I see my counselor every 2-3 weeks.  I’d like to see her more often but it’s difficult to fit in around my other appointments, my work schedule, my kids, kids activities and kids medical appointments.  Again, as I mentioned, people with chronic illnesses aren’t lazy.  We often have numerous medical appointments that need to be juggled and fit in around already busy schedules.

Counseling is work.

If you are a survivor of trauma, and your counselor is pushing you, even gently, in the direction of healing, counseling can be exhausting work.   At the end of the hour I feel incapable of more than curling up in the fetal position on her couch and crying.  But instead I drive home and carry on with my day.

My counselor has been fairly patient with me.  She’s realistic about the fact that I have a LOT of current external stress in my life and she’s let me talk about that.  But in the past 6 months she’s begun to push me to talk about my past, my childhood, my core beliefs, and my trauma.  She’s also started to call me out when I disassociate in the session as a way of coping with feelings, memories and flashbacks.

I like disassociating to cope with feelings, memories and flashbacks.

It’s kinda my thing.

Most people don’t even realize I’m doing it.  Even fewer people would point it out.  Nobody else would purposefully try to stop me from using it as a way of coping.  I’ve always thought of disassociating as a self preservation, self protection mechanism.  I always thought I was coping if I zoned out to make a flashback less intense or make it stop.  I was coping.  It helped me survive, but maybe now there are other options…

My counselor wants me to stay present.  She wants me to TALK ABOUT what’s happening for me.  She wants me to describe it.  Or at least she wants me to stay with her in the room while it’s happening.  It’s very uncomfortable.   “But I LIKE disassociating!”  I whine…  “But it works!” I attempt to convince her.

She reminds me that I’m not alone.  That she is there to help me out of the feelings, body  memories and sensations.  That I don’t need disassociation and that maybe by zoning out I’m not actually allowing myself the space I need to heal.  Maybe I’m just stuck in a constant space of just surviving.  Maybe disassociating is actually taking up an intense amount of spoons to maintain.  Maybe zoning out is zapping my energy.

Chronic complex PTSD is exhausting.  Chronic pain is exhausting.

But maybe, just maybe doing the work of counseling and trusting the process might help restore my energy in the long run.  It’s draining work at the moment just trying to convince myself to TRY to approach my healing without disassociation.

I might have many flaws, I know I am not lazy.   Neither are you.  Keep fighting that stigma and keep surviving and thriving.

 

 

Celebrating One Year of Hopeforsanity Blog!

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It’s been one year since I started writing this blog.  If you are a new reader I encourage you to go back and read the first few posts of this blog.  To all of you who are reading, following, liking, sharing and commenting: THANK YOU!  I’m writing this blog for the dual purpose of expressing myself and connecting with others who are struggling, letting them know they are not alone.  You are not alone.   Though this blog has dealt with graphic and dark topics, I aim for the overall message to be one of hope and resilience.

Twenty one years ago tomorrow (April 12, 1996) the entire course of my life changed.  I was 15 years old and I entered into an abusive relationship that altered my relationship to myself, my friends, my family and my body.  I went from a relatively happy, self assured, popular 15 year old girl, to an anorexic, withdrawn, self-hating, 16 year old young woman.

I believe Ana was born at this time.  It’s no coincidence that Ana is 15 years old.  Ana is my traumatized child self personified.   Ana is angry in ways my younger self could not be.  Ana is all the fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness personified into a rebellious teenager who only wants to hurt me and say a giant F U to the rules of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d never dated X.  If I’d never tried to befriend him.  If I’d never believed that I could help him feel better about himself.

I also wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been taught as a child that it’s okay not to be “nice” to someone who is hurting you.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been less concerned with being “perfect” and more concerned with protecting myself.  I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d realized that saving myself was even an option.  I was an easy target for perpetrators of abuse.  I played the role of rescuer, helper, caretaker and I never wanted to let anyone down or disappoint anyone.

People who don’t understand normal coping reactions to sexual violence have asked me:  Why didn’t you just scream?  Why didn’t you tell someone?  Why didn’t you push him and run away?

All I can say is that the answer is so complicated.  The answer lies in the social conditioning of some women living in a patriarchal, rape culture.  The answer lies in being taught to be “good” rather than to be true to oneself.  The answer lies in physiological responses which caused me to freeze and disassociate rather than fighting or fleeing.   Those physiological responses were not random, but were connected to the socialization of being a “good girl.”

My 15 year old self never would have considered screaming or fighting back.  Because she was ashamed, blamed herself and never wanted to make a scene.  My 15 year old self was confused and inexperienced and it took her a while to figure out that she didn’t like the sexual experiences that were being forced on her.  It took her a while to figure out that she wasn’t really choosing.  By the time she realized it wasn’t right, she was already coping by disassociating to lessen the impact of the abuse.  By the time she started firmly saying no, the pattern of abuse and the cycle of violence was already firmly established.   And because she was not naturally an assertive child and had not been taught to fight back in self defense, when her no wasn’t listened to, she began to shut down even further, withdraw further and develop other ingenious coping techniques such as anorexia, self harm and disassociating completely.

These reactions weren’t accidental.  They were conditioned from a young age.  Adults have to teach children to fight back.  Adults have to teach children that being nice can stop when someone crosses a boundary.  Adults have to teach children to fight like hell to escape a dangerous situation.  And even if a child learns all these things, it is still possible that in a violent situation freezing can be the only available option.   Many people being abused feel that fighting back would only result in further violence and physical injuries.

In my case, what kept me frozen was guilt and shame.  I thought I was doing something shameful by being sexual.  I thought that his family and my family would judge me.  I thought that my friends would judge me for neglecting them (as I was being socially isolated by the abuser).   Self blame kept me frozen and not fighting back.

Even as an adult, 21 years later, I still cope with conflict and stress by freezing or disassociating.  I’m still not skilled at saying no.  I also have difficulty saying yes or asking for what I need.

I think for a person who has experienced sexual violence it is difficult to say no.  Because in the abusive situation no was ignored and pushed past.  So staying silent feels less painful than having no not respected.  If I never really say no, I can’t be abused again.  It’s warped logic.  It is not productive or helpful, and it also prevents me from comfortably saying yes.

For someone whose boundaries have been consistently violated, setting boundaries can become a life long struggle.  A skill that must be learned or relearned gradually and with patience and self compassion.

Quite simply, I survived in abusive relationships for many years because I literally felt I had no other option.  I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be respected and I was gaslighted into believing the abuse was my own fault.

It’s never helpful to ask a survivor “Why didn’t  you just leave?”

Keep those thoughts to yourself.

They would have left if they could have.  And if they did leave, they are successful.  It doesn’t matter how long it took.  It took as long as it needed and not a moment longer.  Celebrate the reality, don’t question why it didn’t happen sooner.  “Why didn’t you just leave?” is a type of victim blaming statement.   If you don’t understand how someone could be trapped into an abusive relationship, educate yourself.  Don’t ask the survivor to educate you on their own painful lived experiences.  Survivors need to feel believed and validated, not questioned into justifying their existence.

Every year on April 12, I count another year of my life that has been impacted by sexual violence.  It is a grim reminder that for many survivors, myself including,  that the abuse was not “a long time ago” and we can’t “just get over it”  or “just move on.”  For people living with PTSD, time is a slippery beast.  Ana is still 15 years old.  Ana is me, she’s a part of me.  A part of me that never really grew up.  A part of me that needs parenting.

I’ve never parented a teenager before. I have no experience.  But I guess I’ll have to start somewhere.  And starting with acknowledging she is here, and she has unmet needs, is as good a place as any!

 

The Voice.

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I’ve been feeling very young recently.  I feel like Ana is around more than I am.

There is a book (which I haven’t yet read) which talks about structural disassociation and describes the experience of having an “apparently normal part” and one or more “traumatized child parts.”    My apparently normal part seems to be quiet this past few weeks and Ana, my traumatized teenage part is very loud.

Sometimes when Ana is around I do things that don’t make a lot of sense to my apparently normal part.  And my apparently normal part doesn’t make sense to Ana.

I was trying to figure out if there were any particular triggers, anniversaries or memories surfacing for me recently, ones that would bring Ana to the forefront.

Next week will be the anniversary of when I first started being abused.  It will also mark the one year anniversary of this blog!

I started reading through an old journal from 2001:  the year I first was hospitalized, the year I tried to kill myself multiple times and the year I began cutting daily, sometimes multiple times a day.

Reading the journal, my 2001 apparently normal self seems extremely young.  But even at that time, I clearly identified having  a traumatized child part.  Back then I called it healthy me and little girl me.  I also called it “the voice.”  I’ve found multiple segments where I speak about “the voice”  and I recognize what she is saying as Ana.

February 21, 2001

The sensation of hunger is not an easy one for me.  It is frightening.  Like I feel afraid of losing control of myself. And yet I know that the E.D is out of control.  It is a part of me that often deceives and betrays me.  I know that in the end, though it feels comfortable, it cannot be trusted.  The voice which tells me not to eat, tells me to cut my skin, to smash my head against a wall, to step out in front of traffic, all sorts of dangerous and hurtful things.  It speaks to me in persuasive ways.  It is a part of me and yet foreign.  My ally and my enemy.  My strength and my destruction.  But after so many years it is the way I know.  A method of ridding myself of unwanted feelings…I feel like a stranger in my own life.

I don’t know what to do to help my traumatized child part heal.  What does Ana need?

The answer that comes to my mind is love.

She needs love.  She needs acceptance.  She needs to be believed.  She needs to feel safe. She needs to be forgiven for all the years of self abuse.  She needs to forgive her own body.

But I rail against it.  My apparently normal adult self doesn’t feel capable of parenting an angry teenager.  Ultimately, she is me…both the apparently normal adult self and the traumatized child parts are me.

Even in 2001, I can read in my journal signs of this inner battle.  The battle between health and self destruction, between hope and despair.  I’ve been fighting for a long time.

I can read myself trying desperately to convince myself that my engagement was a good idea.  That I loved my partner.  That my own PTSD and issues were the root of the stress in our relationship.

March 18, 2001

I miss having him around me and yet I’m also afraid of our intimacy.  He is at the same time my motivation to get well and my trigger to feel upset.  The strong emotions I have toward him complicate and simplify my life

I can read my younger self trying to convince herself that things would be okay.  I can read between the lines that a deeper part of her knew the relationship was wrong and unhealthy.  I can read how I desperately continued hurting myself, longing to be SEEN. Truly SEEN and accepted for who I was.  I can read my self blame, self hatred and confusion.

And a good part of this fight has been internal, between parts of myself that can’t seem to make peace, forgive and start again.

Meet Ana.

These pictures are of a cartoon girl called Emily Strange.  If I could draw a comic book version of Ana, she would look something like Emily Strange.

Ana isn’t just my eating disorder personified.   Ana isn’t just a nickname for anorexia.  Ana is another part of me.  I experience Ana as an angry teenage girl.  She isn’t just me as a teenager.  She has long straight black hair and very pale white skin.  She has dark eyes which are usually downcast.   Her fists clench when she is angry.  She wears hoodies, dark clothes, army boots and skirts.  She is slim and looks like she could sneak around very easily, light on her feet and quiet.  She is filled with anger and yet she doesn’t take up much obvious space.   Ana is my inner child.  Ana is my alter ego.  Ana is my eating disorder.  Ana is self harm and suicidal thoughts.  Because Ana is a scared, teenage girl.

Ana is the part of me that doesn’t trust you.

Ana is the part of me that wants everything or nothing at all.  Complete loyalty, or no friendship.

Ana is the part of me that feels like nobody believes me.   Ana doesn’t feel heard and when she is angry, she hurts me rather than expressing herself assertively.

Ana acts out, but that’s because she’s  young.  She’s probably only 14 or 15 years old.  She doesn’t have life skills.  Her anger is a mask for fears she is too afraid to share.  Her prickly exterior is a mask hiding deep vulnerability and shame.

Ana feels worthless.  Ana feels helpless.  Ana feels like punishing me is the only solution to these feelings.

Ana acts like a complete spoiled, controlling brat, when she really wants to be rescued.   She makes unreasonable rules rather than admitting she is afraid.

Ana craves safety, yet acts like she does not need protection.

Ana blames herself for being abused.   Ana feels responsible and wants to protect me by keeping me alone.  Ana tries to push people away with self harm, suicidal thoughts and eating disorder behaviours.  Ana thinks if we are smaller and take up less space we will be safer.

Ana is me.  At least she is a part of me, but I don’t know how to make peace with her, forgive her, accept her and come to a truce.  I don’t know how to integrate her, so that we become just one adult person again.  I’m not sure how to soothe this angry child inside of me.  We lack compassion for each other and for our younger selves.

I hope one day I can truly feel that Ana deserves forgiveness for hurting me.  And that she can forgive me for not protecting her.

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

 

 

 

A Dance with Disaster

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Two years ago I met a guy in the social dance community.   It was a community within which I felt safe and I’d never had any problems there.  I had made friends and it didn’t seem unusual to go for ice cream with this guy after the dance.  Dancing makes you hungry and late night snacking is a part of the ritual.

We went twice for ice cream.  On two different weeks and we texted minimally.  On the third evening, I agreed to hang out after the dance.  Again, I was expecting to go for ice cream or snacks.  He wanted to go to his place.  I somehow thought we’d park the car near there and then get ice cream nearby.  He lived near a busy street where there were lots of restaurants open late.

It was late, maybe 12:30AM.  He asked me to come into his place.  Every voice inside me was yelling “No, don’t go with him!”  But then I shut myself down, I told myself “You can’t always be expecting the worst of everyone, you have to trust people, this guy is from the dance, he’s most likely safe”

In other words, I had that moment which so many survivors describe, of knowing that something wasn’t right.  But, like I’d done in the past, I ignored it and went along with what he was suggesting.

He lived in a bachelor apartment inside an older house.  The couch was so close to the bed they were almost touching and there was barely any space to move around.  We sat on the couch and I started talking nervously.  I told him that I’d recently separated from an abusive husband, that I had been sexually abused.   I was trying to give a clear signal that I wasn’t interested in fooling around with him.    He listened without saying much.

Then he started kissing me.  His hand was on my thigh, pushing up my red and white dress.  I froze.  In my head I was gathering strength, making a plan.  Finally, I said “No” very clearly.  But he didn’t stop.  He kept kissing me and touching me.   Again, I froze, I went into my head and continued planning.   I said “No” a second time and a third.  The kissing and touching continued, his hand touching my underwear under my dress.

I realized at this point that I was in trouble.  He was bigger than me, likely stronger.  We were alone, nobody would likely hear me scream.  Thoughts were rushing through my head.  By the third “No,” my brain was ready to check out.  I was on the verge of disassociating, my energy was used up and my old responses were kicking in.

He picked me up.  Lifted me in his arms and placed me on his bed.  He was on top of me kissing me.  And I had a moment of clarity.  My internal voice spoke firmly (I’m paraphrasing my internal dialogue):

You cannot disassociate right now.  If you disassociate you are going to be raped.  You barely know this person.  You have to fight.  You have to escape.  You do NOT want to be raped tonight.  You have to stay in the present, you can’t zone out!  This is your chance to protect yourself.   This guy didn’t listen to words, you have to use force!”

I gathered my strength and I pushed him as hard as I could with both my hands.  He stopped, lay down beside me, hands still touching my legs.  He seemed upset, as if I’d been leading him on.  I don’t remember him speaking.  I could just tell he was angry.   I breathed one more time, regenerating some strength.  Then I told him I had to leave, jumped off the bed, grabbed my coat and purse and ran.

I ran down the stairs.  I ran out into the street.  My car was parked a few blocks away, but I barely remembered where.  It was late, after 2:30AM.   As soon as I hit the fresh air I was crying.  I was shaking with the exertion of defending myself.  The PTSD was overtaking me, everything was happening and I was still trying to find my car.

I took out my cell phone, and called the guy I was casually dating.  He often stayed up very late and I prayed he would answer.  I called a few times, no answer, left a panicked message and finally located my car.

My friend called me back as I was driving home.  I remember crying on the phone while I was driving.   He stayed on the phone with me for a long time, until I was finally able to sleep.

He was so angry.  He wanted me to call the police, but I knew that was basically useless.  I was also really embarrassed and I didn’t know the people in the dance community to know.  I felt like somehow I’d be the one who would be shamed.  I knew on one level I could, and probably should, tell one of the organizers, but I was too ashamed.  I wanted to keep it a secret and just try to forget about it.   I didn’t want to call the police, because I hadn’t been raped.  It wasn’t “that bad,” and I’d escaped without injury.  I’d just forget about it and move on.

But I was traumatized.  I had flashbacks for days, weeks.  I felt embarrassed, I felt like somehow everyone could know that I’d been assaulted.  It was a similar feeling to when I’d been a teenager and was convinced the whole world knew, when in reality nobody did.

I struggled to wear that red and white striped dress again.  Because when I wore the dress I could feel his hands moving it up my thighs without my consent.  I shuddered just looking at the dress.

I also felt a sense of empowerment, that I was able to defend myself rather than disassociating.  It was the first time in all my years of experiencing sexual abuse that I’d ever physically defended myself. But it was small comfort.  If there was one thing I didn’t need in my life it was to be sexually assaulted again.

The worst part is that I still see this guy.  He’s still a part of the dance community.  He’s on facebook, online dating sites and if I’ve seen him I’ve blocked him.   But I can’t block him from the dance, not without telling someone.  And what’s the point now?  It’s been over 2 years and what if they didn’t believe me?   Worse, what if they think I’m exaggerating or making a big deal of nothing.  So I see him from time to time, I ignore him with all my strength, I walk away, I dance in a different part of the room, I try to imagine him disappearing.  But honestly,  when he’s there I never feel 100% comfortable.

People often say that sexual assault only lasts for a few moments.  Why ruin someone’s life by accusing them of assault and reporting them to the police over something that only lasted moments?   Why ruin someone’s reputation?  Why report at all?

Well, sexual assault doesn’t last only for a few moments.  Not for the survivor!  For the survivor it never fully heals, it’s never fully forgotten.  It’s like a stain on your favourite dress, one that you can’t ever get out.  Or your favourite dress that you can’t wear again, because the stain is the memory of the assault.  It’s  just there, in your closet, to remind you of a night you’d rather forget.

It is “that bad.”  It just is.

Depression.

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Depression doesn’t always look the same.  Sometimes it is most clearly described by how I feel when it lifts.  When I’m depressed I’m not actually myself and when the depression lifts I wake up and I’m me again.

When I’m depressed, I am physically exhausted by social contact and social situations, but at the same time I don’t always want to be alone.  One of the reasons social situations are so difficult is because social anxiety is a symptom of my depression, and depression is fueled by my social anxiety.

Over the past few weeks, interactions with others leave me drained. Probably because half the time I’m spending with people I’m hyper aware of whether or not I’m behaving appropriately.  Because depression blunts and numbs some feelings and amplifies others, I’m constantly monitoring myself and thinking:

Am I acting normally?  Can this person tell I’m acting?  Am I smiling enough?  Am I smiling too much?  What should I do with my hands?  Stop picking at your skin! Remember to make eye contact!  Not too much eye contact!  Stop fidgeting!  Is my facial expression appropriate for what they just said?  Make sure your face is responding like a normal person! That was a joke, laugh.  But don’t laugh too much.  Did that sound stupid?  Do they hate me?  Did I make a mistake?  Is my facial expression appropriate?  Oh my god, did I even hear what she just said? Smile.  Act normal

After a short interaction I’m exhausted and I want to flee to a place where I can just be.   This usually means being alone.  I’m completely relieved to be alone.  I often hibernate under quilts and blankets where I feel safe.

But then the loneliness hits.  I text.  Texting is much easier than phone calls or in person hang outs.  When I’m texting I just have to think about the words and not all the other complex social dance behaviours that I’m sure I’m completely mangling.  Texting is safe.  Texting breaks isolation, without crowding me or making me self conscious.

When I’m lonely and depressed, I start to believe I’m literally the only person on the planet who doesn’t have plans at that moment.  All logical reasoning to the contrary is dismissed by my social anxiety brain.   I start to think that nobody likes me, that I’m boring or annoying, that I’ve said terrible things to offend everyone I know.  I feel jealous about the plans and social gatherings of others.  And yet, ironically, I often cancel plans or say no to things I am invited to.   The contradiction of depression is frustrating and impossible.

Depression is panic attacks in crowded places.  Panic attacks about choosing food, or anxiety about eating around other people.   Depression is feeling “fat” when my body hasn’t changed. Depression is anxiety that everything I say or do might get me into trouble or make my situation worse.  Depression is reading my emails over and over and over and over, obsessively, worried that I made a mistake, said the wrong thing or was oppressive.   Depression is paranoia that the email was accidentally sent to the wrong person, somehow ruining my life.  Depression is knowing I have to do something at work, but feeling incapable, afraid and ashamed to ask for help, thus procrastinating and avoiding.

Depression zaps energy.  I’m literally exhausted almost every minute of the day.  It’s not something that can be fixed by more sleep.  Though less sleep makes it much worse.  My body feels heavy and I struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  My bed feels warm and safe in the mornings, but physical pain and stiffness in my body prevents me from lying down for too long. Sometimes I’m drained and have to lie down after taking a shower in the morning.  But somehow I push through it.

I feel like robot, automatically going through the motions of my day.  I check each task off against a mental list.  Breakfast, check, kids to school, check, commute to work, check.  Each day moves through a series of tasks to be completed.  I’m always counting time until the next time I can be alone and rest.  I’m often watching the clock, but I’m never comforted by it. Then after about one day of a weekend alone, I’m lonely and waiting for my kids to return.  It’s a terrible feeling, like you have nothing to look forward to, but are always looking forward to something unimportant.  Maybe the next day will be brighter, maybe the next _____ will break the cycle, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and feel better.

Depression is being unreasonably and intensely irritated by innocuous things.  Like the sound of someone chewing near me.  I could scream.  My whole body is tense, I can hear every sound.  Depression is losing patience in a split second, in situations I would normally be able to cope with.  Depression is feeling frustrated when people repeat themselves or take a long time to get to the point of their stories.  Depression is hating myself because I know I’m not being as kind as I should be.  Depression is losing my temper at my children, when they are barely doing anything wrong and my rage is uncontrollable like a volcano, then dissolves into guilty desperate tears.  Depression is intense compassion fatigue.  Not having enough energy to have empathy for others and then beating myself up with self judgment afterwards.

Depression means rarely living in the moment.  Depression is being caught in a tangle of awful memories from the past, or absorbed in worries or thoughts about the future.  Or more often, ping ponging back and forth between memories and worries.  In the moment, there is often zoning out, disassociation, numbing and that floating feeling of being something less than human, unable to connect with anyone.  Feeling like my essence of humanness is just beyond reach.

Depression is either crying too much, or (this time) not being able to cry at all.  Depression is either all the feelings right at the surface every single minute, or all the feelings pushed down and boxed up into controlled spaces inside me.

Depression is the darkness in the Fall and Winter months.  Depression is waking in the dark, coming home from work in the dark and forgetting what the warmth of the sun feels like.  Depression is like sitting at a dirty window, watching the normal world proceed just outside my grasp.

Depression is feeling suicidal, obsessing about death and dying.  Sometimes it is destructive impulses, or sometimes, wishing I hadn’t been born at all.  Sometimes it is a passive thought of just not wanting to be alive.  And then the torturous, trapped feeling of knowing that suicide is no longer an option.

Depression is boring.  Like this blog post feels boring.

It’s a world without light.  Depression is obsessive, recurring thoughts.  Depression is feeling like a bore to others, feeling self-obsessed, immature and uninteresting.  Depression is feeling unlovable and like you will always be alone.

Depression lies.

Even if I know that depression lies, it’s not so easy as just snapping out of it.

When I’m depressed I’ve learned that the best I can do is to stay as safe as possible, sleep regularly, eat and drink regularly, self care, be patient with myself, lower my expectations of myself and just do my best.

Because depression always lifts.  It’s not forever.   But it feels awfully bleak.

Zombie.

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Pushing through trauma.  Trauma layered on more trauma.   Decades of trauma.

Brain shuts down.  Eerie quiet and an empty space inside where my thoughts should be.  Ears ringing.  Body feels heavy and difficult to move. Words come slowly, sticky in my mouth.  Sometimes movement and speech is impossible.  Days blur together.  Conversations become difficult to follow.  Confusion.  Short term memory loss.

When disassociation is the only way to get through the day.  There isn’t even enough energy left to panic.  When stress is something that can’t be changed, when there is no solution, when the fear is overwhelming and I am helpless.  Panic is scary, but there is motion there and emotion.  The blank space is less human somehow.

It’s not a choice.  It’s like a switch is flipped.  My brain says “NO!”  That’s enough, time to quiet down.  Anxiety becomes a physical reaction rather than worries, feelings or thoughts.

I feel like a zombie.  I’m walking around, doing day to day tasks.  I know from experience though that I’m only part there.  I know from experience that days or weeks from now my memory of this time will be divided into two extremes.  Traumatic memories, seared into my brain for life…and blank space, nothing, no memories at all.  Part of the day will be remembered for ever and part of it…it’s like it never even existed.

When stress levels are chronic and traumatic memories from the past are re-enacted in present life, new traumas in the present are linked in the brain to old traumas.  They are no longer separate events.  The brain stores them all together and confirms the facts as PTSD knows them:

“You are not safe”

“You can’t trust anyone”

“Nobody believes you”

This shifts along into another layer of faulty PTSD thinking:

“You are fat.  Your body is disgusting.  Your stomach is too big”

“Nobody likes you.  You are bothering people with your existence”

“People think you are doing a bad job.  People think you are not capable”

“You are letting everyone down”

“It’s all your fault”

In a way the thoughts and the blank space are flashbacks.  They are here, in the present moment, and they are flashbacks to times similar to this one.  The past and the present are linked in PTSD.  Like invasive vines taking over the brick wall of me.

I can’t cry.  I have to feel safe to cry.  There are no tears in the blank space.

I shrink away from being touched.  I jump and startle.

What I want most is to be held.  To be comforted.  To be kept safe.

What I can’t do is let anyone close enough to do this.  The blank space is so large, the buzzing is so loud.

 

 

I’m triggered.

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Being triggered is exhausting.

It feels like being in a constant state of fight or flight.  It feels like panic.  It feels like a reduced ability to think clearly and stay calm.  It feels like fog, a buzzing in my ears.  Everything sounds too loud, lights are too bright, smells too strong.  My clothes touching my body make me feel disgusting, fat and out of control.  Ana is screaming at me not to eat, while another part of me is saying that not eating will make me more panicked.  An internal war begins.  I feel like I’m in danger.

If someone tells me to “calm down” or “not worry,” the panicked feeling turns to desperate anger and I find it hard to keep it hidden inside.

If the trigger goes on for a long time, especially if it is combined with actual real life danger or stress, I eventually become exhausted.  I am desperate for the uncomfortable feelings to pass.

And in the desperation I always begin obsessing about self harm and sometimes suicide.  Intellectually I know that this doesn’t make sense, but it’s my brain’s default setting for  TOO MUCH STRESS!  I learned about 4 years ago that my suicidal ideation is a red flag, it’s a signal from my brain that I need to reduce my stress ASAP.  It’s not really about dying, it’s about ending the horrible painful, out of control panic feeling.  NOW.

My main ways of coping with self harming thoughts and suicidal ideation is by trying to tune out.  I do this mainly by surfing the internet, checking facebook, texting, checking my phone and also by blogging.  I find that technology is a good way of tuning out the self destructive thoughts for a while.   So sometimes, when I’m checking my phone too often, even if it annoys you, even if it seems impolite, try not to judge, I might be coping and distracting myself from negative thoughts.

Another great way of coping with triggers is exercise.  Before I developed arthritis I used to cope by running.  That was amazing.  I miss it so much.  Walking can help, getting out into nature can help, dancing can help, moving my body and letting some of the pressure release.   But when I’m at home, my go to coping during the evening (the most difficult time of day for self harm urges) is texting and internet time.

It’s hard to explain triggers to people who don’t have PTSD.  People who live with panic attacks or generalized anxiety can understand parts of it.  But PTSD triggers are a little different somehow, because they are connected very tightly with actual bad events which have happened in a person’s life.  It becomes very difficult at times to distinguish between immediate stressors in day to day life, and abuse/danger/violence.

Triggers can also be emotional.  For example one of my main triggers is feeling like I am not being believed, or even might not be believed when I’m speaking my truth.  Another is feeling like I’m going to get into trouble for doing something which is reasonable and not generally perceived as negative.  These feelings are related to gaslighting, emotional abuse and systemic/systematic institutional abuse and neglect.

When I’m triggered what I need is to get grounded as quickly as possible.  If I can’t get grounded then what I need is to keep myself safe and as calm as possible.  Sometimes this means that I want to be at home, be alone, or be with people I feel safe expressing myself with.  Staying safe sometimes means spending hours online after the kids are asleep, or lying in bed all evening because I don’t trust myself to make safe choices.   I’m not being lazy, I’m protecting myself in the best ways I have learned how.

Sometimes when I’m triggered I disassociate or space out.  I might seem emotionally distance or cold.  I might be more emotional, or my emotions might seem out of proportion with reality.  That’s because they are!  They are a reaction to reality PLUS the past trigger related to abuse and violence.

I know I’m not doing a perfect job at life when I’m triggered.  I constantly worry that others will judge me because my capacity to perform at my highest level is reduced.  My brain will literally shut down, I will have problems remembering things, trouble finding the right words under pressure, I might cry or freeze up, grow silent or suddenly angry.  I might be impatient with the kids when they haven’t really done anything wrong.  I might snap at those close to me, or not be as kind as usual.   I don’t mean to.  Believe me my level of guilt is so high that it contributes to the problem!  I know I’m not acting “normal” but I can’t help it.   Sometimes I need space to get grounded, sometimes I need others to remind me that even though it’s difficult I’m doing my best and that is good enough.

If the triggers are entirely related to the past, and no danger exists in the present, for example during consenting sex, it helps for the other person to remind me “you are safe right now, it’s 2016, you are with _____, nobody is going to hurt you”

If the triggers are related to the past, but there is some threat in the present moment, it helps to acknowledge both sets of feelings are real.  Yes, this situation reminds me of the past, that is difficult and scary.  Yes, there is some threat in the present and that is scary too.   I  might need to get grounded FIRST and then brainstorm solutions to the present situation.  Sometimes self care can play an important role in grounding.

PTSD is invisible, triggers are invisible, all this is happening inside my brain and my body is reacting.  It sometimes feelings as if the past is happening all over again.  Especially when triggers lead to flashbacks.

Please understand I’m doing the best I can.  PTSD is a difficult illness and because it is invisible it can be hard for others to understand.

Compassion helps triggers.  Everyone deserves to feel safe.  But when you live with PTSD, feeling safe can be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  When you aren’t quite sure what the needle looks like, or if it is REALLY in the haystack!  You aren’t even sure exactly why you need the needle and what you are going to do with it when you find it!

Yes, life can be confusing.  Triggers can be confusing.  PTSD can be confusing.

Tonight I’m confused, but I’m coping as I write.