Leaving. Living.

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It started to go off the rails quite soon after I told him I was leaving.  Gradually, as the reality of the magnitude of what I was doing sunk in for him, the angrier he became.  When I told him I’d hired a lawyer and wanted to discuss what it would look like to divide our finances he got angry.  When I explained how child support might work and that I’d been informed about my rights he got angry.

He tried to convince me that we could put the money for the children into an account that we’d both have access to.  That I could buy the things they needed from there.  I explained calmly that child support didn’t work that way, that he’d have to pay me and that I could legally use the money for anything related to caring for the children.  He was furious.  I tried to explain that child support wasn’t just for the children’s clothes and activities, but for anything related to their care.  That I could use it for things like utilities bills (so they had heat and electricity) or repairs to the car (if the brakes were broken and it was unsafe for them) etc.   He got angrier.  We fought.  I was so hurt because I felt like he didn’t trust me to manage money, even though I’d been paying our bills and managing household finances for our entire marriage.  I didn’t understand at that point, that the issue was power and control.  I wanted him to trust me.  I kept trying to explain.  He got very angry.  I thought he might hit me, but he just yelled at me to drop it, to walk away.  We were in the basement of our house, near the stairs.  He wanted me to go upstairs to let him calm down (he’d been sleeping in the basement as we were separated within the same house).   A part of me knew I should go upstairs, but I was so hurt and so upset and I needed him to understand.   He was full of rage and I was afraid and crying.

When I didn’t go upstairs he got angrier.  He smashed his head through the drywall of the basement wall.  I didn’t understand why he would destroy his own property.   I was the one leaving, this would soon be his house, not ours.  Why damage it?

I was really scared at this point and I wanted to leave.  I told him I wanted to take the children to my parents’ house until he calmed down.  I needed to calm down as well.  I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.   I went up to the main floor, but he blocked my way to the upstairs, blocking me from the kids.  He told me I could go to my parents’ but I couldn’t take the kids.  I kept trying to get by him and he kept holding me back.  I told him I was going to call the police.  At this point we were upstairs, near my older daughter’s bedroom.   He snarled at me “if  you call the police I will tell them you are mentally ill and hysterical and they won’t believe you.  They will believe me.”

Defeated, I knew he was right.  I was too afraid to call.  I grabbed my medication and some things and ran out to my car, locked myself in and sobbed.  It was late.  Maybe midnight.  I cried and cried.  I called a friend who’d told me that I could call him if I had to leave in an emergency.  He didn’t pick up.  I was too afraid to tell my parents.  I wasn’t willing to leave my kids.

I remember him coming out to the car.  Asking me, through the glass, to come into the house.  Eventually he went back inside the house.  I cried in the car for a long time before realizing I was out of options.  I went back into the house, went upstairs and went to sleep.

I could have run with the kids while he was sleeping.  But I was too afraid.  We lived together, separately for a few more weeks after that night.    More recently, I learned that my daughter heard us fighting and me crying and she was afraid.   She never told me at the time.

He took the kids to visit his mother.  I packed my belongings and moved them to my parents garage.   I tried to make the house look as nice as possible before the children returned, so they wouldn’t be afraid.  I finished staining the new fence.  I  hung pictures of his family in place of the ones I took down.  I spent hours looking through my photo albums, taking out all the ones of his family that I thought he’d want to keep before packing the albums.  I left our wedding album on the bookshelf.  I spent 10 days mostly alone, slowly taking apart my life and putting it into boxes.

When he came back from the trip he was cold.  He was a white hot, cold rage.  His eyes were changed.  I knew on some level he was dangerous, but I still wanted to believe it would be okay.  I wanted to believe we could separate, and co-parent peacefully in two separate houses.

When he came back there were 3 nights until the day I took possession of my new place.  He told me he would be sleeping in our bedroom now and I could sleep downstairs.  I didn’t argue.  I slept on the couch and lying numb and afraid in my daughter’s bed.  I remember having a terrible nightmare on the last night I spent in that house.  It was 4 years ago tonight.  I dreamed that one of my friends died.  It was horrible and sad and I woke up crying.

I woke up and he was gone.  The kids had a medical appointment and then we were supposed to go to my parents’ house for the night.  I packed up some last things, the children’s clothing and left them by the front door for my Dad to pick up while we were at the appointment.   I got an email from him telling me that the plan had changed, that he wouldn’t allow me to take the children.  He insisted he would come to get them later in the day, that he didn’t want them exposed to the move and my new house empty.  He said the kids would stay with him most of the time until school started.  I didn’t agree, I tried to negotiate with him. I remember lying curled up on the floor of my childhood bedroom, crying, sobbing on the phone with him trying to convince him to allow the children to stay with me that night.  I’d already been away from them 10 days and they were confused and upset.

My Dad tried to pick up the kids things and he wouldn’t allow him into the house.  He was angry and like an animal.  My Dad asked him to calm down but he wouldn’t listen.  He allowed my Dad to take the things that belonged to me, but not the children’s clothing.

Before dinner, he showed up at my parents’ house.  He wanted the kids.  We were standing on the front porch and I was asking him to let the kids stay with me.  He dragged them away from me.  They were crying, especially my older child.  He took them anyway.  Took them out to dinner to try to bribe them into being okay with what had happened.

I remember lying on the floor of the bedroom, sobbing.  Trying to reach my lawyer.  Trying to get advice about what to do.  Feeling defeated, less than 12 hours after leaving him.  It already felt like too much.  I was scared and I knew that I’d been living in a dream world for the past 6 weeks, thinking we could live separately and co-parent.

But it would take me another few months, until October of that year, before I truly realized the depths he would go to to take my kids away.  It would be a few more months until I  realized it was hopeless and there was no chance of a reconciliation, common ground, shared parenting or co-operation.

I spent a few more months telling people that it was “just sexual abuse” and that he was basically a good guy.  I spent a few more months believing that it was about sex.  I spent a few more months believing before someone told me that abuse was about power and control, and that I had to stop making excuses for him and acknowledge the severity of what was happening.

Every year since then I’ve spent the last few days of August re-living every moment of those last few weeks I spent in my old life.  I might have already written this exact blog post last year.  Every year I struggle.   Every year I feel hopeless.  Every year I’m forced to confront the reality that my marriage was abusive, that my ex-husband was very definitely NOT “basically a good guy.”

This year, I received the verdict of the four year long custody battle and family law trial only a few weeks before the anniversary of the leaving.

It took me a year to plan to leave and to execute that plan.  It took me 4 more years to get custody of my children.

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

I feel like a chapter in my life has closed.  The court verdict drew a line after the last sentence on the final page of the book of my leaving.   The book closed.  I got free.  For a moment I breathed out and my entire body has almost collapsed with the exhaustion of the fight finally ending.  I had to hold it together for 5 years.  I had to be sane for 5 years.  I had to cope.  I had to go to work.  I had to act normally, when inside I felt like I was being torn apart with the grief of knowing my children were being abused and I couldn’t stop it.  I felt like my brain shattered into a million pieces during the last few days of court when my children’s psychological records were disclosed, against their wishes and the wishes of their psychologist, to their father. I felt like I would not survive the anxiety of waiting over 8 months for the verdict of the trial.

But I did survive.  I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago.  I’m not the same person I was a year ago.  This has changed me.  It has fundamentally shifted any belief I had in the world being a fair and just place.  It has created a dark, sad, hopeless place inside of me that I don’t know how to soothe.

And almost as soon as I breathed out.  Almost as soon as the chapter book closed, with the verdict in my favour…before I had a chance to rest or come to a full stop…while I was still almost immobile with exhaustion…

It carried on.  A new book opened.  A book full of empty blank pages.  I have no idea what the future holds.  I know that it contains more struggles and more fear.  I know that my kids are still not safe, that he will still emotionally abuse them when he has access to them.  I know that I will continue to have to fight for my trans daughter’s right to exist safely.  I know that I will need to fight every day to hold onto hope and to see the good in the world.

The leaving has ended.

I just don’t know what the living has in store for us.

Sexual Harassment. I’m done.

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For the record, street harassment and sexual harassment in public spaces is not cool.  Existing in public does not equal consent.  Being a femme person trying to live your life does not equal consent.  Wearing shorts or a short skirt to stay cool in the summer does not equal consent.  Children are not sexual objects.  Everyone just keep your sexual thoughts INSIDE your head, unless you are with another consenting adult. I can guarantee that very few women interpret cat-calling as a compliment.  Sexual harassment and street harassment is sexual violence because there is NO consent.

I’m feeling triggered and angry today.

Friends and acquaintances often ask me if I’m a recovering addict.  They ask me because I don’t drink and being around people who are drinking makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Generally I will avoid social situations where excessive alcohol consumption will occur.  I’m not an alcoholic and I’ve never had an addiction issue.  I find substance use/misuse extremely triggering and unappealing.   To me the idea of being out of control or having my personality altered by a substance is terrifying.  Since I was a teenager, and friends first started drinking at parties, I was uncomfortable.  I never liked the way people changed when they drank.  It scared me and I wanted no part in it.  The way people behave unpredictably when they use substances scared me also.  I’m not 100% sure why alcohol is such a trigger for me, but it has been for as much of my life as I can remember.  That’s why I don’t drink, not because I’m a recovering addict, but because I’m terrified of being out of control.  Well, that and Ana won’t let me waste precious calories on alcohol!  And the practical voice inside me has no interest in spending money on it!

A few weeks ago I was walking to the market with my two daughters.  They are tweens, still children.  As we crossed the road at 9:45AM, an intoxicated man hauling beer kegs back to the store, began cat-calling at us.  “Nice legs” he yelled, while making sexual noises.  My older daughter turned to look and he shouted “Yeah, I’m talking to you.”   We kept walking quickly across the street.  There were people all around and nobody did or said anything.  I could hear the man cat-calling others as we walked in the other direction.  This situation made me so angry.  Who cat-calls at children?  Street harassment can be ugly and it makes most people feel uncomfortable at best, and unsafe at worst.

Yesterday, I volunteered at a festival.  It was to raise money for a good cause.  I was a greeter and had various tasks, including searching bags for alcohol.  This was not the type of event I would normally attend.  I don’t like mass gatherings.  I don’t like spaces where lots of people are together and consuming alcohol and drugs.  But I wanted to help out, so I showed up.

In the space of a few hours, I was sexually harassed not once but FOUR times.  Yes.  FOUR times.  By the end, I was done.  I felt shaky and dizzy and I just wanted to go home.   I had trouble sleeping last night.  I had body memories and I felt agitated and afraid.  Today I mostly isolated myself, having no interest in interacting with other people.

While I was volunteering, two men hit on me.  One of them touched my arm while he was doing it.  A third man made sexual comments to me.  And a fourth suddenly and unexpectedly grabbed me and hugged me extremely hard, crushing me before walking away.

It seemed like these men decided that my very presence in the space constituted consent.  But I consented to volunteering, not to being sexually harassed.

I blamed myself.  I felt like it was my fault because I wore a short athletic skirt to the festival.  Normally I wouldn’t wear something like that, but it was hot and I rode my bike there.  I felt like if I’d dressed differently I wouldn’t have been harassed.

I blamed myself and felt shame and guilt because I didn’t fight back.  I didn’t tell the men that their attentions were unwanted.  I didn’t scream at them, I didn’t run away.  The people who verbally harassed me, I actually politely went along with it.  Then tried to get away quickly.  The person who hugged me, I froze. I did nothing at all.  Generally, I feel that with unpredictable people it is better NOT to aggravate them, better not to defend yourself, better just to let it happen, then try to get away quickly.   But this is always my pattern.  And I hate myself for it.

I want to be the person who fights back.  I want to be the person who screams “No, you creep!” at the top of my lungs.  I want to punch the person harassing me.

But everything inside me tells me not to make a scene.

Everything inside me tells me that freezing or playing nice is the safest choice.

Everything inside me tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m overreacting, that I’m making a big deal over nothing, that these things happen to women ALL the time, that it was meant as a compliment, that nothing REALLY bad happened…I minimize and discount and shame myself.

But it does impact me.  Because I have PTSD, it impacts me a lot.  It makes me afraid to go to crowded places.  It increases my inability to trust others.  It makes me feel unsafe.  It brings back memories and body memories and puts me on edge.  It makes me feel dizzy and nauseous and stressed out.

Street harassment may fall at the “less serious” end of the sexual violence continuum.  It’s not as serious as rape or domestic violence which ends in murder.   But it’s still not okay.  It’s still violence.  It’s still happening without consent.  And if you have already survived more “serious” violence, it can also be extremely triggering.

So if you are impacted by street harassment, please know you are not alone.  It’s not your fault.  It’s okay if you feel…whatever you feel.  It’s okay to react however you react.  It’s THEM.  It’s not you.

And if you are reading this and you are someone who engages in the street harassment and cat-calling of others.  Please stop.  Please don’t touch strangers without their explicit verbal consent.

We don’t consider it a compliment.  We consider it sexual violence.

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How to ask for help? If mental illness was treated like physical illness…

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Photo credit Hyperbole and A Half Blog

I’ve been struggling recently with trying to figure out how exactly to ask for help.  How do you even tell people around you that you are not okay when you are struggling with an invisible mental health disability?  How do you tell people that the disability which you live with daily and generally “manage” is currently in a crisis state?  How do you tell people that you are struggling with thoughts of harming yourself?  How do you tell people that you need help because you are suicidal?  How do you even bring up the topic of suicide?

It’s not easy.  Half the time I drop the topic casually into conversation the person I’m talking to thinks I’m joking.  They might even laugh, then awkwardly realize I’m not laughing and say “Oh wait, were you serious?” and when I say “Kinda” I hear…

<crickets>

That’s right…nothing.

A lot of the time when I disclose thoughts about harming myself I hear:

<crickets>

Or people keep talking.  Or they assume this is normal for me and say “that’s too bad” and move on with the conversation.

I’ve learned that most people don’t know how to handle disclosures of thoughts of suicide.

If I walked up to you right now with a serious physical medical emergency, for example signs of a heart attack and said “I need help, I think I’m having a heart attack”  I can pretty much guarantee the response would not be:

<crickets>

Someone would do first aid, they’d call 911.  They’d drive me to the hospital.  They’d stay with me.  I’d get flowers and cards, meals delivered.   I’d get time off work, more cards.  People would visit me at home as I recovered.  Friends and family would be so glad I survived the heart attack, they’d offer to help with child care and housework and cooking.

People KNOW how to help with a medical health emergency.  So why do they respond with

<crickets>

to disclosures of thoughts suicide, self harm or other signs of a mental health emergency?

Why is it so hard for me even to disclose the struggle?  Why is there SO much stigma?

I’m afraid to ask for help because of the risk of two things

  1. The person will overreact (call 911, police, hospital, panic, lock up dangerous items)
  2. The person will under react (see <crickets>)

What I really need when I ask for help is for someone to:

  1. Believe me that I’m actually suicidal and that things actually feel THAT BAD
  2. Trust me that I’m not actually going to do anything dangerous, but that I need some help in the moment to achieve that
  3. Listen to me.  Validate my feelings.   Let me know that they can hear I’m in pain.
  4. Remind me that I might be experiencing flashbacks, triggers or emotional flashbacks and that they are real, but I might not be seeing things completely clearly and I might need time to get safe and get grounded
  5. Keep me company (text, phone, go for coffee, take a walk, cuddles)
  6. Remind me that people care about me and that I’m not a bad person.
  7. After validating my feelings, offer some hope that things will improve one day and that I have the strength to carry on until then.  Remind me of some of my strengths (but be realistic, don’t go over the top with praise)

I really believe that you can help people around you who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts.  You can help them by listening to them, believing them and keeping them company.  You can also offer to do some of the same things you would for someone who is physically ill.   Offer to help with child care, meal preparation, cleaning, picking up groceries, running errands, drop by for a visit (ask first), call to check in, text to say hi, send a thinking of you card, send flowers etc.   In my own experience, the worst thing you can do is…

<crickets>

I wanted to share my favourite  blog Hyperbole and a Half and their post about depression:

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ca/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

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.

 

 

Seeing things.

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It’s been a difficult week for so many of us, including women and gender non-conforming survivors of sexual violence.  I’m struggling with my PTSD symptoms.

Marian was the only one I could ever talk to about some of my more intense PTSD symptoms.  She was the only person I’ve ever met who I really felt completely understood what I was going through.  I never felt “crazy” when I talked to her.  I could call her, say what happened and every time she would know exactly what I was talking about because she’d experienced it too.

I’ve learned with symptoms of mental illness that there are some things that are more acceptable to talk about, and some things which are more highly stigmatized.  There are some symptoms which almost nobody ever talks about, for fear of being judged or experiencing discrimination or persecution.

In 2016, almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or who has issues related to food.  These are things we talk about.

People very rarely talk about suicidal thoughts, self harm, paranoia, delusions and seeing and hearing things that aren’t real.

It’s almost like there is a divide between the mental illness that society accepts and the mental illness that is forced to exist in the closet.

When PTSD is really acting up for me, I see things that aren’t there.

I’ve rarely told anyone about this because I know that most people won’t understand.  Marian understood.  I felt so accepted, like there was at least one other person in the world who experienced seeing things as a symptom of PTSD.

This week, there have been three separate occasions where I’ve “seen” my ex in public places.  It’s so hard to explain how this feels.   The first person was in the food court at the mall.  He had a coat, scarf and haircut similar to my ex, and even though I looked at him and my intellectual mind recognized it wasn’t him, I kept looking back over and over, convinced it was somehow him.  My heart was racing and I felt panicky.   It isn’t just the feeling of mistaking someone else for him.  I actually SEE him, in someone else.  Someone else is replaced by him for that moment and I’m afraid.

This happened again today when I was buying my coffee.  The person didn’t even look like my ex, but he became him for a moment.   My intellectual mind tries to reassure me that what I’m seeing isn’t real, but it feels real.  It happens with cars that look like his too.  Sometimes, I have to check and check again, sure that the car is his, even though intellectually I know it is not.

I’ve had this experience before, in the past, in the years leading up to me leaving my ex.  I would see X sometimes, when I was triggered.  I remember talking to Marian about it.

It’s an unsettling feeling.  Sometimes when I’m very stressed and have been sleeping poorly, I also see tricks of the light which aren’t there.   These experiences are all more illusions than actual hallucinations, but they are still disturbing and they signal to me that my brain is over-stressed, overtired and in need of relief.  My doctor assures me that none of these are psychotic symptoms, but they are symptoms of PTSD.

These experiences of “seeing things” are different that what happens during flashbacks.  They seem to happen just out of the blue when my brain is stressed.

During flashbacks, it also happens that my brain sees something from the past rather than what is in the present.  The person I’m with, “becomes” my abuser, I can’t trust what I’m seeing, my brain is mixing the past and the present into a mash up of confusion.

Nobody really talks about these things.  As a survivor it can be very isolating and it can make me afraid to speak out about the symptoms.  Sometimes I don’t know what is more terrifying: feeling crazy or worrying that people will perceive me as crazy.   I know, intellectually, somewhere deep inside, that I’m not actually crazy.  My brain is coping with trauma and it is doing what it needs to do to survive.  Sometimes this coping mimics, looks like, and produces symptoms of mental illness.  But often the symptoms are my brain letting me know that I need to reduce my stress.  If I don’t listen to the early warning signals, my brain escalates to more dramatic signals like suicidal thoughts and seeing things.

Learning to listen to my own inner voice is part of the healing journey.

Essentially,  I think society needs to talk about these stigmatized symptoms of PTSD and mental illness.  I think we need to break down the misconceptions and the misinformation and realize that for the most part, folks are just doing the best they can to cope.   When you are living it, all mental illness is terrifying.  It’s just a matter of degrees.  Sometimes the fear of stigma is what keeps people silent and stops them from reaching out for help.   Talking openly and without judgment heals.

I sometimes see things, but if Marian could understand, maybe you can to.

Night Bears.

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Someone told me a story about her daughters, who woke up at night and looked for the “bears” that were scaring them, having misheard the word “nightmare” as “night bear.”  It was a sweet story and I loved the imagery.  I took to calling my PTSD nightmares, night bears.   It makes them less scary in a way, because I think of bears as being soft and cuddly rather than threatening.

Night bears are something I’ve struggled with since I was a small child.  I still remember some of my recurring childhood nightmares.  I remember a dream where I was Red Riding Hood, walking along a dark path between tall, thick, dark shrubs.  I heard sounds and I reached my hand through the hedge, only to find a giant, grey, terrifying wolf grabbing at my hand.  I would wake up terrified and frozen.  I tried to call out but my voice didn’t work. That paralyzed feeling happened often as I woke from dreams, I felt I couldn’t move or speak.  Eventually I would be fully awake and run into my parents room.

When I was a teenager I took some medication to prevent malaria while travelling.  I was 16 and it had a very negative impact on me.  I’ve always been sensitive to strange side effects from medication.  I began to have even more vivid dreams.  They were full of all the sensations.  I remember having a dream about being on a battlefield during World War Two.  I could actually smell the smoke from the fires burning around me, I could feel it in my nose.  The heat was burning and I woke up sweating.

As a teenager I also began to have precognitive, predictive dreams.  This may sound bizarre and ridiculous to you, it sounds strange to me too, but it happened.  I had a friend in high school who struggled with self harm and suicide attempts.  I would have vivid dreams about her.  When I arrived at school she wouldn’t be there.  I remember calling her house, frantically from the pay phone in the hall.  Every time I found that she was in the hospital after harming herself, often in similar ways to my dreams.

In my 20s and early 30s, I had another friend who I had a similar connection with.  I’ve written about her in some of my other posts “MJ.”   We lived in different cities, but the precognitive dreams were eerie.  She could never figure out how I knew she was in trouble, or in the hospital, before she even contacted me.  It happened so many times that we both began to trust in the strange premonitions I had about her.

Because of these experiences, when I have vivid dreams about death and violence I am often afraid.  I worry that something bad has happened to someone I care about. I worry that there will be bad news.  I worry that it’s a sign.  It’s a horrible feeling, and I try to reassure myself that precognitive dreams are not real and that my brain is just expressing stress and worry through images of violence.   I’m never 100% reassured though.

In the last few years of my marriage, I had vivid rape and sexual assault dreams.  I would wake up screaming, thrashing around in bed.  It would wake up my husband too and he would comfort me.  But I often felt confused and afraid.  The person who was abusing me, perhaps triggering the dreams, was the only one there to protect me from the nightmares.  I remember having one particularly bad dream in the months before I left him.

In the dream I was attacked by a man on the street.  I was trying to fight back and to scream but I was pinned to the ground.  There was a chain link fence beside me as I lay on the ground, on the side walk.  I was trapped under his weight as he raped me.  The only part of my body that I could move was my right hand.  I somehow grabbed a stick and frantically banged the chain link fence with it, trying to attract the attention of someone who could save me.  I remember waking up, my right arm hitting out in bed, strangled cries coming out of me.  I used to worry it would wake up my children in the other rooms.

As long as I can remember, nightmares have been a feature of my PTSD.  When I am under too much stress, the nightmares return.  They cycle through various themes over a period of days to weeks, and then they relent for a while.   I rarely have the dreams which are so intense I wake up shouting and fighting imaginary enemies anymore. I do still occasionally wake up in a sweat, from deep sleep to intense panic attack, then back to sleep again.

Recently, I’ve been having a lot of nightmares.  I think it is because of the stress of the court case and the triggers related to my marriage, the unfairness of the system and the stories I hear at work.

This week I’ve been dreaming about death, violence and natural disasters.  When I wake from the dreams I’m disoriented and confused.  When I’m alone it’s very difficult to feel safe and calm.  Sometimes I turn my cell phone on, just to ground myself in reality and remind myself that I’m not alone.  That I could call or text someone if I needed to.  I open the window, I listen to the wind and the leaves.  I cuddle my teddy bear.  I breathe and I let the semi-medicated, blurry sleepiness take me back into sleep.

Last night I was feeling unsettled and struggling.  I’d gone up to bed early but had some trouble relaxing.  I had the window slightly open as usual.  I woke up in a complete panic, startled awake by the house shaking from the strength of thunder and lightening nearby and wind howling through the window, rain pounding.   It was so intense that I was afraid.  I usually love storms.  But I hate being startled awake.  It’s a trigger to the abuse.

I was dreaming about being in a hotel by the beach.  There was a giant tsunami crashing onto the beach.  I was running from room to room in the hotel, as it filled up alarmingly quickly with water.  Somehow all the rooms were sealed and there were no windows to open.  There was not enough air and eventually no place to run.  It reminded me of the passengers trapped on the sinking Titanic, right at the end.

Last week I dreamed about being at the strip mall near my house, at dusk.  I was alone.  I found a severed head on the pavement, blood everywhere.  I was shocked to realize that the head was alive and speaking to me. I called 911 on my phone and ran over to the head, trying to comfort what was left of this person.   At the same time, my mind was screaming at me that it was impossible for a head to be alive without a body and that something supernatural or unnatural was happening.  I was calling out and calling out for help and then I woke up.

That same week I dreamed about an old man dying while I held him in my arms.  His face was hollow and his breath rattled as dying people’s do.  I woke up so sad, and the sadness stayed with me all day.

That’s the thing about PTSD nightmares.  They don’t just fade when I wake up.  Bad dreams fade, neutral dreams fade, but PTSD nightmares stay with me…sometimes for years after.  They can put me into a mood before I’m even out of bed in the morning.  They also make me feel exhausted, as if I’ve lived a whole day instead of sleeping through the night.

They are difficult to talk about.  I expect to hear “don’t worry, it was just a dream,” but they don’t feel like dreams to me.   These nightmares are resistant to medication, to therapy, to the power of positive thinking.   They have a life of their own and I can’t control them.  That also feels triggering.

To everyone who struggles with PTSD night bears.  I hope you have a restful sleep tonight.  I hope you have someone to comfort you when you wake up afraid and disoriented.  I hope you can comfort yourself too.  Nightmares aren’t “just dreams,”  they can be traumatic, draining and incredibly frustrating.

Don’t look at me.

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One of my clearest memories of the abuse with X, is also one of the memories which triggers the most flashbacks.

It’s the reason I don’t like to be looked at, why I sometimes wish I was invisible, why I have hated my body for 20 years, and linked to why I started down the road to anorexia.

It was evening, that time between the brightness of day and the deep darkness of night.  We were in his room, listening to music and…I don’t know what words to describe it with…if it had been consensual I would describe it as “fooling around” or “making out”  but in this case those words don’t have an accurate feel.  We were alone in his room, in the dark and he was abusing me.  Sarah McLaughlin was playing on the CD player “hold on, hold on to yourself, for this is going to hurt like hell…

I remember the blinds were dark,  maybe navy blue, they were shut, but a small amount of light came in between the cracks.  The head of the bed was directly to the right of the window.  I remember the bedspread being navy as well.  There was a dark mood to the space.  So often when we were in his room, his family was home.  Technically if I had screamed, yelled, or run away, someone would have heard.  We were rarely completely alone.  But I felt so much shame, I blamed myself, I felt dirty and I felt like it was my fault.  It never really occurred to me to tell his parents, I felt they would blame me, or not believe me, that they would tell my parents, that somehow I’d be in trouble.  So I learned to disassociate, I stayed quiet, I did what he wanted.   Sometimes I said no, but I never fought back or physically resisted.  I learned quickly that my “no” meant nothing to him.

That evening, he wanted to look at me.  He made me take off my clothes, except my underwear which I always stubbornly refused to remove.  I was afraid to get pregnant and I somehow felt like keeping them on would protect me.

He made me stand across the room from him.  He lay, semi-reclined, on his bed, staring at me.  Just staring.  I felt like an object.  I felt like this one moment solidified the sense of shame that had been growing and building inside me, like dark twisty vines blocking out all the light of my once bright self esteem.  I crossed my arms across my chest, trying to hide myself from his prying eyes.  I felt his actions were motivated by lust. I didn’t feel loved or cared for.  I felt afraid and I felt ashamed.   I don’t know how long I stood there for, but it felt like an eternity before I was able to hide under the duvet again.  I don’t really remember what happened before or after.  I only remember those moments of exposure.

Years later, much more recently, I was dating someone.  The first time I took my clothes off, in my own room, safe and because I wanted to.  He looked at me, and I had flashbacks so intense that I almost passed out.  I had to sit down, suddenly on the bed.  The room was spinning, my heart was racing, I was so dizzy I felt blackness around the edges of my eyes.  And I was trembling, shaking really.    It took a few minutes of lying down for my body to return to a normal state.   This is what PTSD means to me.  The rapid trip between enjoying a sexual moment and being almost paralyzed with extreme physical symptoms.  The panic/flashback is often followed by tears, physical pain and nausea.  I sometimes have difficultly talking or expressing what is happening.

Because of this I have to take time to educate people who are going to be close to me. So they know what is needed to help in those moments when it’s difficult for me to help myself.  It’s important for others to realize that in the midst of a flashback I can’t consent, I can’t think, I can’t communicate clearly, and I need help getting grounded, or I need the space to do so myself.

I often wonder, if people who commit acts of sexual violence realize the impact they are having on the victim’s life.  I wonder, if abusers knew that years later mere reminders of the abuse could have such severe consequences.  I wonder if people would stop and reconsider pushing past “no.”  I wonder if all the law makers, judges, police and lawyers had to live with PTSD related to sexual violence for just one day, they would reconsider letting the majority of reported abusers walk free.

The abuse may only last a few moments, but the impacts can last a life time.

P.S.  Please feel free to share this blog if you are enjoying it!

Writer’s Block.

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I haven’t been blogging very much recently.

One reason is that I’m incredibly busy working full time and single parenting full time.

Another reason is that I have both so much to say and so little coherent to say.  I have all these ideas, memories, flashbacks, feelings and thoughts floating and swirling in my head, but haven’t been able to conceptualize a theme for a single blog post.

I started writing a post on Tuesday, which was the three year anniversary of my separation.  The day I told him I was leaving.

I never do well with anniversaries.  My PTSD gets worse, my flashbacks get worse, I think a lot about the past, my progress, where I have been and where I am going.  I am particularly impacted by holidays and anniversaries.  This is common for many people with PTSD because we don’t just remember things, we relive them.   Thus certain anniversaries of traumatic events are literally unforgettable.  I navigate my year around the anniversaries of various traumas, the deaths of my friends and family members, their birthdays, times when I was abused, anniversaries of meeting and leaving my abusers…it’s all stored in there.

The post I started was going to focus on how far I have come and the things that I have gained since leaving my ex-husband.  I was feeling particularly discouraged and demoralized after experiencing re-traumatization and further abuse from CAS and indirectly from my ex-husband.  I was beginning to feel like my entire life would be controlled and navigated by his abuse, until either he dies or I die.

But this week I feel a bit more hopeful.  Having a plan of action, even an imperfect plan helps ground me.  I wanted to write a bit about what I have gained through this three year, ongoing leaving process.  But even those thoughts weren’t properly formed and they were marred by intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.

I wasn’t sure if I should just write down a disjointed list of some of the flashbacks I’ve been having.  Because a disjointed post might accurately represent the way I’m experiencing life right now.  On the other hand, I really wanted to write something infused with gratitude.

In the middle, the blog post will meet here: a description of a flashback and why PTSD is so damn challenging, which will flow into some ways in which I am now better able to cope.

I want to describe the utter banality of some flashback triggers, because it illustrates how very unpredictable PTSD can be.   We all think of the obvious triggers, seeing the perpetrator, seeing people who look like the perpetrator, someone smells like the perpetrator, events remind you of the abuse etc.  But triggers can be literally anything.

Last week I was driving downtown and I saw a man walking down the street.  The man was unremarkable.  He was wearing a hospital bracelet on one arm and was gingerly holding his other arm which was wrapped in a clean, white gauze bandage.  He didn’t look unhappy or upset, he didn’t look like my abuser.  It was clear he was walking home from receiving treatment at the emergency room.  Nothing unusual, strange or threatening about it.

But I had an incredibly intense flashback which engaged all my senses.

I was back in time, I was leaving the hospital myself after receiving stitches for self harm.  I could feel the numbness in my arm from the local freezing.  I could smell the gauze and the tape they use at the hospital to secure the bandage.   I could feel the pain in my arm from where the stitches went in, as the freezing wears off and the swelling and bruising begins.  And I was overcome by an extremely intense urge to cut myself.  So intense that I felt dizzy.

Realize that all this took place in a matter of a few seconds.  The only trigger was seeing the man with the bandage and I had a complete physical and emotional reaction. Body memories, emotional feelings from the past and a motivation in the present to harm myself.

It’s quite incredible to me that this happened.  But this is what PTSD is.

And now the gratitude.

Living away from my ex-husband has given me the strength and motivation to resist those urges to destroy myself.

4-5 years ago if I had that strong an impulse to cut, I would have acted on it.  I would have used the flashback as an excuse…I had to do it….I would have given my power away to the urges.

Now, in recovery I can rationalize with the urges and I can ground myself and make an empowered choice not to harm myself severely.

I never could have made these shifts living in an abusive home.  I didn’t realize how unsafe I felt 24/7 until I moved to my new home and suddenly relaxed.

I have so much gratitude for being able to sleep at night without being assaulted.  I have gratitude for being able to make choices based on what is good for me.

I am so thankful for my ability to work.  Essentially, leaving my ex-husband allowed me to go from being psychiatrically disabled, to working full time in a demanding, challenging job, within a little over a year.

I love being employed.  I love having the privilege to help other women survivors.  I love being able to enter spaces where before I never would have been taken seriously, and be seen as a colleague and sometimes even an expert.   I occupy this mysterious space.  I am a psychiatric survivor and a service user while at the same time being a mental health service provider.   This is  a gift and a privilege that  I never forget.  Every single day that I work I am grateful for the opportunity to turn my negative experiences into a powerful way of finding meaning in the suffering I endured.  I find meaning in knowing that what I have survived has allowed me to help others with empathy, compassion, wisdom and joy.

Most people who know me now would have a hard time believing that 5 years ago I was unable to work, dependent, depressed, self destructive, suicidal and being abused.

Sometimes people who know me now forget.  They see me functioning and they forget that I struggle and constantly grapple with PTSD.  I function well with a very high level of symptoms and for that I am also grateful.

Ultimately, the last few months have been extremely difficult for me.  I’ve felt lost, depressed and hopeless at times.  But I have gained so much since leaving.  I have gained not just a career, but job that brings meaning to my life.  I have a safe home.  I am able to keep my children safe much of the time.  I am able to raise them with the values of social justice, equality and openness that I believe is right.

And even if this post is disjointed and unfocused, it is written, and for that I am thankful.

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.

 

Hold On, Hold Onto Yourself, for this is going to hurt like hell

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Summer of 1996.  The Woods.

Picture taken 20 years later.  Spring 2016.

This is one of the places X sexually abused me.  It’s one of the first places I remember actively disassociating.

I remember floating, slightly outside my body while he kissed and bit my neck, breasts and stomach.  Hard enough and long enough to leave marks.  I felt like he was marking his territory and his territory was all across my 15 year old body.  I remember feeling ashamed of those kiss marks, trying to hide them from my friends and parents.  I remember making a lame excuse when my parents noticed a red bruise-like mark on my neck one day that summer.

While he lifted up my shirt and I lay on my back on the large stone, his weight on top of me making it difficult for me to move; I floated.  I floated and I observed the trees around me.  I remember noticing a circle of trees with straight trunks around me and the rock.  I felt like it was a clearing, almost a circular chapel with the rock as an alter in the centre.  The trees around me comforted me, but I remember feeling disgusted and wishing that the kisses would stop.

I remember the feeling of the hard rock below me.  The rock was cool compared to X. I always associate X with the colour red, like fire burning away the blue ice I associated with the numbness of disassociation.

At the time I would never have considered the abuse by X as sexual assault, or even abuse.  But looking back I know I often said no, I set boundaries, I asked him not to ever do certain things and he ignored me.  Eventually I tired of saying no and I began to submit quietly, not really resisting, just trying to get it over with and minimize the impact on me.  It was during this time that I learned to please X as quickly as possible so that he would not spend much time touching my body.  I  learned that a way of exerting some small amount of control over the situation was to try to speed up the process and distract X.  When he was touching me I often just froze.  I didn’t move, I didn’t fight, I didn’t scream and I didn’t resist.  This still impacts my healthy sexuality now, 20 years later.

Fight. Flight. Freeze. Fawn

Disassociating is a normal coping reaction to experiencing violence.  Freezing.

Trying to please the abuser in order to minimize risk to self is a normal reaction.  Fawning.

Doing the best you could to survive is the best you could have done.

It’s easy to look back harshly on our young selves and say “You should have run, you should have left him, you should have told someone, you should have screaming…should…should…should”

But I believe if you could have done better, you would have done better.

If I could have done better I would have done better.  My younger self had reasons for not running, not leaving, not telling and not screaming.  I didn’t run because I disassociated. I didn’t leave because I was worried he would commit suicide.  I didn’t tell because I thought I would be in trouble and I thought people would think I was a slut for being sexual.  I didn’t scream because I was raised not to make a fuss, to be kind to others and because I believed I would be judged.

I’m sure you have valid reasons too and if you are reading this (and I’m still writing it!) you have survived which means your best was enough.  You are enough.