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.

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.

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.

No uniformed officers please.

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It’s Pride Week and I want to write about why I don’t think uniformed police officers should be in the Parade.   The police should be welcome, but they should attend the parade as civilians, dressed in ordinary clothing.

I’m not anti-police, so much as pro-safe spaces.  There are a number of groups of people and communities that may feel threatened by uniformed police officers (no matter how nice those officers might be!).  I know some LGBTQ* folks who have declined to attend Pride this year because they don’t feel it is a safe space for them.

Some communities that have experienced marginalization, violence and oppression perpetrated by police include (but are not limited to): Trans* folks, People of Colour, Indigenous communities, sex workers, immigrant and refugee folks, lesbians, gay people, queer folks, survivors of sexual violence, people with disability and people with mental health and addiction diagnoses.  Especially people who embody any of these intersecting identities in a visible or public way.   The police have a lot of power and privilege and this has often been used against, and not for/with, marginalized groups.

My own experience, and the focus of this blog, is related to my experience of living with a mental illness that does not always allow me to “pass” as normal or neurotypical.

I will describe one of my interactions with the police, as an illustration of my own preference not to have uniformed officers at Pride.

When I used to self harm and attempt suicide on a regular basis, I used to get to the hospital by car, bus, taxi or on foot.  Near the end of the years of regular ER visits, a doctor told me she didn’t think it was safe for me to drive myself to the hospital after cutting myself deeply.  I thought about it for a while and figured she was right.  The next time I hurt myself I was suicidal, not just cutting as coping.  I was home alone and I decided to call 911 rather than a taxi.   During the 911 call I told the truth to the operator.  I told them that I had cut myself on purpose and that I wasn’t feeling safe.  I sat on the staircase in the front entryway and waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door and I could see tall people in dark uniforms outside.  I opened the door and two huge uniformed police officers stood there.  I was confused, already upset and I started panicking.  I asked where the ambulance was, I told them I changed my mind, I didn’t need police.  They came into the house and told me to sit on the steps.  They started asking me what seemed like hundreds of questions and told me I couldn’t move.  They asked me if there were weapons in the house, if I was alone in the house, if there was medication in the house, where the tools I had cut myself were, whether I had a doctor, what medications I took etc.

I felt more and more panicked.  I knew I couldn’t visibly keep panicking because I knew they wouldn’t leave until they felt I wasn’t a danger to anyone. The feeling of being out of control and knowing you can’t properly show your feelings is an unsafe and triggering one for a survivor of violence.

I felt like I had no choice but to do exactly what they said.  They told me the paramedics couldn’t come into the house until they were sure it was safe.  I tried to explain that I had harmed myself and had no intention of harming anyone else.  I was crying.  I offered to get the things they wanted (the blade, the medication) but they wouldn’t allow me to move.  I had to explain where the items were and one uniformed officer walked around my house collecting them, while the other stood and watched me.  They both had guns.  Generally, guns do not make a suicidal panicky person feel calmer.  Just FYI.

Then they were both back in the room.  I was sitting on the couch, now in the living room.  They asked me questions about my treatment and my medication. I didn’t want to answer them.  They were taking notes in a small black book.  I was keenly aware that this information could be used against me in the future.  I was scared I might have a police record, when what I really needed was medical attention.  I was confused and I didn’t understand how harming myself was a police matter.

Finally, at some point they determined the situation was safe.  Two paramedics, one man and one woman came into the house.  At some point the police left and went outside, making further notes in their cars.  I was embarrassed and ashamed because I knew my neighbours would see the commotion.  I felt my face burning with shame as I walked to the ambulance with the paramedics.  I begged them not to turn on the sirens because I was so embarrassed already.  I’d spent every minute since I opened the door to the house wishing that I had never called 911.     The female paramedic drove the ambulance and the male sat inside with me.  He was calm and kind and he didn’t have a gun.  I felt safer once the police were gone.

In the past, I’d had security guards sit by my bed, or just outside the door in the ER.  Ensuring that I didn’t run away before being assessed by the doctor.  That was associated in my mind with feeling unsafe and not being trusted.  Being a prisoner within a hospital rather than a patient.  That’s how I felt in my own home that day.

The ambulance took me to the hospital and I received treatment for my cut.  I wasn’t admitted to the hospital, because nobody really took my self harm seriously by that point.  They had labelled me borderline and didn’t believe I would ever actually kill myself.  I was often treated like a misbehaving child.

This memory is one reason why I don’t feel safe around uniformed police officers.  The other reasons, related to reporting violence, I will talk about more in future posts.

If I have a serious mental health crisis again in the future, I hope nobody will call the police.  I can’t think how that would calm me down or de-escalate the situation.  I would feel more at risk, rather than safer.

So, for this reason and for many others, I believe there are other ways to create safer and more inclusive spaces.  And LGBTQ* police officers, please feel welcomed by me at Pride…just leave the uniforms and guns behind.

 

 

 

Depression meets PTSD. Crash.

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I’ve realized over the past three years that depression is often more of a secondary problem for me.  It’s very situational and very linked to PTSD.  By the time depression flares up, it generally means that I’ve been coping with PTSD triggers for too long and I’ve started to crash into exhaustion.  Depression sometimes means feeling literally nothing, while PTSD can mean feeling everything and things that are from the past vaulted into the present, clear as day.   This can be a confusing progression.

Lately it’s hard to tease out whether I have a whole host of mental health diagnosis or just one (PTSD) causing a host of symptoms.

Abuse triggers can lead to negative feelings about my body which can then trigger my good friend Ana…yes, PTSD comes first and anorexia is a symptom.   For me anorexia is mainly a series of obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours which are linked to extreme anxiety around changing my food rituals.   So anorexia comes first, and OCD traits follow.

When I have a lot of PTSD symptoms and flashbacks, I start to have trouble sleeping and I have vivid nightmares.  Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night to a full panic attack.  Flashbacks can lead to panic attacks during the day as well, and also to anxiety in crowds and enclosed spaces.  So PTSD comes first, and anxiety and panic symptoms follow.

At the end of the line comes depression.  DEPRESSION.  It feels so heavy.  Depression to me leads from coping to constant suicidal and self harm ideation in what seems like mere seconds.  For me, suicidal thoughts are often the first real indicator that I’ve slipped into depression again.  This may seem backwards, but for me the most severe symptom tends to come right at the start, even if I’m depressed for only a few days.

When I’m depressed I feel like I’m walking through a thick soup of fog.  Every fibre of my being hurts and feels heavy and leaden.  Sometimes I have to lie down after just showering and getting dressed in the morning because I feel too exhausted to continue with the day.  When I’m depressed I have no energy.  I want to crawl into bed and hide.  Unfortunately, I’m a single parent and I have a full time job.   It’s not an option just to crash.

So I keep going, but the time crawls by.  I feel unsure if I can get through the day.  I feel unsure if I can stay safe, and resist the negative thoughts.  My self esteem crashes.  I start to feel a lot of feelings from the past.  Or maybe that is backwards, maybe I feel the feelings from the past and it triggers depression.

When I feel out of control of important aspects of my life, I am triggered and I think about suicide.  This is the way my life is.  It’s been this way since I was 17 years old.   It’s both normal to me, and completely terrifying every time it happens.

The depression always lifts and these days it lifts more quickly than it ever did in the past.  The lights come on again, I see the world clearly and not through a haze.  I feel connected and I feel like I am competent at some things.  When I’m depressed I feel alone and I feel utterly worthless.  I feel like a burden and a problem and someone that people I know put up with, rather than care about.  I have trouble making small talk.  I spend a lot of time silent.  I feel an immense amount of social anxiety and discomfort in social situations, especially those involving food.  Depression, anxiety, anorexia, PTSD….it’s a perfect storm of misery.  I’m caught in the middle of a storm of symptoms and I don’t know when they will abate.

Right now I’m triggered because I’m worried about my children.  I’m triggered because of the way my ex-husband treats my children and me.  I’m triggered because this is the time of year, 3 years ago, leading up to my physical separation from him, when things were at their most tense and scary.

I’m triggered today because my daughter told me that her father’s avatar/icon for me on his phone is a piece of raw meat.  Raw chicken.   The father of my two children sees me as nothing more than a piece of meat.

Fuck.

 

Inpatient bonds.

20160727_214408[1]One of the bright sides of spending so much time in hospitals during my teens and early twenties is the people I met there.  Some of them became lasting friends and the bonds between us defied understanding by outsiders.

If you’ve never spent a significant amount of time as an inpatient in psychiatric wards and mental health treatment facilities you probably won’t understand.

I’ve had people close to me tell me that I “shouldn’t have so many friends with problems” or that I should “try to make healthier friends” or that I “shouldn’t talk to people who depress me.”

These comments miss the point for a number of reasons.

First of all, if my “friends with problems” aren’t worthy and I shouldn’t be friends with them, does that mean nobody should be friends with me either?  In case you hadn’t realized from reading this blog, the secret is out.  I identify as living with mental illness! I’m not exactly 100% well myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the hospital in the first place!  Does this make me less of a good friend?  Does this make me a person who should be shunned and avoided?  I certainly hope not.  I would like to afford my other hospital friends the same courtesy.

Two, it’s hard for people who are mentally well, neurotypical, never struggled with severe mental illness to understand me.  Sure, I have well friends who empathize and who don’t judge me.  But the bonds and mutual understanding I’ve shared with other people who struggle with PTSD, eating disorders, depression and suicide are very strong.   It’s like I can breathe again, when I talk to a friend who I know “just gets it.”

Three, when you are living in a hospital ward, you naturally form friendships and alliances with the people you are living with.  Some of them become friends.  It happens and it helps us survive.

So please, don’t judge these special friendships.  Even when I’ve lost friends to suicide, even when I’ve been triggered by friends and had to set boundaries, even when it feels like listening to their struggles is too much to bear, I never regret them.

My dear friends who are gone.  I desperately miss that feeling of belonging I had when I talked to you, laughed with you.  MJ, there was never anything I shared about PTSD that you hadn’t breathed and experienced yourself.  I never had to explain myself, you just knew.  This blog entry’s photograph is a picture of all the cards you wrote to me during our friendship.

Who else could I share my strange experiences with?  When I told her one day, crying in the bathroom in my ex-husband’s house, that I was scared because I thought I was seeing X everywhere.  I literally thought I could see him all around the city.  Intellectually, I knew he wasn’t there, but it felt real and my heart skipped a beat each time.   She almost laughed and said, “It happens to me all the time.  I see everywhere too”  We breathed out together, suddenly this PTSD symptom was normal and okay.  We understood each other, we weren’t crazy.  I loved her for this and I know she loved me for it too.

When I was in treatment for anorexia when I was 17, I met another young woman named M.  She and I were stuck on the eating disorder for 5 weeks together, while other patients attended groups.  We were on “modified activity phase” until we gained a certain percentage of our goal weight and it took forever.  During this time we talked, bonded and sometimes sneaked around doing things we should not have.   She was painting rocks when I got there.  I asked her what I was doing and if I could help.  She told me she wanted to paint 1000 rocks so her wish would be granted.  Soon, we had an assembly line going.  We would fill our pockets with rocks on our 15 minute outside break, sometimes walking further than we should have away from the break area.   Once inside, I would paint the rocks a solid colour, then when they dried she would write “Expect a Miracle” in careful lettering on each one.  The final step was applying a clear glaze once all the paint was dry.   We painted so many rocks, I don’t remember how many we had finished when I discharged myself 3 months later.  I still have some of them in my bedroom almost 20 years later.  I’m still waiting for a miracle.   I often wonder what happened to M.  We lost contact and I still think of her often.  I wonder if her miracle came true and I wonder if she recovered.

I met my friend Lexi at a support group in my city.  It was the first place I really talked at any length about leaving my ex-husband and what was going on in the marriage.  Lexi loved to crochet and knit.  She loved her family.  I used to go to her apartment sometimes and we would chat about all sorts of things.  Sometimes we shared stories of our trauma and sometimes we joked and laughed about our future.  I was inspired to try online dating because of Lexi.   I lost her suddenly last summer, about  a year ago now.  I still miss her.

Darlene, whose story I recounted in another blog post, her anniversary was this week.  14 years ago I lost her.   I wish I’d had the chance to know her better, but I won’t ever forget her.

Some friends like my dear sister LJ, I have kept in contact with for over 12 years, through email, fb, text and phone.  She lives in a different country, but she calls me sister.  I miss her and I hope to see her again one day.  I have ever letter and card she has ever sent me. She has inspired me in many ways and her commitment to recovery and to survival is tremendous.

My friend John, he is also gone now.  But his music lives on and I have his CD which I listen to from time to time and remember his gentle courage.

I will never forget the stories of survival I heard and witnessed during my hospital stays.  I met so many survivors.  I met war veterans who were kind and brave enough to share small details of their own private hells with me.  I met residential school survivors who shared with me the abuse they endured.  I met childhood abuse survivors who overcame.  I met women who were admitted to the hospital in full psychosis, speaking in delusions and making little sense.  I saw those same women, mere days later, completely calm and rational again after taking their medication.  I met people who had lost family members in tragic circumstances.  I met people who had nearly died from multiple heart attacks due to anorexia and bulimia and some of those women have children and are well and healthy today.

These friends give me hope.  They remind me that I’m not alone.  They remind me that recovery is possible.  And the ones that have died, I will hold in a special place in my heart forever.

Inpatient bonds are something to be celebrated.

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.

The leaving.

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When I was 19 years old, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

This mistake potentially changed the entire course of my life until my children are adults and possibly longer.  I was a teenager.  I was in fragile recovery from anorexia and depression and had not yet been correctly diagnosed with PTSD.  I was living in a city away from my family and the majority of my close friends.  I was happy that year, doing well and enjoying life. I had taken up swing dancing and I loved it.  I’d made some friends and we often went out dancing together.  Shortly before my 20th birthday I met him.  He proposed to me after 3 months.  It was one of the worst moments of my life.  I remember physically shaking, thinking frantically in my head “oh my god, this can’t be happening, why is this happening, why is he doing this, why, what should I do, what will I say, why is this happening right now!!!”  In the moment I didn’t want to break up with him, so I said yes.  I honestly figured I had lots of time to get out of the promise, but life didn’t turn out that way.

Thirteen years passed.

Three years ago this week I made the biggest and most complicated decision of my life.

Ironically, the things that ended my marriage came together in a culmination of empowerment and decision for me.  I’d been battling with thoughts of leaving for over a year, slowly gaining strength, processing the ideas and planning.

The soul crushing depression I’d been living with for a few years slowly began to lift about a year before I left him.  I began to see options for myself.

For many years I had seriously considered suicide.  After trying ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and slews of meds, I believed I had exhausted all options for treatment resistant depression. I was ready to give up and only my children held me to this world.  I had irrational, almost psychotic thoughts, in the depths of that depression.   But in my mind, when I was thinking more clearly, I told myself that suicide was only an option for those who had literally tried everything, people who had no other option.  Sometime in summer 2012 I realized that wasn’t my situation:  there was something I hadn’t tried.

I hadn’t tried moving. Living in my own house away from my partner.  I hadn’t tried starting over, changing my environment, removing myself from the ongoing sexual abuse which I knew was both triggering me and traumatizing me in equal measure.

In 2012, I was experiencing terribly severe migraines which at times left me unable to function.  I remember throwing up in the parking lot of a restaurant on my daughter’s birthday.  I went to the ER at times to receive IV pain meds.  Around that time I began taking a medication called Topimax for the migraines.  And suddenly, my depression lightened.  My obsessive compulsive suicidal and self destructive thoughts relented almost immediately.  I never self harmed in a way that required medical attention again. My migraines improved.  I began to see colours again.  I noticed the world around me.  I began to re-emerge into the world of the living.  And I started to consider my options for leaving my partner

As I grew stronger over the course of the next year, I started talking to more people in my life about the abuse.  I chose very carefully.  I told people who didn’t live in my city.  I told counselors and doctors who were sworn to keep confidentiality.  I was careful, but I started to talk.

I had some good friends who began to tell me that what I was experiencing was not okay.  Friends encouraged me to leave, to tell my parents, to get more counseling and they empowered me.  I started volunteering at a women’s organization. It happened gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly.

In the end, the last time we had sex was the end of that marriage.  I made the decision the next day and told him a few days later.  That night he initiated sexual touching while I was asleep and drugged.  I woke up with him touching my breasts.  Maybe he had been touching me for a while before I fully responded.  On that occasion I woke up and was lucid enough to respond.  Because he had been touching me (without consent), I said yes to sleeping with him.  I verbally said yes.  We had sex and I felt disgusted.   Even though I said yes to the sex, I knew in my mind that I had not consented to the touching. I knew if he had asked me when I was wide awake I would have said no.   I realized that even IF I said yes, I still wouldn’t feel safe, comfortable or at all okay.  I knew it was over.  I knew that would be the last time.  So many times, when I was lying awake at night after being assaulted, I thought to myself “this could be the last time, I could get up and walk away” but I never did.  I was always afraid and I didn’t want to leave my kids.

There are a lot of reasons why people who are being abused do not leave.

And at the end of the day, it only takes one reason to decide to leave.

Leaving an abusive relationship can’t be rushed or forced.  The person being abused has to hit a breaking point and decide that “enough is enough” and that point is different for each individual survivor.

This happened three years ago, but anniversaries are always difficult for me.  I feel it all again.  I have more nightmares, more anxiety and lower self esteem.  I don’t believe in myself.  I have difficulty trusting. I hate my body so intensely that I struggle to look in mirrors or wear certain clothes. I don’t feel safe or relaxed anywhere.  I return to the automatic living, zombie like state.  I have trouble remembering things and difficulty concentrating.  I sometimes wonder if it has been worth the fight.  The suicidal thoughts creep in suddenly, ambushing me in my day to day life.

But at the end of the day, I have to remember that there were only 2 options left for me:

  1. Leaving
  2. Suicide

As difficult as my life is, and as much pain as I’m in, I believe I made the right choice.

I’m still alive.

 

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.