Zombie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are not safe”

“You can’t trust anyone”

“Nobody believes you”

This shifts along into another layer of faulty PTSD thinking:

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

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

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

“You are letting everyone down”

“It’s all your fault”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I’m triggered.

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Being triggered is exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control…

 

20160522_220818[1]“I don’t care if it hurts, I want to have control,  I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul”

-Radiohead

One of the worst parts of living with anorexia is also the part that is the most difficult for others to understand.  Body dysphoria or distorted body image.

In the context of an eating disorder, and in my own case, this basically means that I’m never really sure if I’m seeing my body accurately or not.  When I look in the mirror sometimes I see a lot of things I don’t like.  I don’t like the majority of the middle of my body for example.  Lots of people can relate to that.  But for me what I see in the mirror can sometimes change dramatically from one day to the next.  Sometimes I look at myself and I can see the parts of me that are slim, sometimes thin even.  But when I’m stressed, upset or triggered I see myself as big…too big…taking up too much space.  I hate the way certain parts of my body look and feel.  I get upset at the feeling of clothing touching my body and I sometimes have to change my clothes a few times in the morning before I feel okay to go out.

It’s important to know that 90% of this is not about how I look to other people.  It’s not about vanity.  It’s not about wanting to look like a model in a magazine or an actress on TV.  It’s not a life style choice.  It’s not a choice, period.

Distorted body image and body dysphoria are symptoms of many eating disorders.  Eating disorders are medical illnesses.  You don’t have to “look sick” or be extremely thin to be medically at risk from an eating disorder.

Sometimes I want to scream because if I could get rid of Ana and live a “normal life” around food my days would look very different.  I don’t want to waste even one more minute obsessing about my fat stomach, or how much I should or shouldn’t eat.

I’ll tell you something about Ana…she is a total bitch.  She is also incredibly boring.  Probably the most boring person I’ve ever met.  Ana is abusive too.

Who is Ana?  She is my eating disorder.  I personify her and I experience or imagine her as a young girl, maybe about 15 years old, with dark hair and pale skin.  She never looks happy and she is never satisfied.  She’s often full of rage and full of anger and she seems to want to destroy the both of us.

Ana talks to me like this:

“Your stomach is fat. You are out of control.  You are so disgusting. You don’t even deserve to be alive.  You probably shouldn’t eat very much because it’s the only way you will feel better.”

Ana lies. Ana is cruel.  I’ve been living with her for almost 20 years now and she rarely gives me much of a break.

Because of Ana I have a hard time remembering what it is like to eat and feel relaxed, just enjoying the flavours.  I have a hard time imagining eating without obsessive thoughts and rituals.  Ana has this idea that by controlling food and controlling the size of our body she will solve all our problems and make us feel in control and safe.

Ana wants to be safe more than anything.  Unfortunately, she is young and she doesn’t know that controlling food makes her MORE at risk, more vulnerable and certainly more unhappy.

If I could live one day without Ana…

  1. I would get SO much done.  I’d have more energy because I’d be eating more regularly and more healthfully.
  2. I’d be able to actually concentrate because my body would have all the energy it needs AND my mind would be de-cluttered and not distracted by obsessive thoughts about food and weight
  3. I’d be able to relax and enjoy social time.  Until you live with Ana you never realize how much of society centers around food
  4. Did I mention how much more energy I would have?  Listening to, or fighting off Ana’s abusive inner monologue takes so many spoons.  It leaves me exhausted and on bad days depressed and hopeless

But even knowing all this intellectually, I have a hard time letting Ana go.  She does sort of keep me company, and she does sometimes give me the illusion that by controlling food, I’m controlling my life and managing overwhelming problems.

At the end of the day the truth is that Ana was born during the time I was being abused as a teenager.  Ana promised me things, and she deceived me into thinking that if I was smaller and took up less space I’d be safer.  But I wasn’t safe, I almost died.  And then when I was in imperfect recovery, I was abused again and again.

Ana doesn’t keep me safe.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, especially among young woman.  They aren’t a choice and they do destroy lives.

I hope one day Ana will leave me alone.  I hope I will be able to look in the mirror and like what I see.  I hope  I will be able to eat without fear and guilt.  I hope I will pick my clothing based on what I like and not what will allow me to tolerate the body distortions for that day.

I still have some hope that I will let Ana go, instead of fumbling along in imperfect anorexia recovery forever.

Please Believe me!

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One of lasting impacts of experiencing abuse within the psychiatric system and oppression within the legal system, medical system, child protection system and police (mainly due to the combination of being a woman and having a psychiatric history),  is that I’m very sensitive to not being believed or not feeling believed.

Honestly, sometimes I feel like I spend the majority of my life just trying to justify my lived reality to other people.  Trying to convince professionals, friends, neighbours, family members and strangers that I am telling the truth.  It’s exhausting.

And even when people DO believe me, I have trouble trusting.  I get defensive when I even perceive that I might not be being believed, or that someone is challenging me on the facts of my own life.  Not being believed or not feeling believed are major triggers for me.  They bring me back to times in my life, during abuse, when the abusers did not believe that what they were doing was abuse.  It brings me back to times when health care professionals did not believe me about various things.  These triggers cause me to feel unsafe in the present moment.

Survivors of sexual violence spend a lot of time fighting to be believed.  Because “systems of oppression” (aka the medical, legal, police, CAS etc) exist within, and to maintain, rape culture, folks who speak out about experiencing violence are often viewed with suspicion.  There are a lot of myths out there about sexual violence and not a lot of people who see the facts.

The more marginalized a survivor is, the more likely it will be that she will face oppression within these oppressive systems.  Thus, systems which supposedly exist to serve justice are not applied equally to all folks.  Stigma based on mental health status is one form of oppression, perhaps it is a part of abelism, perhaps it is it’s own type of oppression.  But survivors who are women face the patriarchy, People of Colour and Indigenous folks face racism and colonialism, queer survivors face homophobia, trans survivors face transphobia, folks with disabilities face abelism, economically marginalized folks experience discrimation related to poverty, and some people, due to intersecting oppression, experience all of these things.

For me, the fact that there have been important times in my life where I was not believed, has impacted on my ability to feel safe in speaking my truth. I find myself constantly justifying myself and sadly sometimes even second guessing myself.

Maybe I am crazy.  Maybe I really did make things up.  Maybe I am really the abusive one.  Maybe I’m not a good parent.  Maybe I am seriously mentally ill…

The worst part of having survived emotional abuse and systemic abuse through the mental health care system is that I don’t even believe myself half the time.

I’m tired today.  I’m doing my best, but I don’t feel capable.  I’m working as hard as I can, but I feel like a failure.  But I feel vulnerable.  I feel very vulnerable.  I feel more alone than I technically am.  I had to justify myself too much this week and I let it get to me.

My advice to survivors is this:

You are the expert in your own life.  Be your own hero.  Believe yourself, you have no reason to lie. You can trust your memories.  You can trust your instincts and gut feelings, even if you have no memories.  You can trust your body. 

You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone.  No is a complete sentence.

I believe you.  I believe that this isn’t your fault.  I know that if you could do better you would do better.  Your best is enough.