Recovery: the Importance of Feeling Safe

Why Safety?

Safety has been on my mind a lot because I start to feel unsafe when the memories and intrusive thoughts overwhelm me and trigger nightmares and flashbacks.  I have to find ways to remind myself that I am safe; that many of the steps I’ve taken in the last few years have been all about ensuring my safety.
And by safety, I mean physical and emotional safety.  I separated from my abusive family; cut ties with people whose presence made me feel bad about myself; learned how to create and set boundaries; moved every year for 3 years; changed my phone number multiple times; joined a state address confidentiality program; legally changed my name; learned grounding, self-care, and self-soothing techniques to help me feel present and safe; practiced DBT so my feelings stopped controlling me.
All of those tasks helped me build my confidence until I internalized two important beliefs:
1) I can keep myself safe; my parts can keep themselves safe; we can keep ourselves and each other safe by working together.
2) it’s ok to feel safe because the ones who hurt us before can’t hurt us anymore.

From Confusion to Clarity

Between 2006 and 2009, a lot of changes took place in my life:

  • I got my first real job as an adult and earned enough money to move out on my own the next year
  • My graduate school counselor took me aside one day and told me about a book called Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman
  • I read the book and realized I was a trauma survivor who probably had PTSD of some kind and needed help
  • I went out and found new doctors.  Asked those doctors for help in finding counseling
  • Started counseling with my second therapist; learned a lot about cognitive behavioral therapy, strategies for coping with anxiety, and positive self talk to help with the anorexia
  • Quit graduate school and went to work full time as an independent contractor for the job that got me out of my parents’ house
  • Had a melt down and asked my dad if I could come home; he said no I am better off in my own place.  And I got what I deserved for being arrogant and not obeying them
  • Work picked up; I moved to a better apartment in another city; stayed there for 4 years
  • Tried to be what I was before to my family when I lived at home and be my own person
  • Continued to use harmful, negative coping strategies; contemplated suicide; believed all of the terrible things my mother and sibling said about me (my father mostly ignored me except to make me do what the others wanted); and felt unsafe
  • The depression got worse; the nightmares and insomnia got worse; I started hallucinating and getting physically ill; turned out to be effects of my panic attacks and flashbacks
  • My therapist sent me for a crisis evaluation because she did not work with trauma and realized I needed more help than she could provide
  • That led to my first voluntary participation in a partial in-patient program for mental health where I learned about DBT, self-care, safety contracts, emotions, and healthy communication

And here, in this program, I finally learned what feeling safe felt like.  Judith Herman’s words about recovery being cyclical and overlapping made sense.  I wouldn’t be able to move forward until I felt safe in my mind.  After I left the program, my current therapist and I agreed it was time for me to find a different therapist, one who specialized in trauma and could help me with my next phase of recovery.

And that is how I met my current therapist.  We have been working together for 5 years now.  Most of what I learned about creating and maintaining safety comes from her.  She helped me come to the following painful realizations:
  • If I truly wanted my own life, to feel safe, recover, and be me, I had to stop denying the truth about my family and my past
  • Every time I tried to set boundaries and develop a healthier relationship with my parents and sibling, they ignored, shunned, and convinced the rest of the family to punish me for not playing the role I was born into
  • I still maintained relationships with people who treated me badly
  • Every time I went to visit with or talk to my family or connections, I came home feeling triggered and helpless; I got physically ill and increased symptoms for weeks afterward
  • There was a lot more to my trauma history than a dysfunctional family system full of abuse and scapegoating
  • My family and connections were not going to change their attitude and treatment of me no matter how much I changed
  • That my parents and sibling chose to treat me the way they did because they want to hurt me and put me down
    • mom’s bipolar disorder, refusal to take her medications, is not an excuse to abuse me
    • Dad’s anxiety and frustration, his chauvinism, is not a reason to abuse me and leave me to take care of my mother so she doesn’t bother him
  • I was never going to feel safe as long as my family and connections were part of my life
  • I had to leave it all behind and start fresh if I was going to feel safe

How I Maintain Safety

Emotional Safety:

  • Container – create a container with a lid in my mind; put anything I am not ready to deal with in there; open the container and work on items one at a time
  • Safe Space (internal) – I create a safe space in my mind that only I can access; I control who visits; the safe space is filled with colors and items that remind me of comfort, happiness, fun, etc.  each one of my parts has a safe space
  • Self-Soothing and grounding – I keep lists of reminders and favorite items like stuffed animals around me to look at, touch, and listen to whenever I start to feel unsafe
  • Mantras and positive affirmations through books, meditation, philosophy, and alternative medicine – this is a whole post in itself, maybe more.  Louise Hay, Tara Brach, Lama Surya Das, John Kabat-Zinn are the people who taught me about the power of affirmations.  Please look them up for more information
  • Cutting ties with emotionally unsafe people – I deserve to spend my time around safe people who do not lie, cheat, emotionally blackmail, shame, insult or act aggressively to me when I act and talk like myself and so do you

Physical Safety

  • Safe Spaces & Exit Plans – choose not to spend time with people who hurt me, try to make me feel bad about myself, etc.  if I do encounter people like that, have a plan in place to leave and go someplace I feel safe – for me that is the library or bookstore, work, my apartment, my therapist’s office, certain friend’s homes
  • Choosing to surround myself with people who like, respect, and accept me for who I am
  • Practicing self reflection so that I can learn who I am on the inside and what my values are; then match them to my thoughts, words, and actions
  • Remember to have compassion for myself because I am going to stumble, regress, make mistakes, and so on
  • Remember that I am in control of my life
  • Remember that I can choose to let others hurt me or I can choose the opposite even if it means letting those people go
  • Create a space in my home and at work where I feel safe and protected and able to be me

Reader’s Digest

Safety is important to recovery.  Feeling safe means different things to different people.  Not everyone has to cut ties with their family and past to feel safe. But without establishing safety first, the rest of my and anyone else’s recovery is that much harder.
What does safety mean to you?