Coping Challenge: Kitchen Triggers

Introduction

My kitchen is a scary place.  I go there and remember all of the times I had to deal with family and friends and strangers either with cooking, baking, preparing food, cleaning, or doing something not at all related to food.  Traditional cookware is a trigger.  Bakeware is a trigger.  Knife blocks, cutlery, utensils, tools, silverware, dishes, etc.  All are triggers.

And as I contemplate what to keep and what to get rid of, I realize that brands, types, styles, even materials the cookware, etc. are made of are more triggering than the memories.  I love the idea of having a wok again.  Cooking with a wok means I can make traditional Chinese food I grew up with.  But every time I look at a wok I feel anxiety.  Every time I try to choose one to buy, I feel anger and other negative feelings.  At home, I have a small/medium stainless steel sauce pan with a cover.  Every time I use it, I feel shame.  After I use it, I can’t bring myself to clean it right away.

I used to have a knife set that I got for my first apartment.  If was one of my first purchases for the rental because I wanted a good set of knves to cook with.  And because knives are expensive, I kept it even after I left my family.  Two weeks ago, I realized that looking at the knives made me feel scared and angry.  It was one of the main reasons I had been avoiding my kitchen.  The same thing happened with the set of cooking utensils I bought around the same time.  Getting rid of them was the best decision I ever made.
What Happens Now

Now, when I look for anything kitchen related (whether it’s dish towels or cake pans), I have to ask all of us, is this item something that will trigger us once we bring it home?  Will buying it make us feel good or anxious?  Will we use it or hide it?  Will having this item at home cause anxiety or excitement?  Will a part of us come out during its use and break it because the anxiety and other emotions got so overwhelming the need to destroy the trigger overcame everything else?  Because yeah, that’s happened to us in the past too.  broken cups & plates; tarnished silverware; rusted cast iron, etc.

And buying what I like, what I choose for myself is a trigger in itself.  The fear that someone will come and take what is mine away from me exists in some of my parts.  The urge to destroy what I like as punishment exists in other parts.  And the need to hurt the self because of the rule breaking drives me and some parts to not buy anything out of paralyzing fear.  The triggers start thoughts ruminating; the rumination feeds into obsessions; obsessions trigger compulsions until one or all of us finds relief by giving in to those compulsions or having a panic attack because the coping strategies aren’t working so well.

The Trigger Cycle

Which brings me back to my original feelings of:

Why buy cooking utensils?  Why bother trying to cook?  Is the enjoyment that comes from cooking and baking worth this hassle?  Why not continue to avoid it?  Eating isn’t necessary, and you don’t deserve to be healthy anyways.  It’s not like you’re an important person who does important work.  No one will miss you.  But if you go out and get (insert item here), you will (insert threat here).

This cycle happens whenever I try to do something good for myself.  Examples:

  • Buying clothes that fit
  • Sticking to a budget
  • Deciding to replace my cookware/bakeware/etc
  • Cleaning my apartment
  • Buying garbage bags
  • Wearing accessories and looking stylish
  • Eating food I enjoy

How do you handle your triggers?

The OCD and Rumination Cycle

I’ve been avoiding buying what I need – not exactly the best coping strategy, but it works for now because I am trying to avoid buying too much stuff right now.  Where I live now is great.  All of us enjoy it and are relatively happy.  We feel safe.  But we also know that this place is where we grew up; full of triggers just walking around outside or going to work; and often end up encountering people from the past.

So the decision has been made (by all of us) to move to another state as far away as possible from this one where no one from our family or past that we know of resides.  This will happen around the end of next summer.  And since the price of moving a lot of stuff cross country is ridiculously expensive, why not take the opportunity to sell/get rid of everything unnecessary and use the savings to buy after moving in?

Makes sense right?  But is this another case of avoiding self-care or of being practical?  Am I hurting myself by not nesting where I’ve lived for a year and plan to spend another year?  Or am I being smart by only buying what’s necessary to facilitate self care and then selling it before I move.  I can always re-buy later or give my self a limit of boxes to ship to my new place rather than move everything.

As you can read here, examples of ruminating thoughts, obsessive thoughts, and inability to make choices.

How the Cycle Is Broken

I break the cycle by using CBT and DBT with a judicious dose of meditation most of the time.  When that doesn’t work, self-soothing and sensory grounding usually do the trick.  And when all else fails, a text message or call to someone I trust for some support will help me clear my head.

I hope the quote helps you remember the importance of self-care the way it does for me.

Alter Post: Meeting people from the past

Have you ever encountered people from your past at unexpected times?  I admit to not handling it very well in the past.  Present time, my parts and I cope better.  This proverb is similar to one from a long time ago that started me thinking about how to deal with people who trigger and scare me.

The Story

Luckily for me, I was with friends from my knitting circle last time this happened.  Knitting kept me calm and grounded.  My friends kept my secret and did not call me out on my white lie about meeting this person for the first time.

But after I stopped knitting, the body memories started.  Then the anxiety kept my body shaking and my voice rising/falling.  Adrenaline rushed through my system.  So I got out fast.  Took a commuter train home.  And used coping strategies to help me stay in the present.

I didn’t sleep that night.  My productivity at work the next two days was terrible.  But I survived.  And that time was better than previous ones.  My body did not shut down in a full-blown panic attack.  I still got to visit with my friends at the knitting circle.  My mind and body may have been distracted, but I did get some work done.

Lessons Learned

I used to be afraid of running into people from my past.  Now, I am more resigned to the fact that it will happen often as long as I stay in my current location.  But the best part is in knowing that some of the people I don’t want anything to do with work just as hard at avoiding me when they see me as I do them.

To clarify, not all of the people from my past are family or friends.  Some are classmates from high school and college too.  Others are teachers, former co-workers, parents of the children I taught as a tae kwon do instructor, students, medical and dental professionals, etc.  I don’t want to be part of that community or interact with those people.

Who I was then is not who I am now.  it’s like those coming of age books and movies, the troubled teen with a reputation (not always deserved) who is derided by the community leaves looking for a better life.  Only difference is that I do not intend to go back.  I have nothing to prove and no one to visit.

Conclusion

Sometimes a person has to go away in order to get better.  Sometimes a person has to say and do terrible things in order to survive.  It took us a long time, but we are learning not to feel shame and guilt about the things we said and did in order to survive.  Part of what helped is realizing that not everything will be or has to be remembered as long as the important information is acknowledged and remembered.

Recovery Challenge: Multiple Diagnoses aka Comorbidity

In honor of the egg donor’s birthday, and extra post this week.

What is Comorbidity?

I don’t usually trust Wikipedia as a primary source, but this definition fits my thoughts on multiple diagnoses.

“In medicinecomorbidity is the presence of one or more additional disorders (or diseases) co-occurring with a primary disease or disorder; or the effect of such additional disorders or diseases. The additional disorder may also be a behavioral or mental disorder.

In medicine, the term “comorbid” can be either medical condition(s) existing simultaneously but independently with another condition; or it can indicate a related medical condition or conditions. In psychiatric diagnoses it has been argued in part that this “‘use of imprecise language may lead to correspondingly imprecise thinking’, [and] this usage of the term ‘comorbidity’ should probably be avoided.”” – from Wikipedia

11+ Diagnoses Become 1 Primary with a Secondary diagnosis

Between 2004 and 2007, I was diagnosed with 11+ different mental illnesses including:
  • clinical depression
  • 5 different anxiety disorders
  • mild agoraphobia
  • anorexia nervosa
  • a variety of other phobias
  • panic attacks
  • obsessive/compulsive disorder
  • and an anger management issue.

I wish I could remember all of the names, but I can’t. What frustrated me the most at this time was that they kept giving me these labels because I did not fit any of the mental illness categories exactly.

Symptoms like hallucinations and dissociation were evidence of a psychotic disorder; but they couldn’t call me something I wasn’t.  And I wasn’t psychotic.  The psychologists and psychiatrists kept treating each condition as something separate.  I began to believe I really was crazy.

Between 2004 and 2014, I had visited 3 therapists (1 psychologist and 2 LISCWs), 2 partial programs with teams of mental health providers and 3 psychiatrists, and 11 private psychiatric professionals (psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse).  The therapists kept recommending medication to make the symptoms go away.  The psychiatrists kept giving me medication – increasing doses or changing medications – until they got frustrated and gave up on me because nothing worked.  I take the medication and get sick.  The symptoms go away, and I become a catatonic zombie.  I stop taking the medication and become independent again.  The symptoms come back worse than before.

Ironically, it was an academic advisor in graduate school who figured out my correct diagnosis: complex post traumatic stress disorder.  The academic advisor was a domestic violence survivor and in the process of getting out of the relationship when we met.  She recommended the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman to read.  That was the first turning point in my recovery.  I realized that everything I had remembered was the driving factor in my diagnoses.

Then I learned that each diagnosis can be its own disorder or symptoms of a more complex mental illness like post traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders.

Lessons Learned from Multiple Diagnoses

Along with medicine, the therapists helped me by teaching me strategies to rebuild my internal sense of self – the foundations based on my values, beliefs, and self-trust.  My problem was and continues to be that I do not trust anyone until they have proven themselves to me with their actions.  This can take a while or not happen at all.  The trust issue and pressure to stop going from the sperm donor caused the first therapy relationship to break up.

I still go into every potential relationship knowing that, unless I feel both emotionally and physically safe, it’s going to be temporary.  I met my closest friend during my junior/senior year in college.  We reconnected a few years later through a mutual friend and have remained friends since then.  Up until 3 years ago, I waited for the moment when something one of us said or did would break up our friendship.  Even now, when I or one of my parts are having a particularly difficult time, we wonder when all of the people in our support network are going to stop being supportive – either they walk away or I walk away.

The voluntary programs taught me that everyone, even mental health providers, has an agenda.  Maybe not a conscious one, but definitely an agenda / purpose driving their approach to helping others.  The first time, a program helped for two reasons:

  • 1)I learned that I wasn’t alone
  • 2) there were people in the world who could accept an eccentric, weird, individual with “unique perspective of yourself and the world” (paraphrasing my program clinician)

The second program taught me that I wouldn’t get anything out of groups unless:

  • 1) I trusted the clinicians to do their jobs
  • 2) the people around me to be supportive, respectful, willing to speak up and help other clients in the group, and accepting of others.

And even though I didn’t get the same kind of assistance as the first time (different people working in the program), I learned to trust my instincts.  By observing the people in the program, I learned about my values and what I want in any kind of relationship.  The people in the program (clients and clinicians) reminded me of people in my family and circle of friends.  The same family and friends whom I was considering a permanent separation from.  Not knowing I had Dissociative Identity Disorder made things even more difficult.  I didn’t remember interactions with other clients or understand why they treated me different from moment to moment.

The other part was my “unique perspective” because I was in a different recovery place than the others.  I couldn’t relate to anyone.  And the more I talked, the more I felt separated from them.  The other clients started to resent me and avoid me – partly my fault because I was obviously cautious and had mood swings from dissociation/switching; partly theirs for feeling frustrated/angry/upset with me because they couldn’t be where I was – which caused tension whenever I was in a group or tried to connect with others.  The clinicians were not happy with me because I was too assertive and knew more about the coping techniques they tried to teach us than they did.  This was routinely said by clients in groups where the clinicians and moderators could hear.

That’s when the subtle condescension and shaming started.  And not just with me, but with other clients too.  The whole atmosphere made me uncomfortable.  And it was only after I learned about shame that I realized why I felt uncomfortable and not inclined to trust anyone in the program.  But the month off from work gave me time and perspective; two things I needed to make the final decision to walk away from my family and current relationships.

Conclusion

Anniversaries bring up a lot of stuff.  Remembering the past is not a waste of time if one learns from those experiences.  Today is my mother’s birthday.  Sometimes she is referred to as the egg donor.  Most of us prefer not to attribute the word “mother” to her, but old habits are hard to break.  I and my parts always get stuck in memories and feelings before, during, and after her birthday.

I think about her and get angry.  I think about her and promise myself not to spend time around people who act in similar ways towards themselves and others.  I think about her and feel proud that I am able to choose who to spend my time with even if that means having a very limited social circle.   I think about her and wonder if she can still hide her craziness without me there to take the blame.

Most important, I think about her and feel relief that we are not in each other’s lives.

When I think of now, I wish that all survivors and their connections are able to find supportive, compassionate, knowledgable mental health providers who can offer them the correct diagnosis and options for symptom management instead of having to go through what I did.

Recovery: Acknowledging My Vulnerability

“Real Heroism comes from having the courage to openly acknowledge one’s experiences, not from suppressing or denying them.” Peter A. Levine Waking the Tiger

Brene Brown writes something similar about shame.  Many self-help authors and trauma specialists say the same thing to survivors.  Keeping the secrets means letting the abusers have power over us.  Sharing the truths, acknowledging what was experienced with compassionate and accepting supports, puts the power back in survivor’s hands.

It took me a long time to believe this.  Some parts of me still do not believe.

But now I do believe.  And many of my parts do too.  The rest are skeptical and heading toward belief.

This is part of the reason my first family shunned me.  I spoke out about what was done to me.  I faced the truths and held the people who hurt me explicitly and implicitly responsible.  And I tried to talk to them about it.  Until I realized that nothing I said or did would change their attitudes and treatment of me (unless you consider behaving worse a change).

Considering my role as the family scapegoat and the subjects I brought up, parts of me can understand why the family members circled around the egg and sperm donors (mom and dad to everyone else) and supported them instead of me.  The ones who wanted to support me also told me to just get over it; to deal with it and move on.  My “crazy reactions” and “strange behaviors” disgusted and embarrassed them.

And to the cousins and others who saw me as a role model, my obedience and flexibility (i.e. letting them walk all over me) disgusted and angered them.  They didn’t want anything to do with me either.  Of course, the obedience and flexibility were illusions that I used to survive family events.  And when I did show my true colors, I got shunned and put down in obvious and intimidating (to them) ways.

The egg donor set these traps often towards the end of my time with them to show me that I would never have family support against her.  The sperm donor and younger sibling did the same thing by ignoring my requests, stealing my ideas, and perpetuating the belief that I am an unreliable liar.

I got the message. 

And then sent one of my own by leaving.

“Most modern cultures, including ours, fall victim to the prevailing attitude that strength means endurance; that it is somehow heroic to be able to carry on regardless of the severity of our symptoms.” – Peter A. Levine Waking the Tiger

When I first started remembering, I was a junior in high school.  It felt like a dam burst inside of me after my aunt died.  Or maybe a volcano erupting is more accurate.  Either way, a monster was freed.  An angry, raging monster that took over and caused wild mood swings with random bursts of violence.

The verbal violence and emotional violence was triggered and used against everyone including myself.  But the physical violence was only used against my body unless I was triggered into dissociation.  Then I blacked out, not remembering anything that happened during the time I raged.  A lot of people got mad at me for raging against them; they thought the level of anger and what I said to them was insulting and unwarranted.

Especially my cousins and relatives because they weren’t used to me fighting back.  So to punish me for doing that, they pretended I didn’t exist and expected me to grovel and beg them for attention and approval.  But I stopped doing that after my last years in college.  Some part of me understood that those rages did two things:

  1. Told me who actually supported me and accepted me without reservation – respect and direct communication would have resolved many of the hurts
  2. Protected those same people by keeping them away from me when I was a target for more abuse by people outside of the family; I was beyond the ideal age of the egg donor and her circle, but my cousins weren’t

Maybe the reaction were warranted, maybe not.  All we know is that those reactions kept us safe in an unsafe environment.

The first two therapists and almost anyone who I tried to share my secrets with back at the beginning told me the same thing: get over it.  Move on.  It didn’t really happen.  Accept that you’re crazy and useless and stupid.  You are what your mother and father made you.  And you will never get better.

Sounds a lot like what the second quote asserts, yes?

Maybe that’s why my parts and I are still searching for answers.

Psychotherapy with my current therapist combined with lessons from previous mental health providers have helped me work through the worst of my emotional and mental symptoms.  My parts and I can manage those mostly on our own now.  But the psychotherapy does not help so much with the body memories and physical symptoms.

We are reading Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine now.  His approach makes a lot of sense because body memories are physical sensations that scare us.  At this point, anything will help.

Coping Challenge: Body Memories, Pain, and Triggers

Today’s Quote

I learned a lesson about doubt this week.

As mentioned in previous posts, August is a trigger month for me.  The first half of the month has to do with family reunions, get togethers with friends and connections, and camps.  The second half of the month is birthdays – egg donor and her mother’s birthdays to be exact.  With my therapist on vacation and an unusual increase in remembering, I and my alters doubted we would be able to get through the last week on our own.

But, I forgot about all of the wonderful people in my life now.  And my alters forgot about the toolbox of shared coping strategies in our memory banks.  But most important, we forgot about how far we’ve come since those first baby steps.  Doubt, fear, shame, and pain clouded our senses and distorted reality for a while.  So we hope this quote helps you the way it helped us.

Body Memories

With remembering comes pain.  Sometimes the pain is physical; other times it is emotional or spiritual.  Often the pain is a combination of sensations that trigger other memories, thoughts, or feelings.  I am always in pain; what level of pain I experience determines how functional I will be throughout the day.  My body hurts from the damage I did with anorexia and from the damage done to me when I was abused.  Pain management without drugs, alcohol, and other chemicals has been one of my long-standing quests.

Working with my therapist and reading about trauma has taught me that trauma lives in my body as much as or more than it lives in my mind.  Talk therapy helps with my emotional and spiritual (mental) symptoms – i.e. nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety, feeling emotionally unsafe, dissociation – but not so much with my physical symptoms – i.e. panic attacks, body memories, somatic symptoms masking as colds, allergies, asthma, muscle pain, migraines, joint stiffness, lack of coordination. We have both been searching for more resources to help cope with the body memories and physical pain that worsens or lessens depending on the amount of triggers and anxiety occurring at the time.

Pain

Pain is our constant companion.  It comes in many forms: soreness; aches in muscles and joints; discomfort; bruises; tendon and cartilage stiffness; cramps, etc.  And it manifests in different places at different times.  The scary part comes when the pain is triggered by body memories.  For anyone who is not comfortable reading descriptions about physical or sexual body memories, please skip to the next section.


Some of our best friends are of varied and different sexual orientations.  That does not matter to us.  What matters is that they are amazing, unique, compassionate, wonderful, reliable friends and connections.  Please remember that we strive to celebrate and accept all individuals as they are as you read this section.

I’ve been plagued with body memories where I relive sexual abuse.  My body gets aroused, flushed, goes cold, calms down, feels sensitive in places I did not know could feel sensitive, and so on when I am asleep or get triggered by a sensation that reminds me of past experiences.  It scares different alters, wakes everyone up, causes sleep paralysis, nightmares, night sweats, and a whole host of other problems.

During the day, at work or outside the home, it gets embarrassing sometimes because my body re-enacts the trauma when triggered.  I and my parts are not homosexual, but we were sexually abused by many females.  So when certain kinds of interactions between us and other females take place, triggers occur and sexual feelings get aroused.  Sexual behaviors sometimes get expressed even though none of us are experiencing sexual interest in the female(s).  That causes misinterpretations and other problems along with feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion.  We are heterosexual; this was discovered late in high school and in college.  But arousal feelings scare us because were sexually abused by males.  They trigger similar memories as described earlier and cause us to panic and hide or get angry to push the interested / interesting males away.

These conclusions came at a high cost of working through many tangled memories and fragments.  And now, we struggle to cope with the memories as they come together to narrate mind/body experiences that deserved to be honored and understood in order to move forward.


Alternative Coping Techniques and Strategies

I added a new Pinterest link with images and videos of some alternative coping techniques you might be interested in learning about to my Resources page.  Yes, the page still says it is under construction.  We have decided to leave it up there for now because the page will be evolving as more links and information gets added.

Some of the coping techniques on the Pinterest page are:

  • Qigong
  • Tai Chi
  • Sound healing
  • Chiropractic
  • Massage therapy with trauma trained professionals
  • Bodywork therapy with trauma trained professionals
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture

I have tried almost all of these with different degrees of success.  The ones I go back to most are qigong, sound healing, massage, and acupuncture.  Chiropractic helped me at the beginning of my recovery when I stopped being able to exercise because of serious knee pain that physical therapy couldn’t fix and the specialist said required knee replacement surgery; the MRIs, X-rays, etc. couldn’t find anything wrong.  But I was 22 at the time, and no one wanted me to have replacement surgery; instead the specialist told me I had to stop exercising and live with the limited movement caused by the pain.

Yoga is amazing and wonderful in so many ways.  I wish I could practice it, but my body memories surface and cause panic attacks/flashbacks that make me physically and emotionally ill.  Someday, when I am more comfortable in my body, I will practice yoga on a regular basis.  Not everyone has this strong a reaction to yoga.  And I tried yoga in regular classes, not trauma-sensitive classes.  So please do not be discouraged.  It may work for someone in similar situation with different body reactions.

Qigong is a form of energy healing that combines sound healing, meditation, and movement.  I am not sure how to describe it.  All I can tell you is that the meditation practices combined with standing and moving exercises are not as triggering as yoga and still effective at calming my internal systems when I can use them.  Tai Chi is a martial art that has its roots in qigong and is good for people who want something more like yoga – a routine and set of movements in a pattern and rhythm that also teach individuals how to protect themselves physically.

Acupuncture is relatively new to all of us.  When we tried it, the needling helped manage the pain and anxiety so that everything was calm and quiet for a time.  But the backlash was too hard to handle.  And the commute after work was very triggering.  So we stopped for now.

If any of you readers and guest suffer from body memories or pain, I hope some of these resources offer you some new avenues to explore.  Be well.