I’ve been in therapy for 11 years. The first 3 years, I worked with a psychologist who helped me rebuild my foundations, but also made me feel like I was crazy because she did not believe in trauma and abuse. We parted ways after I realized a) she wasn’t helping anymore; and b) trying to fit sessions in between grad school and work was impossible.
The next 4 years were spent with an LICSW who specialized in eating disorders and anxiety. She flat out told me that she did not work with trauma and was willing to help with the other stuff if I was ok with that. I agreed, and we had a great relationship until the trauma got worse in 2009. From her, I learned the tools to manage emotions and triggers that caused relapses in anorexia. She also helped me learn to improve my self-confidence and feelings of self worth in spite of the pressure from outside sources to go back to what I was.
The past 5 years have been about understanding and learning to cope with my trauma history. That meant remembering, coping with anxiety and overwhelming feelings, working through shame, setting boundaries, and ensuring my safety. It mean accepting that PTSD and DID were part of my identity now. It meant acknowledging I was a victim of domestic violence and other abuse. It meant acknowledging I was a survivor who did what was necessary to get through hell. It also meant making the choice to be me with all of my weirdness and quirky characteristics and alternate personalities or be part of a family system that hurt and abused me.
When I decided to separate from my family and disappear, I didn’t know it would lead me to where I am now. The first two years were all about making sure they couldn’t contact me (phone, email, work, home). The third year was about trying to feel safe where I lived in spite of people from my past continuing to stalk and harass me. That is when I started the process to change my name and move out of the city. This past year has been about not hiding anymore.
Part of the not hiding goal was to develop a personal style so that my outside (physical appearance) self matched my inside self. I wanted to show myself in my appearance; be me and have that reflected in my clothing choices, accessories, etc. Because wearing clothes that fit and feel comfortable are stepping stones to rebuilding confidence in self image and appearance – two parts of myself that were taken away a long time ago through hate and shame.
My genetic history blessed me with looking physically beautiful and having an attractive body. Not hiding anymore meant I’d be getting a lot of unwanted and triggering attention. But hiding wasn’t an option anymore. Wearing ugly clothes and playing down my physical appearance made me feel awful. The journey to finding my style started in April of this year with a personal style program and is ongoing.
The not-hiding part was completed last week when I attended the company holiday party in a stylish and comfortable outfit that brought out my inner confidence and personality.
And I know I had a good time, that all of this was real, because of backlash the next day. Started with a dreamless sleep that left me waking up in terror. Continued with a moderate headache and lots of distraction at work. Culminated with knots and lumps inside no matter what coping strategies I and the alters employed on the way home.
Once we got home, the urge to self-harm came back. And nothing we tried could make the compulsion ease or go away. The flashbacks, the memories, the shame knocked us out. Talking to a counselor on the hotline helped a lot. We walked through the feelings to understand where the trigger came from. Then she helped me create a safety contract.
We were expecting backlash. We were not expecting the compulsions for self-harm or the flashbacks. It didn’t happen at the previous holiday party. Why would it happen this time? And how come everything we tried was necessary but not sufficient?
The list of coping strategies for this backlash goes as follows:
- Distraction – books, music, work, Facebook style groups, chatting with co-workers and friends, cooking, playing games, making budget and shopping strategies for next year
- Self-Care – doing one of the style challenges for the day; remembering to eat all of my meals and drink fluids; putting on chapstick; taking walks; laughing with a friend; downloading books; wearing comfortable shoes; going in to work later and staying later to make up time
- Self-Soothing – eating chocolate; drinking juice and bubbly water; enjoying flavors that remind me of happy times; wearing clothes that felt good against my skin; staying warm and dry; getting enough rest; going to safe spaces in our mind
- Emotion regulation – sitting with my feelings; acknowledging the turmoil inside and letting it pass; listening to my alters share stories and movies; laughing with them as we used lucid dreaming to change scary nightmares into successful adventures; identifying and naming our feelings; doing the opposite of how we feel to change our thoughts
- Comfort – cuddling with stuffed animals; playing dress up; wrapping up tight in a blanket; listening to nature sounds; keeping in touch with close friends
- Asking for help – when all else fails, reaching out for extra support from people who understand trauma and are willing to offer help
Not hiding feels great. But the reasons for hiding still exist. The shame and fear that caused us to hide hasn’t gone away. And now the memories are back with clarity that comes from hindsight. That means more change, more unsettled feelings, and more coping challenges. Someday, though, this will get easier.
That belief, the hope that coping will get easier as I move on, keeps all of us going.