Back to Basics: Denial Works, Dissociation & Distractions help, but education matters too

Introduction

Sometimes the coping strategies and techniques (aka tools) that work the best are also the most harmful to ourselves.  By harmful, I mean that the way they are used now is disruptive to everyday life and dangerous to self and others.  In a different situation or used with a different set of feelings, these harmful tools could be useful.  That’s happened to us often in the last few years.

But until we figured out how to change the tools from harmful to helpful, using them only caused more distress and backlash.  Still, none of us wanted to “get rid of” or “remove” them from our skill set.  They worked when nothing else did with a range of consequences.

This is how the In Case of Emergency or First Aid tool box came about.  It’s where medicine like Tylenol and other OTC meds go because meds make our body sick.  It’s where self harm and coloring, exercise, sketching, etc. go because those tools trigger anxiety and flashbacks.

Finally, the Last Resort tool box came in to play during times when I or one of the alters felt/feel compelled to self harm or not sleep because of unidentifiable, overwhelming sensations causing overload.  These tools are: psychiatric medications, various forms of self harm, relapse into anorexia, and reckless behaviors that cause emotional harm.

Four of the most useful strategies that defined my life pre-recovery and continue to assist all of us now are: Denial, Dissociation, Distractions, and Education.

  • Denial allowed me to graduate high school and college while still living with my family.  It allowed me to maintain pseudo-friendships and relationships with people until I was able to find real friends.  It helped me block out nasty, scary stuff as I navigated my way through graduate school and a job I learned to love.
  • Dissociation aka daydreaming, deja vu, an altered state of mind, or a meditative state.  Dissociation allowed the one in control to separate the abuse from everyday life in order to go to function like a “normal” child in public most of the time.  Dissociation facilitated switching alternate personalities during times of trauma and abuse.  Dissociation allowed all of us to retreat to safe places in our mind when bad stuff happened or feelings got overwhelming.
  • Distractions kept me from thinking and feeling what happened inside me before I was ready to handle it.  Reading allowed me to escape anywhere and everywhere while still being in the same physical space as the abusers.  Now distraction helps all of us pause when any of us get triggered by something.  That pause and step back allows us to find and use/utilize the appropriate tools in our tool box for the situation.
  • Education taught me skills that no one wanted me to learn.  Under the guise of learning, I had more freedom to experience positive influences that helped me survive the tough times.  No one can take away what we learn.  Even in times of traumatic amnesia, the information is somewhere inside waiting to be let out and used again.

Definitions

  • Denial/Avoidance: not thinking about, putting aside, refusing to acknowledge events and experiences that have taken place or are happening in the present
  • Distraction: an activity or behavior that allows the user to think about and work on something other than what is currently causing anxiety and stress
  • Dissociation: mental separation of mind and body; like daydreaming and deja vu and meditative states.
  • Education: any opportunity to learn, explore, and expand one’s horizons through reading, listening, observing, and hands-on experience
  • In Case of Emergency box:  a group of coping strategies and techniques that work and are useful but have serious negative or questionable side effects
  • Last Resort box: a group of coping strategies and techniques that work in the short-term; that have not been successfully replaced with more positive or healthy tools; and have harmful, dangerous side effects and consequences

The skills and personality characteristics we practice

Problem Solving: Here is the tool box.  Here is a pile of tools all jumbled together.  Now what?

Self Reflection: This is what happened.  This is what I remember.  This is how I felt.  This is where I was.  This is when I reacted.  What is the trigger?  How did I cope?  Which tools did I use?  How do I feel about my reactions and actions?  How do I feel about myself now?  Would I use the tools again?  How effective were the tools?  What would I do differently if it happened again?  Where would I go?

Distress Tolerance: I feel this way.  It’s overwhelming.  I can’t think.  I am going acknowledge my feelings.  Then stop and do something different to give myself a break (distraction).  Or answer a question that’s been bothering me by reading a book, asking people I know, browsing a website or blog, listening to a TED talk, or participating in a related activity (education).  Finally, I will cope with the overwhelming feelings.

Resilience: My idea got shut down again; big mistake.  But I figured out a solution and fixed it.  Now the boss is happy, and I learned something new.  Or, this strategy isn’t working anymore.  What if I tried saying the safety affirmations for morning nightmares next time my body starts sweating and my abdomen cramps up in pain?

Creativity: AlterXpressions as a system is using imagination, education, and experience to our internal world.  Each alter in the system creates individual and community toolboxes too.  And all of this takes place inside our mind – our internal world where everyone in the system is accepted, valued, and supported by self and each other.

Value: in creating these boxes, learning, and finding effective distractions, we learn our value as a whole and as individual parts.  We compromise and work together; and realize that we each bring something important to the process.  Without those bits, our system and tool boxes would not work as well.

Acceptance: In practicing the self-reflection needed to transform our tools from harmful to helpful, we learn to face fears with compassion and accept that trauma is something that happened to us, not something part of who we are.  We learn how to love, respect, value, and feel compassion for ourselves, each other, our body, and people in the outside world.

One workaround = One new tool in the tool box

Back to example 2 in the Skills section.  Certain triggers used to cause physical panic attacks where my body cramped up and started sweating.  I lost control of bodily functions and over a pint of fluid.  Then the cold chills set in, and I passed out from the energy released by my shaking, cramped body.  Nothing helped with the pain or the cramps.  Deep breathing made the cramps worse.  Distractions made the vice like pain around my abdomen intensify.  Denial made everything feel 100x worse.  So I tried an affirmation I made to help me when I started to feel hyper-vigilant and unsafe.  In my mind or quietly under my breath, I repeated a 6 line mantra and combined that with an affirmation about pain lessening to pressure and pressure dissolving into nothingness.

To my surprise, it worked.  Eventually, I was able to decrease the length and severity of the attacks and control the passing out period.  Passing out put me to sleep for 8-20 hours at a time, so not something I wanted to happen during work hours or events.  By doing this, I found another use for two coping strategies in my box and created a new tool.  That success built on itself as my alters and I continued experimenting with the effectiveness of different strategies or adaptations of strategies in other triggering situations.  Each success added another tool to our tool box.  Each failure taught us something about ourselves and what we need to help us cope effectively.

Some days, too many triggers and flashbacks occur and overwhelm my mind.  Distractions don’t help because relaxing allows the feelings and thoughts, etc. to intrude again.

Denial with a time limit does help.
I put the triggers, flashbacks, and associated sensations in a temporary locked container with a timer. That gives everyone involved some breathing space and time to consider how the stuff in the box will be dealt with.  The timer goes off, the stuff comes out.  And we work through the stuff with coping techniques and strategies in our tool box.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  But it’s better than giving in to the panic or using a more harmful strategy.

My favorite kinds of distractions include research, reading, and working with my hands.  Unfortunately, I don’t get to work with my hands often; that and social kinds of learning are major triggers.  But I do read a lot. And use reading to help me learn.  When the anxiety gets really bad, I start to form mental loops or tape recordings that play over and over again.  Asking a question or setting myself up to learn a new task breaks these loops.

First example: I decided that I didn’t want to be in financial debt anymore after successfully breaking away from my parents and starting fresh.  So I decided to learn everything I could about personal finance, frugal lifestyles, and effective strategies to get out of debt.  That included, reading books, viewing a variety of blogs, and going through a non-profit organization to work with a mentor.  Now, I am debt free; pay off my credit cards on time; and even started a small nest egg with help from a financial advisor.

Last Example: My first mental health counselor diagnosed me with anorexia 12 years ago.  It sparked many questions about food, nutrition, and wellness in my mind.  I discovered chiropractic doctors who taught me about integrative medicine through a graduate school internship.  From there, I read books about food allergies and alternative food lifestyles (vegetarian, vegan, raw food, etc.) and began work with a registered dietitian who supported my questing mind and personal goals of nutrition and wellness through real food.

Final Thoughts

Now, all of us are physically healthy and in remission from anorexia.  Our mental health is improving.  It’s hard work, but every survivor and connection has the internal resources, strength, and power to get here and beyond too.

Thanks for reading

Back to Basics: A Tool Box, a Magic Bag, and a Safe Place to Practice

Introduction

Like everything else, learning a coping strategy and remembering it takes practice and some kind of organization.  We in the AlterXpressions system use a tool box (or many tool boxes), a magic bag (or many magic bags), and at least one safe place to practice our coping strategies and techniques.  The terms can be changed to suit individual needs (pick something that reminds you of safety, happiness, or something positive); whatever helps the individual or system remember where the coping strategies (tools) are stored and how to access them.

Definitions

Tool Box – internal storage space/container for coping strategies and techniques (like a memory box maybe?)  We use a vault inside the library as our main tool book.  Some of us hide our tools in candy boxes or recycled food tins. Mine looks like a prism.

Magic Bag or Grounding Bag – physical container to carry when out and about; I use the phrase magic bag because everyone in the systems believes in magic and coping strategies are like magic for us.  My therapist uses grounding bag; she learned it from a training workshop run by an EMDR specialist and trauma therapist

Safe Places to Practice – internal and external places with some quiet and privacy to learn and use coping strategies; we little kids love practicing on the jungle gym and obstacle courses.  The trees like practicing in meadows or looking over the bluffs to see water below.  Some of the boys work best in a sound proof radio station.

Helpful Skills

The skills and personality characteristics we practice in developing our tool box, magic bag, and safe place are:

Imagination/Creativity – our tool box is a library inside a maximum security vault with an intercom system that connects it to all of our internal safe spaces.  Our body tends to wear the “magic bag” in terms of clothes, jewelry, tattoos, and accessories; the rest goes into a backpack or plastic bag.

Visualization – The library is like a bee hive or cave system with sunny places, access to the ocean and forest, cozy fire places, lounge chairs, book shelves, a kitchen, blankets and pillows, stuffed animals, a craft corner, etc.  And everything is movable.

Focus/Concentration – Each alter has his/her/its own tool box.  We also have group tool boxes and community ones.  We create these as our go-to places when someone wants solitude or alone time or small group time.  Or for different age groups because not all tools are appropriate for all ages and genders.  Takes focus and concentration to create, store, and remember them.

Persistence – keep trying to create the ____ until each one feels right; and make changes when something doesn’t feel right anymore

Thinking outside the box – sky is the limit; use a scarf and hat as a magic bag or underneath the bed as a safe place.  One of my favorite safe spaces is a walk-in closet with locked doors

Self-Confidence – success builds on success; every time we accomplish something positive, our confidence goes up

Independence – we can learn how to use the tools and build each piece, but it’s up to us to create and utilize our knowledge to the best of our ability

Accomplishment or Success – finish something = accomplishment or success; success brings positive feelings and builds on itself

Final Thoughts

Basic coping strategies are like automatic defense mechanisms.  They get used without conscious thought.  Taking time to think about behaviors and thoughts that help us cope with every day anxiety and triggers helped us develop the first tool box.  As different alters cycled through periods of remembering and forgetting, it seemed like the best option was to create an accessible internal tool box like a library with security and safe places so that everyone could access all of our tools.

And once we learned about physical grounding and started reading about magic bags of holding (fae and Celtic mythology) from some of our favorites fantasy books, a magic bag that holds our favorite coping tools without being obvious was born.  Our magic bags change in shape, size, and contents all the time.  Depends on who is in charge, who is the most distress, and what tasks have to be accomplished.  Yes we have grounding tools in and around our bedroom.  A magic bag is in the works too.

But most important is having a safe place to practice these tools so they are available no matter what kind of stress, distress, panic, or anxiety hits.  And the best way to practice is when we feel relatively calm and safe.  This way, the tools come out of the tool box, get used for a specific purpose, and get put back in the tool box when we are clearheaded.  Like muscle memory, repetition works.

Repetition, not a routine or a workbook.  We practice when we can, as often as we can.

Thanks for reading.

 

Back to Basics Series: Introduction Post

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about going back to basics and provided a list of some basic strategies and techniques that get used the most.  These “back to basics” posts are meant to share experiences about how and why they work so others can understand better and try out something when nothing else seems to work.  I and the rest of the alters will alternate writing and sharing experiences so be prepared for different levels of writing skill in each post.

Some of us are adults and write well.  Others are adults and not so good at writing.  The adolescents and young adults vary too.  And once in a while one of the child alters will chime in and share a story.  We will try very hard to change the font or let our guests know when the author has changed in an obvious way, but it might not always happen.  You have our sincere apologies for this in advance.

Some of what gets discussed here will be triggering.  But since these are meant to be resources, we will try not to get into too much detail about the scary stuff.  Instead, the goal is to share only enough through examples so that our guests can understand how different strategies and technique works.

REMINDER: I am not a therapist or a professional counselor.  What gets written here is based on personal experience and shared stories through therapy and groups.

Some of the topics (might be discussed more than once in different ways) are:

  • Mindfulness (DBT version and others)
  • Distress Tolerance (DBT version)
  • Emotion Regulation (DBT version)
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness (DBT version)
  • Thought awareness and changing negative thoughts (CBT version and others)
  • Obsessions and Compulsions
  • Distractions
  • Grounding
  • Self Soothing
  • Comfort
  • Compassion
  • Meditation
  • Food

Thanks for reading.

Recovery: Resilience means more than bouncing like a rubber ball

Introduction

Throughout my recovery, many people praised or derided me for my resiliency.  I thought I knew what they meant about being a resilient person.  But I didn’t.  In my mind, resilience was just a word people used to describe how flexible and malleable I was.  Flexible meaning I was easily manipulated.  Malleable as in I was a doormat without my own thoughts who could be taken advantage of and treated carelessly and used.  They compared me to a rubber chicken, Gumby, a rubber ball who always bounced back, a puppy with too much energy – that was resilience.

And resilient meant weak, not strong, in my family.

But resilience is not weak.  Flexibility does not equal doormat.  Malleable does not mean easily taken advantage of or manipulated.  And bouncing back is not an indication of stupidity.

So what is Resilience?  And why is it so important to recovery?

Resilience is a mix of characteristics and values that allow a person to learn from experiences and move forward with knowledge and perspective.  Resilience means learning:

  • When to keep going
  • When to stop and think (reflection and perspective)
  • When to change one’s mind and try something else (not failure, making choices)
  • When to make the mistake and use the experience to try from a different angle
  • When to say no in spite of pressure to say yes
  • When to say yes in spite of pressure to say no
  • When to hold on
  • When to let go
  • How to accomplish all of this when drowning shame, guilt, fear, doubt, or negativity get in the way

Recovery is like growing pains.  It hurts a lot, feels overwhelming, and trips you up when everything finally seems to be going right.  

Two steps forward; one step to the right; three steps left, two steps backward; five steps forward…who knows what will happen next or how to make progress?

Every survivor is resilient because:

  • He is still alive
  • She fell and got up again
  • He stopped counseling; got into a bad place; started counseling again
  • She is still alive
  • He tried to reconcile with his family and had to walk away again
  • She relapsed; reached out for help; and accepted it
  • He failed a class in spite of hours with the tutor and extra help sessions; took the class with a different teacher and different set of people; passed; and didn’t have to take the final
  • She said no and fought back long enough to escape and get help; then took martial arts and self-defense classes only to become an expert trainer who volunteers at shelter for trauma survivors
  • Two friends walked away from each other after a surviving a car wreck that almost killed them and did permanently injure 4 others.  Years later, one reaches out to the other, and they start a respectful dialogue; their friendship blossoms and stays strong

What resilience means to me

I make mistakes.  I learn from my mistakes.  

I can be flexible like steel and break under too much pressure.  Or I can be flexible like grass and bend one way or the other until the pressure passes.

I can let fear win and be a medicated vegetable.  Or I can get up every time I fall and try another way to keep on going.

  • Every experience has value and can teach me a lesson that will help in the future
  • Failure means I got stuck and need to rethink the solution
  • Regrets mean I still have something to learn from the experience
  • I forgive, but never forget
  • My past comes back to remind me of lessons learned so I can make better informed choices now
  • A flexible mind helps me understand someone else’s perspective and be a more thoughtful person
  • Malleable means I can set safe boundaries and change them to suit who I am now
  • I shape the world around me instead of letting the world shape me
  • When no one listened to me talk, I started writing and didn’t stop

If you’re reading this, you are resilient too.  

And thanks for reading.

 

Recovery: Invisible Strength

Background

Today is the 4th and second hardest anniversary in May.  As I think about getting ready for bed and how I can face the nightmares hovering at the edge of my awareness, I remember what the hotline counselor told me earlier – you are strong, strong enough to cope with this – in different words and different ways throughout the conversation.

I called because I had some chores to do that I had been putting off and was scared because I felt unsafe and frustrated.  Unsafe because doing those chores triggered memories of my mother and aunts.  Frustrated because those triggers also brought back memories of more recent experiences that made me feel unsafe too.  As I shared my feelings and the experiences behind them, the connections were revealed.

This (experience or event) reminded me of that (seemingly unrelated experience or event) because I felt the same way both times and reacted instinctively even if I used different coping strategies to work through each experience.  And each experience or event past or present brought out emotions and memories of similar ones.  Together, the counselor and I untangled the connections enough for me to understand why I was scared and make 2 plans, one for tonight and one for later this week.

Why am I sharing this?

I am sharing because that conversation reminded me that every survivor of trauma, no matter what kind, has invisible strength.

By invisible, I mean not always apparent, recognizable, or appreciated by “normal” people, but always recognized and valued by others with shared experiences or on the recovery path.

What does Invisible Strength mean?

Invisible strength is getting up every morning and doing one act of self care in spite of the previous night’s setbacks.

Invisible strength is talking about the scary secrets and acknowledging what happened in spite of fear and possible rejection and accusations of being a liar or worse.

Invisible strength is relapsing and getting up to start recovery again no matter how much time has passed.

Invisible strength is knowing that you have to make difficult choices and choosing the best ones for yourself even if that means breaking away from everything familiar.

Invisible strength means using whatever coping strategies you have to in order to get through the moment and forgiving yourself for doing something that induces shame.

Invisible strength means accepting that you can’t change other people, your environment, or their thoughts about you while also knowing that their thoughts and choices and failures and problems are not your fault.

Invisible strength comes from doing what you know is right for you even if no one else accepts or approves of your choices.

For me right now, invisible strength means:

  • I can love and accept and forgive my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relatives in spite of their abuse and still not want them in my life.
  • I can let other aunts, uncles, and cousins who are willing to meet me part way and develop new relationships based on who we are now slowly back into my life as long as we respect each others’ boundaries.
  • I can feel compassion for my parents, brother, relatives, and other abusers and the experiences that made them who they are without shame or guilt
  • I can accept that part of what they did was not their choice or within their control, but other parts of it were and hold them responsible for their past words and actions without blaming them.
  • I can learn to accept that my feelings of shame and guilt come from fear and learned behaviors that are not my responsibility
  • I can finally recognize that connecting with “normal” people will always be difficult because I am not willing to settle for shallow or insincere relationships – whether friendship, familial relationship, intimate relationship, etc. – with people who I cannot trust or respect on a basic level.
  • I can face the fact that not many people are as “strong” as I am and that my “strength” can feel intimidating to others whose values and ethics do not align with mine.
  • I am not willing to settle for an intimate relationship with a man who is not my equal in values or invisible strength – someone I feel safe and comfortable with, respect, like, and trust not to hurt me on purpose or use his knowledge about me to manipulate or control me; someone who feels safe and comfortable, respects, likes, and trusts me not to hurt him on purpose or use my knowledge about him to manipulate or control him.
  • I may never find my dream man in this life time.
  • I could find my dream man in this life time.
  • I may never have sex or sexual experiences again in this life time.
  • I could have sex or sexual experiences again in this life time.
  • I hope and dream that my next life will be different from this one – free from abuse and trauma, but not the ups and downs of sadness, joy, pain, serenity, good health, and freedom that come from living.
  • I am grateful for this second chance at life in spite of all the challenges that slow me down

Thanks for reading.