Life Changing Moments: Follow Up to Yesterday’s Post

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post about life changing moments.

Introduction

We started counseling/therapy/pscyhotherapy in 2004.  In the past 11 years, every one of us has gone through transformation and change.  We worked through our fear; took down the barriers separating us from the rest of the world; let outsiders see our inside self (the real us); all while coping with rages, fear, shame, guilt, anguish, pain, and grief that did not seem to have a source.  Baby steps.  Learn to trust ourselves.  Learn to trust each other.  Learn to trust outsiders.  Make mistakes.  Try again.  Keep on trying.  Do what is necessary to survive.  Accept that survival means acting and speaking in ways that are not aligned with our values.

Stop shaming ourselves like the others did for taking steps that felt right to our instincts, steps that went against our conditioning.  Steps that caused physical/emotional/psychological pain and obsessions/compulsion to cause harm as punishment for breaking the rules.  Learn how to cope with panic attacks and dissociation.  Learn emotion regulation and anger management so as not to harm innocents (including ourselves).

Present

Yesterday I posted a life changing moment just after it happened.  Today I am writing about the backlash.  Because as much as I hope that someday every survivor finds a way to move on from surviving to living to thriving and experience the confidence that comes from hard internal work, I also know that it is a dream.  Success comes to those who work hard; learn from mistakes; keep an open mind; cultivate empathy, resilience, compassion; and persist in moving towards healing will someday experience insides and outsides matching.

The inner changes will be reflected in outside personality and treatment of self/others.  A friend at work is presently going through such a transformation; it’s an honor and a pleasure to support him as he becomes the person he wants to be on the inside and the outside.  And much appreciated to have him as a supporter of my journey too.

As my current counselor says: what you put into your recovery is what you get out of it.

We got the courage to face our fears with joy and trust in our support system.  And backlash in the form of flashbacks reminding us that the woman we saw yesterday knew and did nothing to help before.  What used to be fuzzy sensations and fragmented memories are now full color, motion-picture style memory videos looping through our brain.  Awake or sleeping we cry at unexpected times, feel anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame.  The headache means some are suppressing the tears so as not to cry at work.  The tense muscles mean pain is on the way.  Body memories will appear if we don’t let go.

So what to do?

I am not sure.  We all will be trying different methods of self-care tonight.  Soothing, grounding, connecting with friends, getting perspective from others, a call to the hotline, making dinner, and remembering that every encounter has multiple perspectives.  Because even though walking away was the best thing I did, I still love my family.  And I know that a lot of them love me in their own way too.

Seeing my aunt hide from me was a shock.  I did not feel smug or proud that she hid from me.  I felt confused and conflicted.  It was never my intention to cause her pain or harm with my presence.  Nor was it the intention of my alters.  A mutual friend (of mine and the aunt’s) who did not attend the party (other commitments) helped me get perspective on this.  The friend also reminded me that the aunt loves me and might have been trying to respect my boundaries/not hurt me by hiding.  The aunt might also have been giving herself time to make a plan since she was not sure how to cope with the situation.

Conclusion

While not having contact with immediate family and anyone who knowingly participated in past experiences is absolute and unchanging, I am reluctant to shut out family who might be willing to change and meet me part way to create something new from the ashes of the past.  I will not ever let any of them hurt me like before.  And I won’t forget.  That is part of why I/we experience the backlash.  But I am in a place now where I am secure enough in myself and my ability to be safe that taking baby steps outside of my comfort zone are possible.

This is what we want and hope for our visitors and guests.  That some day each and every one of you will be able to live the lives you deserve.

Life Changing Moments: External Expressions of Internal Changes

Early last week, a friend emailed me with an invitation to her holiday party.  In the invitation, she mentioned that one of my paternal aunts might attend too.  This friend is retired, a member of my knitting circle, and someone who’s known me since I was five years old.  We reconnected about 2-3 years ago through a mutual friend I ran into before moving to my current residence.

It took a few months, up to a year, before I really began to trust them both and open up.  They were still connected to my family and had been (continue to be) the paternal aunt’s friend before I met them.  But they protected my privacy; accepted my differences; worked with me to help me learn better coping strategies so I could attend knitting circles and go out more; and always supported me with their actions.  Because of them and my friends in the knitting circle, I’ve become more social and more comfortable with socializing.

Back to the invitation.  She lives about 2.5 hours away from me, so I wrote back telling her that I’d try to make it.  Sundays are difficult because there are less trains and buses operating throughout the city.  On Thursday, I decided to go to the party and wrote an RSVP Friday morning.  She wrote back with her address and also confirmed that my paternal aunt would be there.  It was considerate and caring of her to warn me.

A month ago, I might not have attended the party.  3 months ago, I definitely would not have gone and might have experienced some negative flashbacks thinking about the event.  One year ago, I would be having flashbacks and panic attacks about being invited to a party with few friends and many strangers.  The travel arrangements alone would have scared me enough to make an excuse not to go.  And forget it if there was a hint of snow on the ground.

This time, though, I decided that I was going to go.  I would dress up in an outfit that felt and looked good (gave me confidence) and take my time traveling there.  Since many of my knitting friends were going, I’d also have a built-in support network and people to hang out with.  And with my phone handy, I could easily find many ways to leave if I wanted to leave.

At the party, I would be polite if she approached me and then ignore her the rest of the time.  If not, I’d ignore her.  But I wasn’t going to hide.  And I didn’t hide.  Spending time with my friends, meeting new people, chatting with them was way too much fun to miss out on.  My friend’s friends are wonderful and unique – think United Nations – and made me feel comfortable even though I was the youngest one there.

In the end, I heard my aunt come in (her voice is loud and recognizable) before she saw me and moved to be with a group of friends, my back to her.  We chatted and laughed in our corner; my friends were facing the other way and kept an eye on her for me.  But she didn’t approach.  Instead, she hid until I left.  Not very long since my ride was getting ready to leave 20-40 minutes after “auntie” arrived.

But seeing her silhouette, the back of her head did not bother me like I thought it would.  I had a moment of fear before I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of.  I was warm and safe and supported among friends.  And shocked that she would hide from me.  She who always was loud-spoken and brash, displaying confidence and being pushy with criticism and set-downs ready.

Instead, I felt at peace inside.  Confident, self-assured, and comfortable enough with myself to cope with whatever happened.  I wasn’t afraid of her anymore.  And that is big.  Because I’ve spent decades being afraid of her and everyone else in my family.  Intimidated, less than, all of it around them.  And now, I feel equal to them.  Not more, not less; equal to them as a human, a woman, an individual.

I am smart, successful, independent, female, and able to cope with my past and present.  I control myself and influence my choices.  My past and the people who shaped it do not control me or my choices anymore.  I have strategies and plans to help me feel in control of stressful situations.  The planning itself is a wonderful coping technique.  Building in flexibility allows me to adapt to changes easier.  Finally, having options allows me to make choices and ground myself when I start to feel out of control.

Thinking about them still brings on flashbacks sometimes.  This time of year; certain scents and sounds; images and crowds still trigger me into feeling uncomfortable.  Until after January 1, I have to cope with encountering higher than normal amounts of rude and insulting people from the past who know or recognize me without my being able to return the favor.

So this is my life changing moment.  I went to a holiday party knowing I’d see family.  Instead of being scared and panicking, I enjoyed myself.  Instead of hiding from her and being invisible, she ran and hid from me.  Without all of the hard work from before, I’d not be here now.

We all hope that someday, the guests here will do the same at least once.

Life Changing Moments: Personal Symbols of Power

Introduction

My current favorite coping strategy is grounding with my senses.  Touch, taste, smell, sound, sight.  This technique uses personal symbols of comfort and power to help individuals come back to the present moment in times of difficulty.

Tactile sensation, also known as physical contact, textures, or “safe touch”, helps survivors come back to the or stay present by interrupting symptoms through skin-to-object touch.   “Safe touch” came from my uncle and maternal grandfather.  Once they died, I lost that source of comfort.  Then came clothing, stuffed animals, jewelry, etc.  The objects changed with time and circumstance, but the symbols behind them did not.

Safe or Not Safe?

Are all textures and objects safe to use?  I honestly don’t know.

Dolphins are considered symbols of hope, compassion, safety, intelligence, etc. to most people.  They scare my child parts and give them nightmares, so there are no dolphins in any of our safe spaces.

Most people think turtles are smelly and gross.  All of my parts love turtles.  We have small statues with different textures and photos of turtles in the safe spaces.

Jewelry is beautiful; can be expensive or cheap; offers many different textures and colors to ground the senses; and is hard to wear while maintaining invisibility.  Tattoos are similar that way.

Personal Symbols

Counselors, therapists, and personal experience shows me that the best grounding techniques use are an individual’s personal symbols of comfort, safety, confidence, or hope.  Or personal symbols of power.  aka reminders of success and other positive experiences.

Some of my personal symbols include:

  • turtles, frogs, pheonix, dragon, dogs, cats, otters, snakes
  • wisdom knots, buddha, karma, qi
  • natural fiber textiles and clothing with interesting patterns and textures; or synthetic fibers that are soft, silky and perfect for cuddling
  • vibrant colors – orange, yellow, red, purple and brown in all shades

Secret or Obvious?

How a person uses grounding techniques in daily life depends on the individual’s needs and circumstances.  Growing up, I kept most of mine secret and not too interesting so that the abusers and perpetrators let me keep them.  Anything like jewelry or expensive clothes or luxurious blankets were taken away.

Other times, the hanging jewelry like necklaces and earrings, were used to hold me in place or cause pain when I tried to run or escape.  Bracelets became handcuffs.  Statues of my favorite animals were used to cause bruises or broken in front of me as punishment.

As I got older, I kept these personal symbols in my mind.  My alters used the memories to comfort them and me at night or when we dissociated.  It wasn’t until I separated from my family that I started to wear and display my personal symbols of comfort and safety and hope outside of my mind.

Then and Now

Sometimes the past is so strong and intrusive that seemingly obvious grounding options are invisible until someone from the outside suggests it again.  This came in the form of a question from someone in a personal style private Facebook group.  We were discussing types of fabrics and textures – how they made us feel and why we chose to wear or not wear them – when she asked me if I considered “playing with jewelry” to help with anxiety.

It was something I hadn’t thought about in a long time.  The reasons why I chose not to wear jewelry came in bits and pieces throughout the year.  Thanks to this group and the style challenges that introduced me to them, I started wearing jewelry again this year.

And the feel of metal in my ears or bracelets on my wrist is grounding because wearing them now means I am safe to express myself.  My parts and I all worked together to make us safe.  And wearing fun jewelry, playing with rings on fingers, etc. is another symbol of personal power that comes in a variety of colors, textures, sizes, and shapes.

Conclusion

Personal symbols of power offer many paths for successful grounding techniques, coping strategies and self care plans inside and outside of the house.  I am grateful to be rediscovering ones that I had discarded as “not safe” or “out of my league”.  The objects and textures can be expensive or cheap; stuff already in your house or things you buy; found pieces or gifts with special meaning attached.  The safer I feel, the more I am compelled to move forward with my plans and goals with confidence.

What are your personal symbols of power?  How do you keep them in your life?  Would you use them for grounding as a coping strategy?  How?  I hope you find some and keep them close.

 

Alter Post: Small Successes Add Up

It’s fall in the United States.  Except for the South and desert areas, this means cold weather, lots of wind, and having to winterize living spaces.

Last year we all moved into a new apartment with big bay windows and skylights (third floor under the roof) that provided amazing views with lots of sun.  The bad news was that it also made the apartment super cold and drafty.  For the first time, we put up plastic window covers all by ourselves.  It was so scary, that we messed up pretty bad and had to redo them a couple times.  Two windows, by the way, were 5′ wide by 4,.5′ long (5.5 including space for the sill).  The third window was about 3.5′ wide and just as long.  They are also placed about 3 feet above the floor so we had to use a ladder and a travel blow drier to do this.

But I did it.  So did everyone else who participated.  And we learned what not to do for next year.  The skylights are more problematic because they are set in.  Our solution – diy blackout or thermal curtains.  It works so far for lower ones in the bedroom.  If the living room gets too cold, and our heating bill goes up again, a team of us will cut/sew/attach the sheer thermal curtains to those too.  Not that anyone is looking forward to it – putting those up requires our body to be standing close to the top of a 6′ ladder the whole time – because some are afraid of heights.  And sewing is a major trigger for the child/adolescent parts.

But we got the first part of winterizing finished today.  The first window we did was the bedroom one.  Thought it worked well.  But a week later, part of it fell off.  Had to stick it back on, find the hole, and repair a hole side and corner.  But it’s working now.  Yesterday, we tried a different process and ended up shrinking a side too much; it left a 6 inch gap that had to be fixed with extra tape and plastic.  Took so long, we had to stop and get a snack even though the instructions say not to.  And it was frustrating and tiring; 3 hours holding a travel blow drier and shrinking wrapping plastic around a window is not fun.  So after we finished, we fell asleep.  Instead of waking up unhappy and upset, we woke up feeling good and hungry.

No one planned to work on the third window today.  We had other things to do like cooking, laundry and preparing for work.  But as the day passed, we realized that the window had to get finished today if we wanted to keep the electricity bill down.  The last two successes had our confidence up.  And we remembered to eat big before starting.  And kept a drink nearby too.  We started in a different direction and knew what to look for to prevent problems before they appeared.  That meant, everything except one area went as planned.  Yay!  And even that section did not cause triggers or anxiety or frustration this time.

Lessons we learned:

  1. Do one window a day or a week
  2. Eat first.  And keep a drink handy
  3. Start and finish in daylight if possible
  4. Take our time and check for gaps as we shrink the plastic
  5. Keep extra plastic and tape around to plug the holes
  6. Take a break if you need it
  7. Then go back and fix the rest of the loose parts
  8. Nothing is perfect.  Expect to make repairs

Conclusion: small successes build on each other.  Each success adds to the feelings of competence and confidence.

Doing this last window felt so good, other alters were able to fix the blackout curtains in the bedroom to keep more heat in and get the room to stay darker too.  And so the first part of apartment winterizing is finished.

A Life Changing Moment in Time: Fiction & Truth

“No, it doesn’t.  This kind of secret hurts.  It crawls inside you and eats at you.  It makes you scared, and it makes you guilty.  The ones who want it to be secret use that – the guilt, the fear, the shame.  The only way you can fight back is to tell.  Tell me who raped you.” ~ Lieutenant Eve Dallas to a murder witness from Naked in Death by J. D. Robb.

In this book, the murderer is a powerful politician who also happens to be the first victim’s grandfather and the witness’s father.  It was first published in 1996, two years before I read it and the other four books available in the series at the time.  As I think back to 1999, I realize that a lot happened to change my perspective and my future choices between 1998 and 1999.

I had my first big rebellion that year.  My closest aunt died of cancer in spring of 1999.  One week later, I took my SATs.  The nightmares got worse.  I started having intense abdominal and knee pain that made me physically ill and miss a lot of school.  The rebellion ended, and I started taking driving lessons.

Then I read that book.  And my world turned upside down.  But I did not realize it at the time.  All I knew was that the rage and grief from my aunt’s death let out monsters in my mind.  And those monsters sometimes took over and used my body to rage against the world.  It was high school, though, so everyone blamed the mood swings and lightning changes to hormones from a 16 year old.

But those words haunted me.  I tried to find someone to talk to.  But the grief counselor didn’t help much.  And the donors did not like what she was bringing out in me.  As for everyone else, they wanted to hide me until I stopped blurting out whatever was on my mind when certain topics came up – topics that had a pat response to uphold and polish the family image – and embarrassing everyone.

The one thing I do remember my aunt telling me before she died had to do with security.  She told me that I had to do well in school instead of laughing it off.  Get a job that pays well and offers benefits and security so no one can take that away from me. She didn’t, got C’s and D’s and skated her way through college and grad school.  When her divorce was final, the only thing that kept her afloat and had the judge rule custody in her favor was her professional degree and years of working before she stopped to raise her kids.  She knew, even if she never admitted it out loud, what happened to me at home.

So I switched my concentration in high school from art and biology to chemistry and pharmacy.  Not that it did much good.  But the advice came in handy when I made my escape 13 years later.