Life Changing Moments: Family Time

Another mobile post…please excuse the poor formatting.

I don’t write a lot of detail about my current family situation often out of respect for their privacy.  Some posts will contain coping challenges in general terms or about past experiences.  But often the tone and feelings are mixed.

This post comes from the perspective of being safe and loved by my father’s side of the family.

For the last ten days, I have spent a lot of time with my father’s side of the family.  Grandmother (100+), 3 aunts (seniors), and one uncle (senior) – they welcomed me into their lives, let me stay with them, spoiled me, and showed me through actions that I am safe and loved here.  In return, I tried to be a polite and respectful house guest and show them the same love.

I am not going to lie.  The adjustment was rough on all of us. It still is.  Most of their time is spent taking care of grandma; it’s stressful and difficult sometimes.   Whatever time is left, each one lives her or his own life too.

My biggest fears sort of came true. But others did not.  We walked on eggshells around each other and tried to be sensitive to the point of frustrating each other sometimes.  Other times, we fell back into old patterns without even realizing it.

Then something amazing happened.  Instead of holding grudges or getting angry, we were able to move past it and forgive or let go of the negativity.  When I got stressed and anxious into a flashback, they would help me calm down.  When one of them felt a certain way, I tried to help them.

And they all tried to get along with each other for my sake.  Something I greatly appreciate because of the strain it takes on all of them.  For my part, I tried to spend quality time with each relative one-on-one or in groups in the way that suited us both best.

In the past, we all wore masks and stayed “on” around each other.  This time, we acted like ourselves.  And got along better that way.

Communication is still iffy sometimes.  I tend to be more direct and open about my feelings. They are not.  Certain things can be said one-on-one, but are taboo in front of each other.  I screw that up a lot.

The most important part of this family visit was spending quality time with my grandma.  At 101, our time together is limited.  Instead of talking or going places, I sat with her and my relatives in her living room and occupied myself with activities while she watched game shows or slept.  Sometimes I talked with my relatives.  Mostly we did our own thing, and I tried to stay out of their way when they took care of grandma.

So while we struggle sometimes, we are doing okay.  My love of silence and solitude come naturally.  Best quiet times are when we sit together in the same room doing our own thing.  Sometimes we talk; sometimes we don’t.  Best active times are when I walked & shopped with different aunts.  Or when an aunt taught me how to hem my pants.

So I love my family.  And now I know that I am safe with them too.  So I will come back to visit when possible.  But I will not be staying with them.  Seeing me when I have to use certain coping strategies hurts them.  And they are not in a place where I can explain what they observe happening.

They accept all of it 100%, but seeing me like that reminds them what their brother/son did to me.  And their best coping strategies are denial and silence.  So it’s better to limit time with them next visit.  At least until we all can come to a place where talking about that stuff doesn’t stress them out.

thanks for reading.

Life Changing Moments: Remembering can be empowering

Have you ever been triggered so badly that the feelings overwhelmed and broke through internal barriers?

That happened about 2 weeks ago.  

I lay down to sleep one night and flashed back to 1998.  The flashback lasted for hours.  It covered many years between 1998 and 2012.

And each memory was of a fight – a physical fight between my younger self and one or more other people.  Then I started to remember names and places.  And suddenly even living on the other side of the country didn’t feel safe.  I felt scared and out of control.

The experiences got distorted by feelings and body pain.  What feelings?  What pain?

The feelings: anger, shame, fear, confusion, grief

The pain: head, face, neck, abdomen, low back, hips

I felt so angry for days.  It built and built inside me.  Nothing I tried, nothing my alters tried, none of the typical and atypical strategies helped.  So I followed the plan my counselor and I put together in session.  I called the hotline first.  Then texted her with updates.  She called me; we talked.

The goal: focus on feelings first; then process the memories & thoughts.

One week ago:

The memories came back as dreams and nightmares.  I probably annoyed my neighbors by talking in my sleep and yelling/screaming/thumping the walls – explains why I avoid them right now.  It’s why I prefer not to have close neighbors, but that’s impossible in this apartment.

I started to realize the anger combined with body pain (treatments have been working to address chronic sinus, digestion, etc. issues) opened up a gate for the memories to get through.  The physical pain got worse and kind of triggering.  I kept getting confused about past and present.

But I also had to go out and take care of errands.  It helped that people I’m friendly with were on the route.

The feelings: numb, hurt, sad, shame, confusion, then numb again

The body pain: moved from head to back to abdomen to private areas to back again

The goal: get through one more week while counselor is away

This week:

My counselor is back; we had our session on Saturday.  Easter was Sunday.  The numbness wore off, and I realized that the back pain was masking something else.  My body was experiencing mild versions of panic attack symptoms.  The nausea was back.  And I lost my appetite between Thursday and Sunday.

The feelings: relief, happiness, empowered, anger, shame, grief

The body pain: sinuses, eyes, ears, scalp, back of the head, neck.

The goal: minimize the face pain, cope with the body memories around my legs/hips/abdomen, accept and embrace the inner monster that is not a monster.

What is the empowering part?

My inner monster is not a monster.

She is the part of me trained in martial arts and other forms of hand-to-hand combat, knife fighting, etc.

He is the part of me who learned acrobatics and submissions in order to take down grown people high or drunk or better armed and much stronger with an adolescent girl’s body.

They are the plant parts who processed the drugs and alcohol so fast through a child’s and adolescent’s body that she got sick instead of addicted.

They are my alter personalities – the parts of me who kept the secrets; learned how to read people; taught themselves to lie; pretended to be a fly on the wall; created vaults for the secret life experiences to hide in; protected classmates, cousins, and others close in age from being sucked in; and used physical force to protect the self from monsters and bullies.

Conclusion

Before these memories came back, I thought I was an out-of-control monster who physically hurt others for no reason.  I thought my temper and rage took over and were unjustified.  And I backed away from everyone – to the point of avoiding all physical contact with living beings – so ensure my safety and the safety of everyone around me.

Now, I know that I’m not a monster.  That those fragmented nightmare/dream stories of me fighting gang members, women, men, teen bullies, my sibling, my parents, and so many others were real.  That all of those seeming impossible take downs, submissions, and movie-like fight scenes in my head really did happen.  We did that with our body up until the year before moving.

And then those parts of me faded back inside to safety bringing the memories with them and leaving me feeling out of control again.

Now, I hope these parts will continue to share those memories and realize they are accepted, respected, cherished members of our system.  They belong in the present with the rest of us.  They deserve to heal and make choices with us and feel proud of their accomplishments too.  Most important, I hope they stop feeling ashamed of the things they said and did to protect and help everyone survive.

With their permission, I will be sharing more about self-defense, martial arts, and fighting for protection as healthy forms of exercise, self-esteem building, etc.

Thanks for reading

Life Changing Moments: When Emotional Self-Harm stops working…

Introduction

This past month has been busy with a lot of changes.  When not writing a post, working, or going to necessary appointments, I’ve been sleeping and trying to practice self care.

Coping Strategies

Thankfully, where I live offers grocery delivery service and food delivery options.  This kept me fed no matter how tired I felt.  But every once in a while I did try to go out and walk.  I did try to talk with friends and acquaintances.  Or at least act friendly when we ran into each other; this includes dogs and other friendly animals.  I also tried to do some cleaning and trash removal.

The Trigger

But I also felt some shame about not keeping in touch, especially with people and dogs in my building.  That shame mixed with my usual March depression created this compulsion to put myself in an emotionally compromising situation yesterday.  It was the first day in a couple of weeks where I felt good in the morning, dressed in a cute outfit for myself, and was focused on enjoying the day instead of the discomfort from feeling sick.

I don’t know what possessed me to do this (maybe missing my neighbor’s dog?), but I opened the door when I heard my neighbor’s dog bark.  His bark is distinctive, but I wasn’t sure if I missed him or not.  Well, I didn’t miss him.  We spent some quality time cuddling together, and then I brought him back to his human.

And this is where the emotional self-harm kicks in.  

 

Upon seeing her again, (I brought the dog downstairs to her while she was chatting with a potential renter) I suddenly felt the need to apologize for not being in touch over the last few weeks.  My mind got cloudy, and I started to feel really far away (desensitization) even though we stood less than 3 feet apart.  I didn’t want to say a lot or stay long, so I apologized and told her I’d been busy; she replied by saying we should catch up some time.  I agreed, then left.

Then I went upstairs and wrote her an email.  In the email I was more honest and explained in more detail what happened the past few weeks.  Who would want to be around people when they feel sick?

Then I sent the email, not expecting a response.

And I didn’t get one.  I won’t get one.

But I also didn’t feel upset or ashamed of myself for not getting a response.  I didn’t feel good or bad about myself.  The negative self talk did not arrive.  The trigger is still there.  The past memories and experiences tried and continue to try to shame me by bringing up memories of high school and college that used to unleash floods of shame and embarrassment.

Instead, the anxiety I feel now is because the expected response to this unsafe situation I put myself in did not occur.

As both my therapists would say: this is a sign of significant internal change.  And the anxiety over the different response – normal.

How did I cope?

  • I watched some episodes of Glee on Netflix and got in touch with the preteen and teen parts who were feeling the grief and shame.
  • Then I packed and put the accumulated recycling in the outdoor bins.
  • Before I treated myself with an amazing chocolate dessert, I brought the return packages to the mailbox.

Conclusion

My mind tried to trick me into feeling awful with past memories.  It used someone I consider a friend, but feel wary around now because of some semi-recent experiences that were part projection (triggers) and part reality.

I had not consciously put myself in an emotionally unsafe situation in over a year before now.  For two years, I was careful and chose to avoid people who seemed emotionally unsafe – i.e. they reminded me of my parents or others from the past with their words and actions.

And now I realize that I really have changed.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Thanks for reading.

Life Changing Moments: Emotional/Physical Disconnect Part 2

Late with this post…life got in the way

CONSEQUENCES

Negative

Some people think I am lying when I tell the truth about my past.  They think I don’t have feelings or am snobbish because of my lack of physical expressions.  My words and actions get misinterpreted often – flirting or friendly? happy or sad or angry or frustrated? – because people don’t have any visual cues to help them understand.

Some people think I am easy to take advantage of because I smile even when I’m upset or angry or confused.  They blame me for being weird and different; use it as an excuse for being manipulative or mean.  If my facial expression and body language are accepting and open to whatever they’re saying, they can turn around my words to make it seem like the disagreement is my fault.  I’d believe that in the past, before I learned about facial expressions and body language as part of communication.

My social anxiety for is often mistaken for a lack of confidence and treat me accordingly.  I am never sure how I come across to other people because I know about my lack of facial and body language cues.  That makes me feel anxious and afraid to connect with people.  And it causes me to ask questions about facial expressions and body language for clarification.  Questions that make other people uncomfortable and feel like they have permission to lash out at me or treat me with condescension since I don’t understand such basic human skills.

Past experiences taught me that there isn’t a difference between lies and truth.  Either way, I am a bad person and everything bad that happens to me is deserved.  Everything bad that happens to my family or friends is my fault.  Lies won’t help.  Truth doesn’t work either.  Only the people in control, the ones with power, are good and acceptable.

Connecting with others is difficult because of my honesty, respect, and open communication policy.  I can still be polite about it, but I refuse to accept, respect, or tell lies unless absolutely necessary.  And I have a difficult time not stepping in to defend people when I see others being mean just because.  Spending my time around negativity and meanness is not fun, so why bother?

Positive

I learned how to spot lies from a young age.  Even if I don’t say anything right away, I know when people lie to me.  And when people lie to me, I have two options: 1) call them out on the lie; and 2) let them think I am really that stupid and gullible to believe the lie.  Option 1 gets used with people I care about because I want to build a relationship with them based on respect, open communication, honesty, and acceptance.

Option 2 gets used on people I don’t trust or care much about.  Often these are people I let into my life because of triggers or self-harm type punishments because these people treat me the way my parents and perpetrators did.  Every once in a while, I will catch them in a lie and point it out to them just as a reminder that I know what they are up to.  This is usually my first step in breaking off a friendship.

I learned how to tell and value the truth to compensate for lack of physical expressions.  In school, I heard the phrase “honesty is the best policy” a lot.  In real life, I learned “lying is the best policy” from both parents and the perpetrators.  Lots of kids lied and got caught in school.  Some got punished; others didn’t.  I didn’t often get caught or get punished for lying because the teachers couldn’t read me.  But I watched how the known liars got treated vs. how the truth tellers got treated.  Liars were not trusted or respected.  Truth tellers were.

I learned that lying is neutral.  The person telling the lie and the consequences of the lie make it good or bad.  I lied to survive my childhood and adolescence.  As often as I lied, I also told the truth to the people who mattered.  And I refused to cheat on homework or exams even if  that meant I failed and had to repeat something.  Earning the trust of my teachers felt good even if that had disastrous social consequences with my peers – i.e. suck up, teacher’s pet, nerd, etc.

I learned that sometimes shame comes from hiding secrets and telling lies.  Being honest to myself and others about my feelings, thoughts, and behaviors helps me let go of some shame.  I can put past experiences and events into perspective.  Perspective has a way of revealing the holes in a liar’s story, including the lies I used to tell myself.

Finally, I learned not to feel ashamed of myself for not reacting to feelings like most people do.  And learning the lesson is not the same as consistently applying it.  That part I still struggle with.  But I am lucky enough to have a support network to help out.  And when my friends or support network reaches out to me, I do the same for them.  Support.  Respect.  Acceptance.  It all goes both ways.

Thanks for reading.

Life Changing Moments: Emotional/Physical Disconnect Part 1

LYING

I am an excellent liar.  I can freeze my body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions in neutral  or gullible obliviousness.  People lying to me think I believe them.  People listening to me believe what I’m telling them.  The usual “clues” do not apply when I decide to start lying.  I can project any emotion and feeling on my physical self when I feel nothing, something different, or the opposite emotion internally. But people looking at me believe what they see.

EMOTIONAL/PHYSICAL DISCONNECT

On the other hand, I can’t match genuine feelings with their appropriate physical expressions.  My facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice do not betray my real feelings unless I consciously work hard to portray the correct expressions.   That leaves many people skeptical of when I reveal truths about my background – I can/have/do talk about trauma with an expression and tone of voice matching someone conversing about the weather.

Moderating the intensity of my tone is also difficult.  In spite of acute and sensitive hearing, I have a hard time discerning when my voice rises/lowers and so on.  As my emotional state increases, my sensitivity to such changes decreases.  And my facial expressions change like a movie on fast forward.  People who see me in a state of high anxiety or a panic attack back off fast because I appear crazy in that context.

WHY?

As a child, I learned how to project whatever feelings/emotions/thoughts would keep me from getting abused.  It was survival.  It was necessary.  It taught me how not to have feelings.  Expressing joy got me punished.  Expressing anger got me a beating or inappropriate touching as punishment.  Expressing fear, sadness, anxiety, or worry got me the silent treatment.  Talking out of turn (i.e. telling the truth of what happened or anything different from my parent’s version of the truth) got me accused of lying, exaggerating, causing problems, etc.

So I denied having feelings.  I buried them deep and forgot about them.  But I had random explosions of tears and rage growing up.  There were temper tantrums.  There was fighting back.  There were instances of “rebellion”.  There were times my mind clouded, and I disappeared.  When I came back to myself, everyone was mad at me.  Hurt feelings, I was accused of being mean and exploding with anger for no reason.  And everyone from my parents to my younger brother to my so called friends used this to shame me, manipulate me, take advantage of e, and set me up as a “crazy, unstable, lying” person to the rest of my community.

No one wanted to be friends with a rude, annoying, crazy, raging, unstable, liar who otherwise had no personality.

This was my life for 27 years.  I did not have a personality, was not an interesting person, was looked down upon by everyone around me.  I did not have feelings except for facsimiles to appease other people.  Problems like this made developing friendships difficult.  It made getting jobs and keeping jobs hard too.  At least in my community or any community where my classmates and family had connections.  All of which I was interested in working at the time – healthcare, non-profits, colleges, newspapers, magazines, and other jobs related of my degree.

MOMENT OF TRUTH

Not until I started my first “real” job in an office that valued my skills and opinions did I realize there was something “wrong” with my responses to other people.  I had just started therapy with my second counselor and was feeling very stressed out about all of the changes over the past few months: new job, new apartment, new neighbors, new commute, leaving school, new doctors, new therapist.

She helped me for 3 years; we worked on my anorexia, anxiety, low self-esteem, and OCD.  When the trauma issues started taking over, I had an emotional breakdown.  Crying, nausea, pain, sleeplessness…you name it, I experienced it all in a flood.  It was like everything I held in for 27 years came flooding out in 2 days.  Only, I didn’t know these were feelings.  Or that I was physically reacting to all of these feelings.

She sent me for a crisis evaluation.  When we first started, the therapist told me outright that she did not work with trauma.  I told her that was okay because the trauma was not the main problem  then.  My anorexia and anxiety disorders (according to the previous people) were.  As soon as she realized the trauma had taken over our sessions, she sent e for additional help and slowly transitioned me to another therapist.

During the transition, I went for my first partial in-patient program.  There, I learned about what feelings were, that I had feelings, and that the physical/mental problems I had were because of those feelings.  After about 6 weeks there, I was in a much better place with a rudimentary understanding of feelings, aka emotions, and how they made my symptoms worse when allowed to take over and control me.

DBT (Dialiectical Behavioral Therapy) taught me how to recognize, control, and balance my feelings so that I could make choices about how to handle situations instead of just reacting to them.  CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) taught me how to follow the trails left behind by my feelings to understand triggers that led to thoughts and behaviors.  Grounding taught me how to come back to the present when feelings overwhelmed my senses.

But none of this really taught me how to get my face, voice, and body to align with my actual feelings or thoughts.

Or how to manage the pain that continually discourages me from trying to integrate my mental/emotional self and physical self so that the feelings and expressions/body language match.

As for the lying…the only time I purposely lie is for survival.  Any other time, I am scrupulously honest.

Thanks for reading.