Coping Challenge: Grief and the movie “Groundhog Day”

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

*Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggers; read at your own pace*

Grief

Every February – March, I experience crushing amounts of grief about my past. People who have died. People I’ve lost in other ways. People who lost me. Experiential loss – failed achievements, shameful experiences, guilt, and so on. It almost always happened between February and March; sometimes as late as April.

For many years (decades really), I would go through the year and do what was necessary or required of me; then wake up one morning and feel like a blank slate – happy and looking forward to life instead of sad and confused. I had a routine that did not change much. But anything new or interesting that happened before the “wake-up” was lost. I would make friends and forget them. I would make plans and not follow through because I didn’t remember making the plans. And I would learn skills, but then not remember how to use them months, weeks, years, or days/hours/minutes later.

It was scary and felt shameful – another secret to keep from everyone – not something I could explain to the adults in my life. But it did earn me a reputation with my teachers and lots of time with the special education department instructors.

Odd part about this: even though my mind and cognitive memory could not remember or do the tasks, my body and muscle memory did remember and could do the tasks as long as I used “instinct” instead of logic.

Later on as an adult in trauma-informed therapy, I realized that the “instinct” was actually letting my alter personalities take control of my body to accomplish the tasks. They remembered the lessons and the practice. They could do what I could not. In school, though, my alters rarely showed themselves or got involved in day-to-day activities. They understood their place much better than I did.

The sense of loss and failure combined with teasing from peers and instructors crushed me so often that I started to avoid competitions and learning anything interesting.

What was the point if I tried and tried only to forget and fail every time?

And so my teen and college years went through this cycle every year. The ignorance of this pattern continued until 2011/2012 when I decided to try working with a dog trainer to self train a service animal to help with the PTSD. You (and I thought so too) would think it’s hard to forget all the love, care, training, and work and time spent with a puppy over 4 months, yes?

Well I did forget. I literally woke up one Saturday morning and couldn’t remember anything the pup and I worked on together. I couldn’t remember his favorite treats or games. I couldn’t remember writing a blog or notes in a notebook. I am lucky I remembered the dog and his name; at one point I might have forgotten the pup’s name too.

And as I tried to remember working with the pup, I started to realize how much other stuff I had forgotten too. Work-related tasks and achievements. Bills to pay. Plans made. Grocery shopping. Appointments. Memories with friends and acquaintances. And how something similar happened every year and often caused problems at work that I couldn’t explain, especially in the last few years working for the same company with the same people.

It was one heck of a wake up call.

p.s. The pup ended up having serious digestive problems and was re-homed to a loving family with a large back yard and the time/money to give him the life he deserved. And I learned that it’s not safe to live with beings who depend on me until I get my s**t together.

Groundhog Day – the 1992 movie with Bill Murray

Hans Haase / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) from Wikimedia Commons

Back in 1992, when I was 10 years old, there was a time travel movie called “Groundhog Day”. It was a grown up drama/comedy that I didn’t really understand or remember; not even when I re-watched one weekend as a bored teen. Still don’t understand a lot and am not interested in re-watching to get all the details.

What I do remember (and this is why it sticks in my memory) is that the main character (played by Bill Murray) had an awful day – that just happened to be Groundhog Day – and went to bed wishing he could do it all over again. So he wakes up the next day. Starts his routine. And realizes part way through he is re-living the events of Groundhog Day. Over. And over. And over again. Until the main character gets frustrated enough to reflect on what could be keeping him locked in a time loop and how to get out of it.

Eventually, the main character resolves the conflict keeping him in the time loop by making changes in his life and interactions with the people around him. How he does it and what those changes are, I don’t remember. All I do remember is feeling queasy and anxious whenever I thought about the movie. That continued until I got really frustrated a few years ago and looked up the movie on the internet. Once I read the description and watched the preview, the connection clicked.

I finally had words to describe what I was feeling and going through to my counselor. And something concrete to use as an analogy for the counselor. And for me too. Some of my best coping strategies come from reading books and watching movies. Being 2013/2014 when I finally looked up the movie and shared it with the counselor, we had been working for about 3-4 years by then. She had observed this happening every year and waited for me to bring it up. Once I did, we began working together to create plans and strategies to manage this recurring event.

Hope Arrives in 2019; continues in 2020

2019 was the first year I did not wake up sometime between February and April with significant memory loss or some other manifestation of grief that left me injured, impaired, or triggered in some way. I experienced the grief and felt the depression that wasn’t really depression. Expressing it safely was not as easy, but no one got hurt either. I didn’t lose weight. My physical and emotional health stayed relatively stable.

Instead, my body memories erupted as a rash that lasted months. When not experiencing the rash, other parts of me stopped feeling numb. I looked fatter from bloating and puffiness around certain muscle groups, but did not gain weight from it. Pain increased. Energy and the need to move did too. Luckily, my current counselor, Chinese medicine practitioners, and primary health physician were/are aware of these changes and helped me cope.

Having my parents and other relatives back in my life and being supportive helped too. That continues to help in many different ways.

Now, in March 2020, I recognized the signs of grief when they started last weekend and have been doing my best to cope with them. So far the only major crisis was exploding the plastic lotion bottles when I tried to get soap (made myself and poured in) out of them multiple times in the week. That resulted in having to clean and rinse the pumps; then put them back together and onto the lotion bottles. Funny – yes. The next part, not so much.

Water got stuck in the pump parts and contaminated the soap blends I made. And since I made them with soap, essential oils, and aloe vera gel (a water-based carrier), mold and fungus grew at the bottom of both containers after 5 days. Yes 2 containers because I made a hand soap and a shower gel. So, after examining the bottoms of each container a few days ago and seeing the white strands floating up from the bottom, I dumped out the soap; rinsed the containers too.

Now, they are waiting to be recycled because I don’t trust myself using the containers again. Not after I caused the pumps to pop off and the pieces to come apart after trying to pump soap through the mechanism multiple times.

If that pump exploding experience is the worst that happens this year, I will be so grateful. If not, well, I’m trying not to fall into anticipation and catastrophic thinking. Not easy, mind you. But I’m trying. And succeeding sometimes.

Thanks for reading.

Anniversaries: Grateful Thanksgiving

Child to mid-twenties

Thanksgiving used to be celebrated 3x every year over the course of 2-3 days: once at my parents’ home with certain family members; once with my father’s side of the family; once with my mother’s side of the family.  There were tables full of food; children, teens, and adults everywhere; noise levels similar to stadium concerts (at least from my perspective) with so many people and televisions on loud; and secrets.  So many secrets and people sneaking off for minutes or hours at a time.

By the time I was in college, Thanksgiving was celebrated 2x every year with less and less family/friends and lots of tension.  Most of us were grown and had other places to be.  The next generation of children were second or third cousins removed on my mother’s side, and I was disconnected to them.  On my father’s side, people cooked while others watched tv or read books (me) and ignored or were ignored by everyone else.  Then my younger cousins and brother scattered to be with their friends while my parents kept me isolated and ignored.

You may be wondering why or how they managed that.  Part of it was me – I isolated myself and chose not to make friends or trust people at that time.  Part of it was them limiting access to my car – they always blocked me in and parked their cars in front of the driveway so I’d have to move their cars to get out.  And I did not want to drive their cars.  Asking them to move the cars was like banging my head against a brick wall.

Mid-twenties to early thirties

Then I walked away from my family.

Holidays became something different.

For the first time in my life, I could celebrate any way I wanted.  I could sleep through the day.  I could be alone.  I could cook or not cook.  I could decorate or not decorate.

Bottom line: I had choices.
And for a long time, I chose not to celebrate.  Instead, I let my alters out to play on those days.  Together, we worked through the scary memories, anxiety, anger, shame, and negative experiences associated with those anniversaries.  We stayed inside; read books; watched movies; slept; and took care of ourselves.

Thanksgiving 2017

My favorite foods of Thanksgiving:
Gravy
Stuffing
Butternut Squash or Yams

After everything that happened over the last few weeks, buying pre-made food to reheat made more sense than cooking from scratch.  Cooking from scratch triggered memories, but re-heating didn’t.

Text messages kept me in touch with close friends and family while keeping me safe from the toxic people.

Instead of sleeping through the day, I put together part of my sofa.  By part, I mean the sofa is in use, but the sectional and sleeper parts still need to be put together.  By the time I finished the main sofa and realized the rest had to wait, my muscles were saying “we’re done.  No more please.”   But the rest of me felt happy and accomplished.

So happy, in fact, that we slept on the sofa that night.  It’s surprisingly comfortable.  In spite of the muscle discomfort and stress from the upstairs neighbor’s musicals, putting together the sofa brought out feelings of accomplishment, joy, and contentment – aka endorphins.   Not even phone calls with my family and flashbacks could get me down.

Gratitude

Maybe it’s petty of me, but I also felt grateful that having a secondary place to sleep pissed off my upstairs neighbor.  She couldn’t disturb my sleep because I wasn’t using my bed.  Therefore, her musical of dropping stuff on the floor above my head didn’t work.  It was the first night in a while that I managed to sleep undisturbed and wake up on my own time.

But then I was also grateful her musical dropping of stuff on the floor woke me up the next day.  It was early enough that I had time to call Ikea, get my replacement parts for the sofa sectional, then go out to visit friends and see a movie.  It was Black Friday, and I was afraid that going to a mall would make things worse.  Instead, it was cathartic.  I felt calm, relaxed, and grounded inside myself.  The movie was good too, but I’m still not a Thor fan.  And I really need to put together a magic bag for crowded movie  theaters.

The musicals still occur just after I settle for bed and randomly throughout the day, but the sleep headphones and a favorite playlist make it all tolerable.

Mostly, I am grateful to have enjoyed Thanksgiving awake and grounded in the present instead of dissociated, hyper-vigilant, and upset.

Conclusion

I am still a solitary person who prefers alone time instead of crowds.  After so many years of being alone and/or lonely in a crowd of people, celebrating alone without any obligations feels good.  Maybe someday the other people in my life will understand that being physically alone does not equal being unconnected to my loved ones.

Relationships, connections, and interactions come in many forms.   And my heart, my mind, my spirit is always open to them even if my physical self shuns sharing space with others.  I keep all of these people and places in my heart and my mind during the holidays, so they are always with me.

Thanksgiving and similar holidays used to anger me, all parts of me.  I could honestly say that I hated the holidays and mean it.  But that hate gradually changed as different parts of me opened up to the rest of us.  We shared our pain, our grief, our fear, and our shame.  Then we learned how to cope with those feelings and associated memories with lots of help and support from outside people.

So thank you guests, family of choice, mental health providers past & present, family of blood, and other providers past & present who’ve helped me get to a place where holidays are fun instead of stressful.

Thanks for reading.

Back to Basics: Reflections Weekend

Not much to write in this post.

I’ve been going slow this weekend.  The pain is intense, and being kind to myself is most important right now.

A lot of times, I can sleep or rest and reflect – that allows everyone in the system to share and help each other safely – but other times I need to move.

This weekend was a “move” weekend in spite of the intense back pain (body memories) and associated grief – more on that in another post.  Plus I had to start packing for my trip and my move.

So I turned cleaning, de-cluttering, and packing into reflective moving meditation exercises.  And got more than I expected accomplished.

Then I took today to clean my kitchen (dread….) and organize my place for a showing.

Finally, I took a nap.

Now I can relax knowing this post is finished – all my obligations met – and I’m prepared to continue working and packing during the week.

Thanks for reading.

Coping Challenge: Holidays, Friendship, Family, Death

Bad news is supposed to happen in 3s

First someone I am close to gets sick and is in the hospital around Thanksgiving.  Obviously bad news.

Second I make contact with family members who might or might not be safe.  Not sure if this is considered bad news.

Last Thursday I found out that a friend/mentor/co-worker I’ve known for about 10 years died.  He had cancer and fought bravely for quite a few years.  Obviously bad news.

Holidays bring memories and mixed feelings

My anxiety is much worse than normal.  I’m remembering events and activities that happened around the holidays (at parties and events, at home, at church/synagogue, at school) that were buried for decades.

My body is healing and starting to look like it’s meant to look.  This is causing feelings of negative body image, self-consciousness, and fear.

I sent out holiday cards and have received some.  Two cousins sent a gift that made me feel so happy that I got scared.  I bought groceries to cook in the community kitchen; want to feel good and cook something.

Coping Challenges

Grief – brings out tears and feelings of sadness that trigger past feelings and similar situations.  I felt numb; then started crying.  But while I felt numb, I couldn’t stop sneezing.

Negative body feelings – I am so tired.  I am getting cravings to eat and drink stuff that makes me feel kind of sick and can’t avoid all of them.  My body alternately feels good and in pain.  And I am having trouble accepting my “real” body shape.

Hope – that maybe this year I won’t sleep through Christmas

Fear – that I probably will do that

Self-Care – because I am falling behind on some chores and goals with being so tired and sleeping a lot.

Strategy or Strategies?

Gratitude – because I feel so grateful for the typical and also unexpected blessings that have come my way this season

Allowing my feelings to flow through me – express, acknowledge, accept, let go of what I feel so they don’t get stuck inside and cause problems (I hope)

Present-focused attitude – to help me stay grounded and focused on my current tasks

Self-Care – because everyone deserves to be safe and healthy

Starting small – small chunks are easier to finish than large bites.  And small accomplishments add up with less frustration

So how are you going to prepare for the holidays?

Thanks for reading…