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.

Life Quirks: Coping Challenges, Confusion, and Check-ins

*Trigger Warning – all opinions and information shared here are mine and mine alone; will be discussing certain topics in detail…read at your pace*

*Caveat 1 – This is a journal-entry style post so it looks like a first draft with errors, etc. *

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

Coping Challenges – Self Harm.

Last week, I posted about self-harm and how it happens less often, but is still prominent in my life in spite of 15 years in recovery. Then I shared links related to past posts about this topic. It seemed like a better option and re-inventing the wheel with background, followed by (maybe) repeating myself again.

What is new or changed enough to make me re-visit this challenge?

For every positive feeling, success, or accomplishment in my life, I experience backlash.
Backlash is the need to punish oneself for positive feelings, thoughts, or actions because the individual feels undeserving of joy in her or his life. For me, the backlash is always triggered by feelings and thoughts of shame – shame reminds me how undeserving and unworthy I am to be alive, let alone thriving and happy – underscored by past lessons learned at the hands of my abusers.

Now, in the present time, I find myself experiencing triggers and flashbacks from 20 and 30 years ago. Sensations in my body connect to emotions I can’t identify, but scare me because I have not experienced them without dissociation or worse before. My existing coping strategies take the edge off the worst impulses, but the thoughts and memories about how self-harm works really well to make those sensations go away are insidious. They quietly burrow into my mind, from subconscious to conscious, as intrusive thoughts I can’t hear until after I’ve said or done something out of character with who I am now.

That is what I realized two weeks ago. And why I wrote the post last week. The percent of success-to-backlash is till high (80-90% success to 20-10% backlash for each experience). But ideas and thoughts about self-harm coping strategies occupy a lot of that 10-20%.

Our current goal: figure out strategies that discourage self-harm and can be substituted for self-harm behaviors that will work in the present.

Coping Challenges – My Gifts (empath)

Last week, I wrote more about my gifts. I even gave myself a label “empath” and described what energy and emotions (others and mine) feel like to me. For about 15 years, I hid, rejected, and denied my empathic abilities. And maybe I would have continued to do that if something inside me hadn’t broken in my late 20s. That break allowed me to start experiencing my own feelings/emotions/energy, not just other peoples’ feelings, etc. in my physical body and emotional mind. Spirituality wasn’t a big part of my life back then, so no mention here.

Why is this a coping challenge then?

First, I don’t know anything about being an empath and am still looking for mentors and reliable resources to teach me about the unique combination of gifts that make me an empath.

Second, many of the current flashbacks and triggers I am experiencing (yes the ones related to self-harm) have to to with my empathic gifts and how they were used by my owner and other abusers to hurt other people. Maybe, if I can learn more about my gifts and how to embrace them, the triggers and anxiety-related symptoms will ease up enough for me to take a breath…or two…without fear.

Finally, there is a connection between my body memories and empathic gifts. As acupuncture and TCM help reduce and relieve the pain, my body memories become regular memories connected to my mind and emotions. The charge of pain/fear/guilt/shame/responsibility goes away, and it shows. The strange puffiness around the back of my head and ears, the “fat” around my back and abdomen, the rashes on my skin are all going away as the body memories leave.

Confusion

As with most types of self-learning or self-study, I feel confused right now. My mind is full of facts, opinions, and information from books and sessions with medical professionals, audio webinars about highly sensitive people/intutives/empaths, and videos about shame (Brene Brown on Netflix). Nothing makes sense or seems to relate to one another.

And yet I can’t stop learning more, asking questions, and trying to connect the dots between the (maybe) random sources.

The worst part? Confusion turns the rest of my mind into a maze. I get stuck in the maze and cannot find my way to my goal: the tool box(es) full of coping techniques and strategies we (all 88 alters) have put together for situations like this.

Lucky for me, my alters also created emergency kits and scattered them throughout the maze. Each emergency kit has 3-5 coping strategies and techniques designed to help me (or us) out of the maze.

Check-Ins

The main coping strategy in my emergency kit.

I find that talking to someone who understands my situation (in relative terms) and works with me in a compassionate and accepting way to work through the confusion in my mind helps a lot.

First choice is always my mental health counselor. But that individual is not always available. Nor do I want to rely only on a counselor. That is not healthy for either of us.

Second choice is a crisis hotline or text line. There are many options out there with volunteers dedicated to helping people in crisis. I’ve tried a few different hotlines and always come back to BARCC’s 24 hour rape crisis hotline. I’ve been using BARCC’s services on an off for more than 15 years and always have good experiences with them.

Third choice is to talk to myself out loud or try to journal about what is creating the maze. This has a 50/50 chance of working. The other 50% of the time? I get triggered into angry feelings and thoughts.

Last resort choice is to talk to a friend or family member or loved one. Why last resort? This often has an 80% failure rate for me. I end up comforting and soothing and helping the person I’m talking to cope with what I shared. Or I get angry, frustrated, and upset because the person I’m talking to is not able or prepared to help me in this situation.

No blame or shame on them or me. Many people try to solve my problem for me or tell me to stop thinking about it or think positive thoughts to make the situation go away. Because it’s over and in the past right? Or (worse) these people deny my feelings, get triggered on their own, and try to blame/shame/guilt me into recanting my story – aka say I lied.

But when it works that 20% of the time, boy does it work well. The individual and I deepen our positive relationship by being authentic, respectful, supportive, and caring with each other and ourselves. The call ends with both of us feeling better.

Thanks for reading.

Anniversaries: Happy Birthday family and relatives

Today is my brother’s birthday.  Yesterday was a blood relative’s birthday.  Over the weekend was another relative’s birthday.  This weekend is Mother’s day.  Next week is two more family birthdays.

The memories are strong this week.  So are the physical symptoms that come with my PTSD.  Strange how my alters and I experience our physical changes both together and separately.

Yesterday, I realized that crying makes me sneeze and look like I’m having an allergy attack.  My nose drips constantly, and I’m always sneezing or cleaning up.  My eyes get red and itch, but hardly any tears come out.  The headaches and muscle aches get worse.  It makes me feel sick to my stomach and scared because I don’t know how to make it stop.

And that happens because my alters are crying, not me.  And they weren’t allowed to cry as children or teens.  But they were allowed to sneeze and look like they had allergy attacks.  So I sneezed and so on all day yesterday and a few times earlier in the week.

It’s been so long since I truly cried that I forgot the physical sensations associated with crying – pressure around my nose and eyes, drippy noes, red/swollen eyes, feeling clogged up, having to mouth breathe, and constant sneezing – since I obviously am not lady-like when I cry.  And neither are my alters.

But why the tears?  My therapist and I are working on ways to express anger and other feelings in healthy ways.  And people often tell me that crying can relieve pressure/tension and have many different meanings.  Tears are not weakness either.  So maybe everyone needed an outlet and couldn’t think of anything else to express all of the anger, fear, shame, hurt, guilt, and sadness of the memories.

Either way, the tears opened up a path for my alters to finally confront the worst memories and feelings that tear us up during the month of May.

I thought they all had to do with my parents, my brother, my relatives and how they treated me.  But it’s more than that:

  • Senior prom/prom queen nomination
    • I didn’t want to go, didn’t understand why my mother and brother forced me to go, didn’t understand why suddenly so many classmates who tolerated and ignored me now hated me, until yesterday.  Why was I nominated for prom queen?  I wasn’t popular.  I didn’t have the best GPA.  I didn’t participate in many school activities.  Maybe someday the reasons will come back.
  • High School graduation
  • College graduation
  • The end of 2 cults
  • The end of a combined pedophile/human trafficking porn ring
  • Injuries and “secret” ER visits to get treated, but not completely fixed
  • The secret life changing into something positive, but still a secret because hardly legal or legitimate
  • Seemingly conscious choices in the “public” life that were not
  • Finally understanding why my body hurts so much in so many places and potentially how to fix the related problems

Downside – I’m really tired and kind of distracted.  My alters are also distracted and feeling scared.  Scared equals angry.  Angry means an unstable temper no matter who is in charge.

And an unstable temper creates more feelings of fear that turns into feelings of anger.

I feel like this anger is different from other anger that we’ve experienced.  With this anger surfacing, the vault opens more.  Memories show up.  Feelings flow through us.  We alters can connect with each other more.

So while I/we are so upset and scared about the instability of these feelings right now, most of us are also happy about the change.  It means all of us are moving forward again.  And we can look back without the pain of shame and guilt distorting our perspective to find a more objective understanding of the past.

So while my brother tried his hardest to make me feel useless, crazy, invisible, and worthless before I left home, I still wish him a happy birthday.  Same for my other relatives – the ones who I miss so much my heart hurts and the ones I alternately love and hate.

Thanks for reading

 

Coping Strategy: Art and Affirmations

For anyone who survived trauma, abuse, neglect, shame or similar atrocities at any age

this applies to you too.

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An Unexpected Find

I found this piece of artwork on my second or third day in the new city.  The store was closing soon, and all of my parts were tired from a long day walking and jet lag.  But this book store (New Renaissance Bookshop) is dedicated to helping people recover (emotional, physical, and spiritual health) through compassion and spirituality combined with alternative paths to medicine or healing.

As soon as I read the words, I knew it was mine.  But this was the last copy.  And I didn’t want one more item to carry home.  So I asked for it to be held until the next day.  The storekeeper allowed me to put it on hold, and I walked out feeling happy, yet ashamed of myself.  The nasty words and criticisms started up in my head…so quietly at first I didn’t even notice.

Blessings from a Higher Power

The next morning, I headed straight to the store for extra browsing time.  Each part of the store was dedicated to a different topic.  Along with books, the store sold healing crystals, hand crafted dream catchers, singing bowls, jewelry, meditation accessories, music, art, yoga supplies, tea, and more.  One might call it my version of heaven on earth 🙂

As I browsed through the store, something else caught my eye.  It was a book about shame:

It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion by Beverly Engel

But not the typical book that discusses shame in general terms and explains how to overcome or live without shame.  This book is dedicated to understanding trauma-induced shame and how that kind of shame negatively affects adult survivors (or former victims) of childhood abuse and neglect.

Adults, teens, and any other survivor who struggles with shame will find this book helpful relevant to their recovery as well.  And loved ones, friends, and connections of survivors will definitely benefit from reading this book.  The first part discusses in detail (without being dramatic or overly gory) the connections between childhood abuse/neglect, shame, how layers of shame can be induced by different experiences, the negative affects of shame in one’s life, and how shame is different from guilt.

Normally, I do not like to follow books that offer cures and programs.  They tend to lack flexibility needed to accommodate differences unique to each reader.  But this one is different.  I skimmed Chapter 1 because many of the case studies were similar to case studies in other books.  But I read Chapters 2 and 3 a few times; had to skip over some parts and go back because of triggers.

What Ms. Engel writes about shame answers many of the questions I’ve posed in other posts about shame in such a way that I feel validated for not settling by believing the current misconceptions about compassion, empathy, slow recovery, and bringing the secrets to light by talking about taboo topics.  And yes, I do talk about them in other places too.

I’ve just started Chapter 4 and will share what I learn in other posts.  But I encourage anyone who’s hit a wall in recovery or wonders how to work through the feelings of shame stopping them from moving forward or causing them to act out in ways they regret later (me) or self-harm through neglect, recklessness, injury, etc. (that is/was me too) to explore the book in the link above.  Amazon is great for reading samples and looking at reviews before making a purchase.

Making the connection

The next few days, I struggled with reading, not reading, following through on my plans vs. lying in bed and hiding, and ignoring the louder and louder critical voices in my head that exacerbated my physical pain.  The book came with me to bed.  It got carried down the ladder from my loft to the ground floor and stayed on a box.  It went into the bathroom and came out again.

Finally, I opened the book and started reading.  My head started hurting.  I had to put it down.  Later, I decided to start in another section of the book and go back and forth, re-reading parts as necessary.  And that’s when I made the connection:

The voices started because I felt happy and proud of myself.  For the first time ever, I bought a piece of art and displayed it in my apartment with pride and joy.  I walked around and talked to people on the street.  I took buses to different neighborhoods.  Rude people didn’t trigger panic attacks.  And buying a book about shame didn’t make me feel nauseous or panicky.  I shopped for home; spent money eating at different restaurants; drank beer with pleasure; got a library card; decorated my space; put together furniture; didn’t get triggered into a panic attack when people were rude or stared at me and  then ignored me.

The pain came because I exercised, walked, danced, and played so much that I was too tired to let the anxiety and adrenaline keep me awake in spite of jet lag.  I slept without nightmares, waking only because of time zone differences and the need to use the facilities.  Not until last night/this morning did I wake up in the middle of the night scared and unable to go back to sleep for hours.  A call to the hotline helped.  And making phone calls to follow up on packages, etc. did too.

But what helped the most was listening to the person on the phone as he listened to me, validated my feelings, saw my pain and offered compassion that I couldn’t give myself.  Eventually, I started to relax and believe that.  When the sun started to rise, I felt sleepy again and slept for a few hours.

Today I started Chapter 4 in Part 2 – the beginning of the program and exercises.  Reading these passages helped me realize that I hold myself back, stop myself from doing what I want, neglect personal care and house cleaning out of feelings of shame that stem from my abuse.  Moving helped.  But this will help more.  And maybe I’ll be able to clean house and stay organized like I wish.  Or go to the dentist and be able to take proper care of my mouth/teeth like I want.

Conclusion

Before this book, especially the questionnaires in each chapter, I never really knew how embedded shame is in my life.  It continues to stop me from living and being the best I can be in so many insidious ways.  Self-compassion is such a struggle, yet so beneficial.  Maybe this book will offer resources and strategies that bridge the disconnect between mainstream books and survivors’ or victims’ perspectives.

Thanks for reading

Coping Challenges: cultivating gratitude as spiritual self-care

Introduction

I am spiritual, not religious.  I accept and respect all religions as valid and real and beneficial to those who believe in their religions.  I do not believe in organized religion and am not going to discuss it here.  I am going to discuss how cultivating gratitude helps me recover from spiritual aspects of trauma.  That said, here are my definitions of religion and spirituality.

My definition of Religion

Religion is a type faith based around an organized belief system with creation stories, redemption stories, sacrifice stories, and rituals to support, educate, inspire, and bring together its followers under a hierarchy of appointed leaders.  The organized religion has rules to obey and specific practices to learn.  Religion often cannot be practiced alone, but sometimes can.   Individuals and groups can be expelled for questioning or disobeying leaders too many times.

My definition of Spirituality

Spirituality is the belief in a higher power that offers connection, comfort, support, hope, education, respect, gratitude, compassion, and acceptance of the self and others.  The higher power can be God, Goddess, a panacean of spirits and gods/goddesses, nature, elements, individual spirits, a Greater Power, the universe, or anything else.  It stays on the inside and is always close by – like a soul.  Spirituality is based on faith in something that cannot be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or scented in typical ways.  But it exists.

Some background

I was born Christian: one parent was Protestant; the other Catholic.  I was raised Mormon from age 6 to 15 by the cult who “took care of” me for the parents.  Members of the Mormon sub-cult who practiced ritual abuse (sexual, physical, etc.) on children were not all Mormon.  But they were lapsed or angry with their original religion and came to the Mormons as seekers.

Taking with members of Christian, Protestant, Catholic, Hebrew, and Seventh Day Adventist religions in college helped me realize that I was not raised Christian after all.  Only parts of what I learned matched the New Testament and Bible.  Hardly any matched the Old Testament.  And not much at all matched Jewish traditions.  But there were enough similarities to scare me away from claiming any organized religion as my faith.

A literature class re-introduced me to the concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, and spirituality.  That brought back memories of my grandfather (an acknowledged Protestant who also continued to practice his original beliefs) and how he taught me that Chinese ideas of religion and spirituality were not like Western views.

In Buddhism, one can still acknowledge, accept, respect, and practice other faiths.  Taoism and spirituality have similar practices.  The lessons are more like homilies and questions or statements meant to provoke thought and inspire respectful, acceptance of life through self-reflection, compassion, and peace.

Why I Cultivate Gratitude

Shame has been a major factor in my trauma.  So has lack of respect and acceptance for anything outside of my family’s worldview.  My reality was appropriated, turned inside out, and violated with lies and deceit to keep me under their control.  I was taught that the only way to live properly was to treat people with condescension, manipulate them to get my own way, and be mean to them because that would bring joy into my life.

And maybe if I actually believed that, I would have stayed with the family and become what they wanted.  But even as a child I knew that I was different.  That being mean and hurtful was wrong.  Having to act like that while in survival mode damaged me a lot.  I don’t regret it, but I do feel shame and guilt about about what I said and did during those years.  I also feel shame and guilt about not getting out sooner, not standing up for myself more, not being able to protect myself better, etc.

Example of Gratitude Practice

This is where cultivating gratitude comes in.  The ever-changing list reminds me of how far I’ve come and what my past has taught me.  Instead of feeling shame and guilt over the memories, I feel gratitude for the lessons that shaped who I am now.  The practice goes something like this:

  • I feel grateful for being alive
  • I feel grateful for being physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy
  • i feel grateful for being safe
  • I feel grateful for shelter to keep me warm in winer and cool in summer.
  • I feel grateful for the lessons my past taught me
  • I feel grateful for the acceptance of my friends and support network
  • I feel grateful for escaping toxic people
  • I feel grateful for learning compassion
  • I feel grateful for the gift of written communication skill

Some people prefer: “I am grateful for…” instead of “I feel grateful for…”.  I started out suing the first phrase, but it did not feel as right as I learned more about emotions and feelings.  And since I experience gratitude as a feeling, the word “feel” is more appropriate than “am” here.

Thank you for reading.