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.

Recovery: Does a traumatic past = unhappy or terrible past?

Halloween is tomorrow.  From an objective perspective, I enjoy people watching and seeing the families with young children trick-or-treating.  From a personal perspective, my triggers are still too raw for my to actually enjoy the holiday.

So here is Wednesday’s post a few days early.

Background

Saturday afternoon, I was doing errands and visiting friendly people in the neighborhood.  It was the first day all week that I felt somewhat energetic and able to go out.  Not sure about you, but sometimes, in spite of using every coping strategy possible and trying to stay healthy, the flashbacks, triggers, pain, and exhaustion win.  And it comes down to choices: stay in, rest and be able to work; or go out, enjoy the nice weather, do errands, and come home feeling tired/sick/unable to work then next day?

But Saturday, started off pretty good and continued that way until obligation reared its ugly head.  Not sure if you recall, but I wrote a few posts back in August/September about toxic relationships and communication with people in my life.  My choice was to share the posts as a way of discussing the issues with them and then let those individuals make the next move since verbal conversations turned into stressful arguments or worse.

Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4.

Well, one of those individuals reached out indirectly; not through email, Facebook, text or anything like that.  Maybe this person expected me to come back and visit or reach out in some way?  When that didn’t happen, a mutual acquaintance “casually” asked if I was stopping by a  particular store to visit there too.

The situation

Personally, I knew that I would talk to the individual eventually because I would want closure in the future.  But I wanted to do that on my terms.  That meant walking away from a triggering situation with a potentially toxic individual for a while.  Then using that time to reflect on conversations, interactions, and changes in perspective.  I honestly did not expect her to reach out in any way.

But I also knew that if this individual did, I would be walking into a trap of some kind.  And by trap, I mean a situation where the other individual controlled the setting, manipulated our interactions, and tried to incite a reaction (negative) that shook my confidence or made me feel less than her.

The goal: to put me in my place by making me realize I had no control in the relationship.  That I conformed or got excluded from the community.

The set up was pretty obvious from the time I walked in.  Two friends were in the store with the individual; people close in age with shared interests and perspectives on life.  All three went out of their way to show me with their body language and own personal stories how little my update mattered to them and how boring my apartment decorating was.  When that didn’t incite a defensive or shamed reaction, they moved on to discuss other topics.

I listened to them and observed the store owner; that’s why I was there you see.  I wanted to confirm that this individual was not someone I wanted in my life.  Listening to the store owner talk to someone else my age, some other older customers, and answer a question I had about store credit confirmed that we would not ever be able to be friends or have a relationship in the future.  Put downs disguised as teasing.  Emotional manipulation in the form of “helpful” advice or suggestions.  Passive aggressive comments about body shape from the friends all spoken in sugary, polite tones.

But what really got me was when one of the friends talked about her “terrible childhood” and then condescended to tell me that I “was probably too young to know” what they were referring to.  The condescending part didn’t bother me.  I look 10 years younger than my age and told them so.  Then mentioned some other shows from that time period.  Not the reaction they expected, so the conversation ended with: “You’re a baby” from a person 9 years older than me.

Inspiration for this post

The female friend’s description of a “terrible childhood” struck me.  You see, the store owner befriended me when I first moved to the new state and was vulnerable – alone and getting to know the neighborhood – thanks to my social experiment.  So she knew a fair amount about my past, but not all the details.  One thing she knew about was my traumatic past and toxic family situation.

What she didn’t realize until later was the following:

  • I may be soft spoken and quiet, but I am not a pushover
  • I may not act confident all the time, but I feel and am confident in myself as an individual
  • I cultivate and live by the following concepts: radical acceptance, unconditional love, respect for all living beings, unconditional compassion, and forgiveness
  • Doesn’t always show because my triggers get in the way, but I am secure enough in myself to fight back, speak up, and assert myself when people try to take advantage of me or manipulate me or bully me or be mean in any way
  • I hardly ever start fights/arguments/etc. but I always finish them
  • I am strong, am resilient, and fight to survive – that means I fight to win and/or escape every time – and am well versed in how to fight dirty with words or fists
  • Finally, I work hard to cultivate only supportive, positive relationships while minimizing and removing toxic or negative ones.

So when she and her friends texted each other and brought up so many potentially triggering topics (personal finance, repairing/decorating the apartment, family) to try and manipulate me, I realized that I don’t need or want people like that in my life.  Listening to their conversations without reacting frustrated them more than it did me.

Observing them in action and talking about their childhoods got me thinking about my past.  It also got me thinking about the definition of an unhappy or horrible childhood.  Because honestly, I’m not sure that having a traumatic childhood is the same as having an unhappy or horrible one.  Yes, trauma causes many unhappy, horrible, unsafe, and dangerous childhood experiences.  Yes, trauma has a long-lasting negative influence on child/adolescent/adult development.

But does the experience of a traumatic past really = an unhappy childhood?

My perspective

Feel free to disagree with me on this.  After all your experience is just as true and valid as mine, and this blog/website is about accepting and valuing all perspectives and experiences of trauma.

When I started this website, about 28-30 years of my past was a blur of fragments and sensations that didn’t make much sense.  I couldn’t trust my memory of past events because of all the holes from traumatic amnesia.  And I didn’t know that my dreams and nightmares were sometimes interpretations of my childhood memories intertwined with the traumatic events.

There were times I woke up one morning and couldn’t remember what happened for the last 6 months.  Or times I was at work in the middle of a report, dissociated and/or switched, and couldn’t remember what happened for 5, 15, 20, 60 minutes at a time.  I had to go back and redo all of my work because I couldn’t remember what I started or finished.

That memory problem lessened as I started working with a trauma informed counselor.  And as the tangled trauma memories sorted themselves out, other memories surfaced.  Memories of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood that brought smiles and laughter.  Memories of accomplishments and small successes that strengthened my resolve and helped me understand where my values come from.

Memories, that when separated from the trauma triggers and shame, that reminded me of how wonderful and happy the most important parts of my childhood were.  Experiences where adults modeled tolerance and acceptance and forgiveness and compassion in their daily interactions.  Experiences that showed me how to bounce back from mistakes, be an individual instead of part of the crowd, own my flaws and turn them into strengths, and always have a plan.

Most important: anything is possible as long as I believe in myself and not let fear stop me from trying, making mistakes, learning, and trying again until I succeed.

Sure, I am flawed.  My family is flawed.  Some of them are outright dangerous and toxic and unsafe.  But others are safe and trustworthy and loving and accepting of everything in their own ways.  And the safe relatives, those are the people who taught me the skills I needed to survive and then let me go when I needed to leave in order to find myself.  When I did come back, they welcomed me with open arms and unconditional love and acceptance and forgiveness for hurting them – unintentionally or not.

Conclusion

So while traumatic situations can cause unhappy and horrible experiences in any phase of life, I truly believe that individuals choose their own perspectives of childhood or any other part of their life.

I choose to acknowledge and value what my traumatic past taught me while living without regrets and focusing on the gifts that same past gave me so that I could become the woman I am now and who I will be in the future.

And I hope that sharing this story helps other guests find the little bits of positivity that comes from any experience to help them move forward in their recovery or healing journey – whatever they choose to call it.

Thanks for reading

Anniversaries: A Different Kind of Birthday

My birthday was last weekend.

I turned 35.  Oddly, I felt a lot of anxiety along with the usual joy and gratitude that comes from being alive one more year.  Why this year instead of past years?  Honestly no one in our system can answer that.

35 just feels like a big year.  A turning point.  A crossroads perhaps.  So much good is happening that the memories are flooding in fast & furious.  Body memories connecting with emotional or cognitive memory fragments create complete memories of past experiences.  Those memories come in dreams and immense pain from my neck down.

In spite of all that, waking up to birthday wishes from friends and family made me feel blessed.  The warm messages brightened my morning and had me excited to start the day.  And it was an amazing day in spite of the pain.

I did not do anything special.  It was a day for self care and exploring spent in blissful solitude broken up with visits to appointments and interesting people in different stores. Time did not manage me that day.  After my appointments, I took my time enjoying the beautiful day as I headed back home.

For the first time that I can remember, my birthday was spent in an enjoyable way with full awareness of everything that occurred.  Not one of us (the alters or myself) dissociated, split, switched, or forgot anything that happened.  We laughed and played and watched movies or read books or knitted while relaxing and waiting for the stew to finish.

The pain did not stop any of us from enjoying the day.  We simply adjusted to the physical limitations of neck/shoulder pain by carrying the shoulder bag on the other arm and using both hands to cook.  Took a lot of breaks in between our travels.  And remembered to eat or drink fluids throughout the day.

And maybe that is what made us all feel so anxious.  A birthday without expectations or obligations to anyone.    Pure joy.  Simple fun.  Interesting, kind people.  Yummy food.  A good night’s rest.

The joy and peaceful feelings continue even now.  A different set of Chinese herbs are helping with triggers, sleep, and pain issues.  I did not expect help with the pain, but it’s been helping.  The herbs have made everyone sleep a lot, but that’s okay.  We needed the rest.  And something has changed inside too because the adults finally managed to do laundry!

Plus, the colder temperatures are not bringing up scary feelings or memories for the children as much this week.  It helps that many of the shopping packages were delivered over  the last few days.  But really, the herbs are working with our body and mind this time instead of trying to manipulate changes.  And that feels really good.

Maybe even good enough that mornings will stop being scary too someday.  And maybe good enough that bathrooms and small dark spaces like under sink cabinets will also feel safer too.

Thanks for reading.

Life Changing Moments: Self-Acceptance

A Panic Attack Makes the Difference

After Wednesday’s post I had a panic attack and felt very frustrated with myself.  On the one hand, I was happy that I followed through on the personal challenge to socialize, be friendly, and show all parts of myself to everyone I met.  On the other hand, I felt upset and overwhelmed because the cultural and social norms are so different than anything I am used to dealing with.  Talking feels so frustrating sometimes.  And the discomfort of when to speak or not to speak and how much or little gets confusing.  But I wasn’t upset with anyone on the outside – my friends and family, the people in my neighborhood – because they are who they are and speak/behave as they will.

No I was upset with myself for falling into the pit again.  I gave myself a year to experiment with “fitting in” in this new place.  I would observe and follow the local customs as best as possible while also staying true to myself and letting people really “see” me.  Not an easy task, but something that did happen over time.  Without the cloud of my past hanging over my head, I learned to separate different kinds of triggers and how to cope with some better than others.

Hence the panic attack.  People and environmental triggers still send me into flashbacks that distort my perceptions of reality.  Sometimes I am aware of this, and sometimes I am not.  When I am aware, I usually stay inside and avoid people/circumstances that will make things worse.  When I am not aware, I use the complicated experiences as teachable moments to help for next time and hope that whatever happened did not destroy any budding positive relationships.  This time though, I still went out and interacted with people I thought were safe – i.e. friends who knew about my past and accepted the differences in my worldview as I did theirs – in different social situations.

Ever hear of the phrase “fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me”?

Well that’s kind of how I feel right now.

I chose to open up and see what would happen.  I chose to believe people when they said that I could be all of myself around them – including asking for help when I felt panic, anxiety, or triggering in public/social situations – without judgement.  I chose to take these people up on their offers to help me with issues of perception and understanding social situations.

And I chose to ask them for help when something like this did happen.

So why do I feel so shamed and upset with myself for other people’s inability to accept that my perceptions and worldview are different?

And why do I continue to try to explain a situation to a close minded individual who holds up past examples of why she or he is correct and only hears what supports that belief?

Why get myself into these traps with people?

  • Because I care.
  • Because those traps are triggering and remind me of  the convoluted, crazy-making conversations from my past even though they are not the same.
  • Because even though arguing hurts, sometimes it has to be done. The consequences coped with like any other trigger or anxiety situation.
  • And because I don’t want these people thinking something wrong about me – they are friends or acquaintances close to becoming friends – because of something I didn’t understand or a social faux pas.

Questioning My Beliefs

Arguing always upsets me.  Asserting myself makes me feel queasy and shaky for days.  But I’d rather feel upset, queasy, shaky, etc. than helpless, hopeless, powerless, and without choices because I didn’t stand up for myself.  And I’d rather challenge someone and feel good about using open, direct communication than letting stuff fester until it explodes.

So while I may not be a “traditional” or “typical” person who epitomizes an empath, I am one.  I am also a new to being an empath – the memories of past experiences and mistakes from this extra perception have been flooding my mind lately – and freely admit this to anyone who asks.  It does get confusing sometimes because I have alter personalities with their own feelings & memories.  Some of them share the empathic senses while others do not.  And when one of them senses danger from a trigger, I am more than happy to help test reality and see if this perception is true or not.

This “reality testing” coping technique is often part of what makes talking with people challenging.  I will ask question or make comments and ask for their perspective.

  • If the person knows me really well, she or he understands I am feeling anxious or triggered and responds with reassurance and acceptance.
  • If the person is aware of my past, but doesn’t truly understand me, he or she will call me “dramatic” or “over-sensitive” or “paranoid” and lecture me about looking for the worst in people and situations.
  • If the person is aware of my past and gets triggered by my comment or question, she or he will attack or accuse me of “making assumptions” or “being rude & arrogant” or “reading too much into something” and then try to “help” me by pointing out my flaws (with examples) and try to “change my behavior”.

What happens next?

  • Option 1: I express gratitude, let go of the triggered perception, relax and move on.
  • Option 2: I feel triggered, try to explain again & again without getting through to the person who’s mind is made up and end up feeling frustrated and ashamed of myself
  • Option 3: I get mad and start mirroring the other persons actions until we have time apart.  Then I use self-reflection and talk with someone objective to figure out a solution. Eventually, I assert myself and the miscommunication gets cleared up – sometimes with a positive ending; other times with a negative ending.  If lucky, with a neutral ending that we can build on in the future.

 

AS you can see, I’m not perfect.  I get mad.  I lose my  temper.  I say or do things I don’t mean when angry or upset.

BUT I don’t lash out on purpose.  I don’t hurt people on purpose.  I don’t blame others on purpose.  And I work really hard to listen, respect, and accept what the other person is saying no matter my personal opinions or beliefs.

In the end, I question whether or not I:

  1. Can interact with lots of people in positive ways
  2. Can make new friends or develop more relationships
  3. Can go back to school or pursue group activities
  4. Can ever talk and make sense to outside people (not victims or survivors or professionals who work with both)
  5. Can be a good friend or partner or cousin, etc.
  6. Have changed for the better and can pursue my goals in spite of my challenges

ACCEPTANCE helps me realize that while I can do all of these things, it’s not going to change the other people’s beliefs and reactions.  They will believe what they want and stick to those opinions no matter how much of my words make sense.  So I can continue making myself crazy or I can understand that these people are not going to change their opinions of me and let it go.

Self Acceptance

The answer is YES as long as I can accept myself and feel good about my choices.

I put myself out in the world.  I let many people see my vulnerabilities and challenges.  Sometimes I succeeded.  Sometimes I failed.  I met a few people whose opinions matter; we are slowly working to build a friendship.  I met a few people who will make good acquaintances instead of friends.  I met old friends and colleagues after a year away and realized that change comes to us all; how we cope with change defines what happens next.

I realized that no matter what I say, sometimes the words fall on closed minds and deaf ears.  These people can’t or won’t accept my words because it challenges their self-perceptions and worldviews too much.   Instead, I have to be wrong.  And our relationship can’t change.  Who are they, what role do they play when they realize I am self-aware and not in need of their mentoring/guidance etc. or willing to play their games anymore?  Where does that leave our relationship?

Where it leaves the other people, I don’t know.  And honestly, as long as it doesn’t cause major harm, illness, or death in their world, I don’t care.

For myself, it gave me choices.  And helped me understand certain realities.

Like the fact that I feel more comfortable with myself now than I have before.  That I have changed and opened up for the better and want to continue.  This opening up and internal change has brought out visible external changes too.  One external change being self-assurance and security in who I am.  Not so much self-confidence which is part of assurance, but acceptance of self with the goal to continue changing and improving.

Like the fact that parts of me will always feel and act upon the negative self-perceptions from Wednesday’s post, but those perceptions will not inform thoughts, feelings, or behavior as much anymore.  Or like the fact that positive for me tends to sound negative to everyone else.  And positive to everyone else often sounds unrealistic or rosy to me.

So I can accept that these people who might or might not continue to be friends, but will always be friendly acquaintances, view me in a somewhat negative light even if they admire my strength and resilience.  And I can accept that it’s time for me to let them go.  I wrote them an email thanking them for their honesty and friendship and sent a link to the post explaining my communication issues.

What happens next is up to  them.  Because I am finished.  Finished letting my fear of sounding funny or not making sense stand in my way.  Finished trying to be something I am not.  Finished trying to “have friends’ and “be social” on acceptable levels.  Who’s idea of “acceptable” is it anyways?

I am grateful for the wonderful friendships that already exist.  I am grateful for the limited but fulfilling family relationships that exist.  I am grateful for the opportunity to meet lots of people and have interactions that always teach me something.

Now it’s time to go back to being my happy, solitary self.

Thanks for reading

Anniversaries: Experiences become Benchmarks turn into Anniversaries

The past few months have helped me realize that sometimes experiences become benchmarks.  And benchmarks become anniversaries.  Not all anniversaries are bad ones.

These are some of the good ones I feel grateful to remember and want to share:

  • 22 years of keeping secrets and choosing not to address rumors about my sexual orientation that got me ignored, bullied, harassed, etc. by “friends”, family, class mates, teachers, and community members
  • 20 years since one rapist got me pregnant and then forced an abortion
  • 18 years of celibacy by choice – I chose not to have sex or sexual relations until a time came when I changed my mind
  • 13 years into recovery and in the “live” phase instead of “crisis” phase
  • 12 years since I learned about posttraumatic stress disorder and trauma therapy
  • 10.5 years working at the same job
  • 10 years since I started choosing my own medical and mental health providers
  • 5 years since I walked away from my family and started to take my life back
  • 5 years since I learned that the “voices” in my head were real (DID) and not my imagination making me crazy
  • 3 years since I legally changed my name and started to feel safe in all parts of my life
  • 8 months since I reconnected with safe family members
  • 8 months since I moved out of state and started fresh
  • 6 months until I turn 35 years old – 14 years beyond what I assumed by expected life term

Sometimes it takes a look backwards to remember all of the good that happened in spite of the bad.  I feel grateful for the opportunity to remember and celebrate these benchmarks this week.

Thanks for reading