Trigger Warning – please read with caution
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:
- Can interact with lots of people in positive ways
- Can make new friends or develop more relationships
- Can go back to school or pursue group activities
- Can ever talk and make sense to outside people (not victims or survivors or professionals who work with both)
- Can be a good friend or partner or cousin, etc.
- 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.
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
Some extra posts this weekend…I read this post and thought you might like it too. Touch therapy is something I am learning about and using to help with startle response and body memories. Maybe this blogger can help you too.
A mentor once asked me, “Carmen, do you like to be touched?” The answer “No” bubbled up out of my mouth without even a single thought. I was finally getting the opportunity to witness the truth of me and explore why this was so. I had ‘mind-body’ anxiety surrounding being touched due to some […]
Something not often mentioned is that different alters (or parts) have different experiences in the same body. It’s why doctors and medical professionals could have trouble diagnosing illnesses or interpreting lab tests. Or why nurses have trouble finding veins to take blood or give IVs. This can even explain why one person can be sick with the flu, but not exhibit any physical symptoms except through a blood test. Sometimes, it also changes physical appearance and healing rates.
For me, some of my alter personalities don’t have to eat. Other alter personalities (mostly my child parts) love eating meat, dairy, poultry, fish/seafood, and eggs (aka animal products) because they bring back good memories with family. Most of my adolescent and adult alter personalities (me included) prefer a nutrient-focused, vegetarian or vegan (whole foods, plant based) eating style. None of us really enjoy eating processed or fast food except for a treat once in a while; usually it tastes too salty, too sweet, or too much like chemicals.
The nutrient-focused, whole foods path works because plants are easy for our body to digest, bring a variety of pleasurable flavors & textures to meals, and are fun to cook. Eating animal products and even some processed foods
- When I eat meat and animal products, the vegetarian and vegan alters don’t get involved in digesting those meals.
- When I eat plant based meals, everyone except the alters who don’t eat help with digestion.
- My child parts and adolescent parts (up to mid-twenties probably) were anorexic and still struggle with triggers and the possibility of relapse.
- My adult parts struggle with weight fluctuations and finding a diet with a label that helps the system stay healthy, tastes good, and limits potential triggers and small lapses.
- We all struggle with making good food and hydration choices about 4-5 times a year when these triggers appear. Past experiences with shaming and lack of support make this more difficult than it has to be.
Right now, the challenge is maintaining an interest in eating and hydrating. I feel frustrated with my food options and hydration options. I do not feel hungry or thirsty or interested in eating. And by “I”, I mean everyone in my system. No one wants to cook or get delivery or visit a restaurant or purchase takeout.
The first internal conflict: is the choice to eat mostly plant-based, whole foods style
- rebellion against family
- the beginning of a relapse for anorexia
- A personal choice that makes everyone in the system happy?
The second internal conflict: is the choice to animal products
- A self-harm compulsion triggered by obsessive thoughts about having to eat according to family and cultural/societal rules
- A self-harm compulsion to hurt myself and make myself sick as punishment for feeling happy and getting healthier
- A personal choice that makes the minor discomfort manageable because it helps younger alter personalities feel grounded and connected to happier times?
Side note: I use hydrating because “drinking” can sometimes trigger negative feelings – something I hope to avoid for any guests who read this post – or be misinterpreted. Maybe it’s over-explaining, but that distinction is as much for my benefit as it is for the readers’ benefit.
The first week after my dental surgery, I ate 100% whole foods, plant based meals. With the exception of serious gas and constipation issues from the anesthesia and first few days of antibiotics, my digestion was fine. I am grateful for acupuncture and food medicine for that turnaround. What surprised me most was:
- how great I felt physically in spite of the pain
- how emotionally stable I felt in spite of the triggering experiences
- how rapidly my body healed with minimal pain killers with lots of rest & minimal activity
- how well I slept in spite of the pain and anxiety that came from flashbacks and food triggers
- the root of my food triggers centered around
- fear that this choice is based on PTSD food fears and anorexia nervosa relapse symptoms
- food and diet shaming
- lack of support from past medical and mental health professionals along with family members and friends
- all alter parts feeling frustrated by these conflicting internal thoughts and feelings
- fear that that each time I ate animal products was giving into self-harm compulsions because of obsessive internal thoughts
- we all justified eating those meals as experiments to help child alters understand and experience the negative reaction our body has to eating animal products
- helping our system make peace with the conflict by explaining that eating animal products is fine as long as we are willing to accept the consequences – gas, constipation, slow digestion, nausea/stomachaches, backaches, lethargy – for a limited time
- acknowledging that the frustration stems from wanting to cook and eat a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle 90% of the time
- acknowledging that nothing is being excluded – we can eat animal products & processed food any time as long as we are willing to feel physically ill for a little while afterwards
- Alcohol is not included here because it’s in a different category – none of us like the taste of alcohol, but we do enjoy drinking once in a while with close friends.
- Problem is: we metabolize alcohol fast like with most other drugs and get drunk really easily.
- So 1 alcoholic beverage drunk over an hour = a drunk me for about 2-3 hours. Then I’m fine except for the hangover headache. If I fall asleep within the 2-3 hours, I wake up hungover.
- Very perplexing and makes drinking hard to enjoy…
- Processed foods are something I happily live without most of the time because they do not satisfy my hunger anymore. When I do make an exception, it’s because of a craving for comfort food. And then we all can enjoy the treat.
I and everyone in my system feel conflicted still. It’s going to take a long time to sort out. This time around, though, I have a mental health and a medical professional supporting me in the transition. I also have many friends who support me as I try to stay healthy and make good coping strategy choices.
With knowledge comes power to make informed choices. With trust comes the benefit of a real support network that can/will/does lift me up when I fall, encourage me when I doubt myself, and kick my ass when needed. As for coping strategies, I’m not sure what to try or what will work. If I find anything that helps, I will share in a future post.
If any of you are struggling with food choices, food addiction, or an eating disorder, I encourage you to learn more about different kinds of nutrition and diets, explore eating styles, and ask lots of questions. Then (and I know this can be triggering) if you feel ready, listen to your body and how it feels before, during, and after you eat or hydrate. My body always finds a way to tell me if it likes or dislikes something; maybe yours will too.
Thanks for reading
Dental work update
My dental surgery (officially called dental rehabilitation) went well. Mouth and lips are still swollen and a little sore, but nothing terrible. I’ve only had to take 2 pain pills between Monday and Tuesday. The most important thing is taking my antibiotics and following the mouth cleaning instructions.
I’m really happy this happened in May. Too many of my past medical and dental traumatic experiences occurred between March and May. The body memories and flashbacks increase and everything goes haywire. If you visit often, you might have noticed this.
By June, I’m back in crisis care mode – trying to come out of the black hole and “fix” the damage from the last few months. One thing that always flares up is my book addiction.
Yes, I admit it. I am addicted to reading and purchasing books. If I could, I’d have a whole room in my house dedicated to my collection. As it happens, I recently switched to an electronic book library because of all the moves. Hopefully, my next one will be the last for a while. Then I can bring my paper books home where they belong.
So what does all of this have to do with re-defining the past?
The goal is to substitute negative experiences with positive ones. This dental surgery went really well. All of us in the system cooperated. No one woke up in the middle of the surgery. No one has gotten really sick or nauseous from the medication. Other than the swollen lips and jaw, I look relatively normal and feel pretty good.
The landscape inside my mouth has changed. It feels good and right to have the bits and pieces (i.e. teeth) that were causing trouble finally gone. And maybe, just maybe, all of us will be able to “start fresh” with dental hygiene. No more loss of teeth. No more cavities. Actually have a healthy mouth and be able to brush/floss/rinse with mouth wash without flashbacks and body memories.
That’s the goal.
And the care routine the dentist has me on brings me one step closer to creating a routine that doesn’t feel like an addiction or a habit. Instead, it becomes part of my self care regimen.
Yes, I’m playing with semantics (word meaning) here, but sometimes the minor differences mean a lot. “Regimen” has positive associations for me. “Routine” or “habit” have negative associations.
So how else do I cope with the body memories and flashbacks? Especially when I refuse to self-harm anymore and nothing else is working?
I book binge.
Buy books. Purge books from personal collection. Borrow books from library.
Read lots of books whenever I have a moment of free time. Spend weekends reading – eating, drinking, sleeping optional – and reading.
I speed read certain types of books. Others take more time until I learn the author’s rhythm. Or the professional/academic writing style. Then I can read it faster.
How is Book Binge different from Reading?
Reading for pleasure and education as a hobby is great. It’s relaxing and distracting and fun. I get caught up in the world building and the characters, but I can stop at a reasonable time and sleep.
Reading as an obsession or compulsion to relieve anxiety – not so great. I worry about buying/borrowing the book. I worry about starting the book. I can’t wait to finish and skip to the end; then go back and read the rest of the book (sometimes). I can’t stop reading even when I’m tired and have to work.
Buying books from favorite authors to re-read when I have the money – great use of my discretionary funds.
Buying books from a variety of authors I like, but don’t love, and may never read again to relieve anxiety – not so great and puts me in debt I can’t afford or crowds an overcrowded apartment.
I’m hoping this dental procedure helps re-define a really bad month of flashbacks and body memories by giving me something good to think about and work with when the darkness feels overwhelming.
And maybe by working on this routine, I will feel less compelled to hide inside books. I will be able to do something besides immerse myself in fantasy worlds created by amazing authors.
And when nothing in my library or the public library holds my attention (I’ve read or re-read the books too many times in the recent past), I can find something else to do besides buy books and finish them in the same day. Luckily, Amazon.com has an excellent return policy.
How do you re-define your past so it doesn’t affect the present so much?
Thanks for reading