Happy Holidays to All Who Celebrate!

As part of my traditions to reclaim the holidays, I send out holiday cards by regular mail and (only if I don’t have a mailing address) email to loved ones, friends and colleagues.

This year, as part of my “add creativity to life” self-care strategy, I created holiday post cards based on a theme of low-stress, fun times, and fostering positive relationships.

To all who celebrate – and whatever holiday(s) you celebrate…This card is for you.
Season’s Greetings & Holiday Wishes

Best Regards,

AlterXpressions

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Life Changing Moments: Home for the Holidays

Dear Guests,

This time next week, I will be back in my home state (the one where I was born) getting ready to celebrate Christmas with my parents, brother, and father’s side of  the family for the first time in 7 years. Maybe longer. All of us will get together at an aunt’s house on the morning of Christmas Day to open gifts, hang out, and (later) eat a holiday dinner together. Dinner as in lunch…not the evening meal (aka supper).

I admit to feeling many conflicting emotions. Fear, excitement, guilt, joy, anxiety are a few of them. In terms of my immediate family, I’m excited to see my dad. We’ve been talking (FaceTime) and emailing regularly since August. He’s excited to see me too and has been keeping me updated about the rest of the family. I have mixed feelings about seeing my mom and brother (and his wife) again. We didn’t part on good terms, and my child parts are upset about being close to them again. But the adult parts of me are happy to see them again.

For my Dad’s side of the family, I’m excited and anxious to see them again. We don’t relate very well for a lot of reasons, so sometimes sharing space can be difficult. It’s part of why I choose to stay in a hotel or AirBnB during visits home. We love each other, but live completely different lives. And a lot of my life is not something many of my relatives on either side can acknowledge, approve, or accept. Other than some social topics or basic questions and answers, we don’t have much to talk about.

For my Mom’s side, the timing worked to visit with one group of cousins the day before I leave. As I’m only staying for 4 days, I’m grateful for that much and excited to see them. Yes I’m also nervous, but that’s mostly because it’s a new relationship with all of us being adults now. Luckily, we are all foodies and can spend a few hours chatting and enjoying good food.

Have you noticed the food theme? A lot of my family gatherings revolve around food – it was how different generations came together to prepare food, set tables, cook, share stories, and enjoy conversations while eating – as a party or event was often how my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents brought us together.

Why do  this?

The simple answer is closure.
I’m in a positive, healing place that allows me to open up and face some of the scariest parts of my past so that moving forward is less stressful. Plus, I do miss my family. I love them and want the best for them – best as in what works for and with their current goals and lifestyles. Closure allows my heart wounds to finally drain and start to heal.

The complicated answer is more nuanced.
I am going to visit my grandmother. She hasn’t been doing well since her accident back in January. If I can give her anything, it’s one holiday with all of us together like before. We can spend some time together, and I can reassure her that I’m happy, healthy, and safe even if I live all the way across the country.

I’m going for my father. Seeing him in person, giving and receiving a real hug is a gift in itself. We don’t have a lot in common, but we are interested in each other’s lives and actively listen, accept and respect each others choices. Besides that, my Dad is really funny and always finds a way to share his fatherly wisdom with humor.

I’m going for myself, to prove that I can spend time with them as an adult whose triggers don’t get in the way and cause problems. We can be ourselves, share space together, and enjoy the holiday time with less tension and negativity. I don’t have to hide parts of myself and can accept that different relatives will and do hide behind masks – but the hiding is not personal. And I won’t get in trouble for being me. Or cause problems by being me.

In doing this, I can

try to resolve my conflicting feelings about letting any family into my life and being part of their lives.

Conflict part 1: I am happy as I am now being connected again, was happy before reconnecting with any family at all, and am not sure how much I want to be connected with any of them. If I want to be connected at all.

Conflict part 2: I love my family and am happy to be peripherally connected to some of them. But I’ve left behind the dreams of being close with them or having a strong connection where we keep in touch regularly, etc.

In other words, I’m facing some of my biggest fears in less than a week. Wish me luck?

And luck to any and all of you who might be in similar situations with the holiday season.

Thanks for reading.

Life Changing Moments: Home, Holidays, and triggers

HAPPY HOLIDAY WEEKEND to everyone who celebrates a holiday this season.  Holiday season because so many people celebrate Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc. during this time of year.  I am thankful for all of the many people who have passed through my life this year.  Thank you for being part of this blog.

HOLIDAYS

This year was a year of renewing connections.  Scary as it is and was, I’ve started to let more family back into my life.  Some have stayed, some have left again.  In the end, the ones who stayed truly want to be involved and work out a new relationship.  The others are happy to know I exist and go on with their lives.

Yesterday, I was in California visiting family for the day.  It was a great relief from the living situation issues occurring right now.  Except the owner interrupted our day because she couldn’t get in for the inspection; also my smoke alarm was beeping.  An inspection that she gave notice of the day before, so my evening was spent cleaning and documenting the apartment instead of relaxing before the visit.

And of course, when I left everything was quiet.  Coming home, the flight was delayed; I got home close to midnight.  The apartment cold because I turned off the heat for the day.  The neighbor complaining because I turned up the heat to warm it up; then turned it down once the apartment felt less cold.  And a smoke alarm chirping because the battery was dying.

But today, my goals changed.  I was so tired from traveling and other stuff that I slept until late afternoon today.  Then went out in the snow for a quick trip to the grocery store, lunch, and batteries.  Batteries to fix the beeping smoke alarm.  Lunch because I didn’t feel like cooking after I woke up.  Groceries to complete what I missed for Christmas dinner tomorrow.

The apartment is still freezing cold, but that’s not going to stop me from enjoying today and tomorrow.  Besides cooking will help warm up the place :).

HOME

The owner gave notice of an apartment inspection earlier this week and entered yesterday while I was out.  For safety measures, I took photos of the place after cleaning it up.  So here are a few photos of my first, official, decorated home.  Enjoy!

TRIGGERS

I am almost at my wit’s end with this living situation.  Dealing with the upstairs neighbor and the owner is so triggering that I am back in survival mode right now.  It’s snowing this Christmas.  Unusual for my new city home, but welcome too.  The cold has me shivering even inside, but extra layers help a lot.  And not having to play with the heat sort of, maybe reduces some triggers.

The neighbor reminds me of the bullies I encountered in school and how helpless I was to fight back and feel safe.  The owner reminds me of the emotionally abusive, shaming, manipulative female care-takers from childhood and adolescence.  They controlled everything about my living situation and never let me feel safe or secure wherever I happened to be.

Home doesn’t always feel safe with the intermittent noise and heat changes.  REM sleep is rare these days too.  Hallucinations have started up again.  If the visual hallucinations become auditory ones, I’ll be visiting the ER.  (fingers crossed that doesn’t happen).  Anxiety and hyper-vigilance are increasing.  Paranoia and feeling crazy are close companions.  In my present mind, I know that I’m not being paranoid and that I’m not crazy.  But that doesn’t stop the feelings.

POSITIVE NEWS

On the good side, there are only 4 days left until my meeting with the attorney.  Then there will be some progress and less feelings of frustration or helplessness.  Between now and then, all I have to do is keep my head down, enjoy vacation, and survive.  All of this designed to keep me out of the apartment and in a happy state of mind.

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.

DID Posts: Multi-level triggers

What happens when different alters in a system get triggered and start having flashbacks at the same time?

For other people, I don’t know.  Not everyone communicates with all of their alters the way I do.

For me, usually the different triggers happen by age group, time of year, type of anniversaries, and past experiences.

My adult and non-human (aka symbolic) alters tend to get triggered by environmental factors and sensory information most often.  Grounding, DBT, and CBT along with meditation and breathing exercises help them a lot.  So do distractions like cooking, reading, and music/TV/Videos.

My teens get triggered by interpersonal communication and human interaction – harassment/bullies, family, community members, educators.  Movement, meditation, breathing, DBT, affirmations, and distractions help them feel grounded and safe.  So do sensory or cognitive grounding techniques.

My child alters get triggered by life situations that remind them of feeling powerless, unsafe, in an uncertain environment, potential deprivation, and sensory memories (often tactile in our physical body).  Cartoons, cuddling with a stuffed animal, coming out to experience the world in the present, and music are often necessary but not sufficient coping strategies.  They help sometimes, but not enough.

The challenges

All of us struggle with helping our child parts feel safe and grounded when they get triggered.  They don’t always tell the rest of the system when a trigger affects one or more in the system because they’re trying to protect the rest of us.  Or because of shame, fear, lack of trust in the present safe spaces, etc. prevent them from asking for help.

When one or more alters in our system gets triggered, others can get triggered too.  The more alters that get triggered, the more confusing and difficult calming down and utilizing coping strategies becomes.  The internal noise/sensory activity levels rise as more and more alters start to experience flashbacks and heightened anxiety or other emotions.  Distinguishing past from present also becomes difficult.  And increased physical pain distorts everything.

Trusting ourselves, our perspectives, our opinions, etc. when feeling emotional and confused is extremely difficult for all alters, but especially our child alters.  Trying to parent ourselves and comfort/soothe the child and teen alters while also trying to choose and use coping strategies is a big challenge.

Our Solution

Calling a trusted resource and talking through the situation with an objective, compassionate, empathetic third party who can also offer potential coping strategies or solutions through validation of feelings and acceptance.

Friends & family are not good options for us.  For one thing, our family tries to understand but their triggers and personal stuff get in the way.  Plus they can’t always accept or relate to our internal struggle.  It just doesn’t make sense to them because they never experienced what we experienced or have a hard time accepting our experiences as valid and real.  So friends & family are not objective enough to help in this situation.

Our therapist would be able to help, but only in session or in the case of an emergency that made an off-hours call necessary.  But this type of trigger often happens outside of sessions and is not problematic enough to be considered an emergency.  Besides, an emergency situation means a visit to the ER could happen.  We all try to avoid ER visits.

Next on the list is a phone or text crisis line.  I like and often use the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) 24-hour hotline.  It’s anonymous and reliable with a variety of volunteers who offer support in a variety of ways.  They are NOT licensed therapists and do not offer therapy or that kind of advice.  Nor do they offer easy solutions.  What they do offer is validation, compassionate, objective, active listening, and feedback with coping strategies and techniques to help get through the tense moments.

My child and teen alters trust the volunteers to be objective and will accept the reassurance they offer along with coping strategies and help creating safety plans to get through triggering moments.  As they calm down, the sensory overwhelm and confusion in our minds calm down.  Then we all can work together to figure out triggers & grounding or coping strategies to come back to the present.  From there we all can calm down.

Conclusion

With alter personalities, triggers come in many forms and are experienced on many levels.  Our struggle comes from the sensory overload that creates “noise” and confusion to block access to our tool box of coping strategies & techniques.  One trigger with multiple options in the tool box is one situation.  Multiple triggers within the same alter or group of similar alters is another situation.  One trigger for alters of different age groups or experiences creates its own unique situation.  Same for multiple triggers for alters of different age groups or experiences.

How can a system be objective and use both emotion and logic (DBT’s WISE MIND) with so many different “voices” speaking out at the same time?

It’s something we’re working on.  And maybe someday we won’t need an outside party to help find the path that calms everyone down enough to identify triggers and utilize coping strategies.

Thanks for reading.