Coping Challenges: Finding Language to describe body memory challenges

DISCLAIMER 1 – no photos today.  I couldn’t think of anything relevant and didn’t want to include book covers.  Also, this is a long, potentially triggering post.

DISCLAIMER 2 – what you read here is my opinion only and based on personal experiences. This information is provided as an alternate perspective and optional coping strategy from one survivor to another and does not replace professional recommendations from medical and/or mental health providers

Background

When I first started blogging, I mentioned many books as my favorite resources, but never explained why.  Same went for books that did not help or had unexpected results.

Shame is one reason – a personal shame that belittles me every time I think about sharing an opinion.

Lack of language to explain my feelings, thoughts, and experiences was the other reason. It’s really hard to say “my instincts did not react well to … in the book” and be taken seriously.

Now I have words and language to describe my experience of using Peter Levine’s process.  The experience was neither negative nor positive. It was overwhelming and opened up avenues into the trauma that no one predicted. Not any part of me could cope alone, and we weren’t able to cope together back then. It was before we re-connected with each other.

The process of movement, bodywork, integrating feelings with sensations, and releasing energy is what I described here in the post about Anger. The exploration of bodywork and so on started with Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger and continued with Sexual Healing as feelings and sensations started coming back to my body awareness. Plus I was genuinely confused and distressed about not being able to “feel” or “experience” sexual feelings at the time.

So what happened?

As with many steps in my recovery journey, my mind/feelings heal faster than my physical body. Spirit/soul/spirituality/religion helped keep me on the path to recovery through faith and belief in a higher power, but it couldn’t help me bridge the divide between my mind and body. The lack of communication and integration between the two fit the whole “two steps forward, one giant step backward” scenario.

My mind and spirit were and are on the fast track to recovery.  But my body (the parts of me that experienced the worst and most significant amounts of trauma) is taking longer to find its recovery path.

Psychotherapy helped heal the emotional and mental wounds; and partial programs taught me how to safely experience feeling. Neither technique helped me cope with the body pain and other sensations that got worse as my mind healed.

Waking the Tiger taught me a different way of looking at the mind/body/spirit connections and how to identify if a physical sensation related to an emotion or feeling.  But all I felt when inside my body was varied degrees of pain.

Every feeling was connected to pain of some kind. I didn’t have the tools, knowledge, or skill set to work with the pain and find out what was underneath.  Other sensations were hiding underneath the pain.  Part or parts of me knew that, recognized that not every feeling equals pain.

But past conditioning is hard to break.  And my trainers excelled at their specialties. They linked all of my feelings back to pain in childhood so that my body experienced pain every time I felt and emotion. This epiphany did not appear until years later and occurred while I was reading the Pay/Changeling book Series by Nalini Singh.

Reading a series about the recovery process of a whole race that spent 100 years not feeling provided hope that I could feel again too. Someday.  But I wouldn’t have made the that connection without the knowledge from Peter Levine’s books. And I wouldn’t have started searching for information about mind-body therapy techniques either.

Present Time

In the 3 years before I moved across the country, my counselor and I explored different types of mind-body therapy.  She and my other providers encouraged me to try alternative medicine and learn more about the mind-body trauma connection. I read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book and listened to a variety of webinars about his approach. I tried sensorimotor psychotherapy with different practitioners and also Deirdre Fay’s classes too. And I tried taking exercise classes in a gym or working out on my own in different places.

Each resource helped me learn about myself and my body – limitations, boundaries, strengths, and vulnerabilities – so that I could say “yes, this is worth trying again” or “no, I’m not ready for this yet”. Figuring out my limitations helped more than I understood at the time.  Without knowing how far I could go before my body shut down, I kept wandering into the “no trespassing zone” and passing out.  Then getting mad at myself for doing too much.

What are my limitations?

Agoraphobia – it’s a reaction to not feeling safe and not trusting my body to signal me when we need to get someplace safe ASAP.

My physical body – While it looks healthy, whole, etc. on the outside, it’s still healing on a massive scale on the inside. Every molecule, every cell in my body holds some kind of trauma memory. Right now, it holds everything inside and doesn’t know how to let go of or move memories, feelings, experiences, etc. around and out.  i.e. let go of the past.

Lack of knowledge – I couldn’t find answers using conventional methodologies. All of their strategies were too overwhelming for my body to cope with on a sensory level. These days I explore all kinds of healing methodologies.

What works for right now?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – a combination of herbs, body work, and acupuncture that helps move my chi to promote integrated healing and wellness. Works on mind/body/spirit at the same time

Qigong in all of its forms – physical exercise (like tai chi), meditation (standing/sitting/lying down), and energy healing (sound, meditation, physical movement) works on an energetic level to heal by removing blockages, etc. that prevents chi from circulating through my body.

Energy healing education – chakras, kundalini, prana, etc. is a general term for using energy movement for integrated healing of the mind/body/spirit connection.  Qigong is a specific type of energy healing.

Nutrition & diet – eating nutrient dense, whole foods and drinking lots of water.  I do not follow a specific diet because my body does not react well when I try to feed it something it doesn’t want.  Instead, I pay attention to the physical sensations and use that knowledge to inform my food and beverage choices.

Thanks for reading

Coping Strategy: 365 Days of writing affirmations or mantras

What is an affirmation?

An affirmation is a statement of positive intention.  It can be a phrase, a sentence, a group of sentences, or a quotation.

What is a mantra?

A mantra is a phrase, statement, slogan, or quotation that can be repeated frequently.  It can be used for comfort, inspiration, support, a renewal of faith, etc.

Why both instead of one or the other?

Both words have similar uses that can be hard to distinguish sometimes.  Affirmations can be used as mantras.  A mantra (whole or parts) can be used as an affirmation.  Since I can’t tell what category mine go into, I write out my intention and then decide if it’s a mantra or an affirmation later.

Inspiration comes from?

  • Other bloggers – So many bloggers are creating their own or sharing inspiring affirmations that I decided to be brave and try writing mine down too
  • Tara Brach – Understanding grief & loss, coping or healing through faith, meditation, and communication – I personally like her free “Tara’s Talks” videos
  • Pema Chodron – Lessons in spiritual resilience, faith (whether or not you are Buddhist), meditation, and compassion (loving kindness and mindfulness meditations)
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn – Mindfulness meditation to help with pain, stress, and other uncomfortable feelings through Harvard Medical School
  • Brene Brown – lessons in authentic living, shame, resilience, and vulnerability
  • Deirdre Fay’s classes – affirmations as part of meditation or breathing techniques to help cope with trauma
  • other self-help books – The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook was the second self-help book that helped me start making sense of the coping challenges and learn how to use affirmations even if I didn’t believe in them at the time.  My other favorite self-help and coping strategy books are on Pinterest if you want to look there too, but beware I also have some personal boards up there.  You might learn more than you care to about me…
  • Louise Hay – her affirmations helped me through some of my darkest moments; I’m grateful for the person who introduced me to her writing way back in the first years of my recovery journey

How does it help so far?

  • The affirmation or mantra sets my intention for the day
  • Makes my thoughts concrete and visible to anyone who reads it
  • Reminds me to feel gratitude and practice what I’ve learned to help cope no matter how I feel at the time
  • Gives me a place to visit and remember positive thoughts when my mind decides to go blank
  • Teaches me patience, consistency, perseverance, and follow-through on my goals and objectives
  • Let’s me practice self-kindness and self-compassion when I make mistakes by not writing down an affirmation or mantra every day

But 365 days?  Why?

Yes, 365 days or approximately 1 year.  It’s time for me to expand my boundaries and try to do this in spite of the triggers that stopped me in the past.  Plus this is an activity that all parts of me can participate in, remember, go back to, and enjoy together.  We are all involved and motivated to succeed.  This gives us all a better chance at accomplishing our goal.

Other thoughts

Some people will tell you that affirmations are crap or bs or (my personal favorite) hogwash.  You can’t change your life with positive affirmations.  And even if you can, how can you say them and have faith if you are in a negative mindset?  Or you have a negative self-image?  Or, like people in group once said, maybe these things can happen for other people, but not for me because I’m not worthy.

Maybe that’s true for some people.  It was sort of true for me back when I first started listening to people talk about the power of positive thinking, etc.  But then I tried looking at the concept from other perspectives. 

I started reading other affirmations to try to understand what made them positive or inspirational or meaningful. What was a mantra, and how did it relate to affirmations?  Because many people preferred using mantras instead, I wondered if it was language that made the difference.  Language as in how words are perceived by the dominant culture around us.  Later, I wondered if these affirmations and mantras were like prayers.  Instead of going directly to God, they were spoken as a gesture of faith in a higher power or to whatever religious deity the people believed in.

Questioning my spiritual path

That’s when I dropped the word “positive” and kept affirmations.  Also why I prefer “mantras” to “prayers” even though I do pray every night and every morning.  And if I time traveled back to the moment when I was choosing a religion, I’d probably be Jewish because that was the faith that brought me the most love and comfort in childhood.

Maybe some day I will be able to visit a Synagogue without crying – it’s been almost 30 years, and I still miss my Uncle Teddy.  And so I pray.  I practice compassion and gratitude through meditation and random acts of kindness.  I collect prayers, quotes, affirmations, and mantras that connect with my spirit.  Finally, I write my own affirmations and mantras.  Maybe someday I’ll share them here too.

Lessons Learned

And I learned that affirmations, mantras, and prayers all have a few things in common:

  • They share hope for a different outcome
  • They open people up to different possibilities and choices
  • They bring comfort during times of stress or overwhelming sensations
  • They are not always positive
  • They can be as simple as one word or as complicated as a poem
  • They work as long as the one speaking/writing them believes
  • They are the wishes and foundations for everyday miracles in life

Your Choice

*Like most tings in life, you get out of affirmations and mantras what you put into them.*

If you want to try one, why not pick a quote or phrase that is meaningful to you and repeat it once a day for a set time period.  At the end of that time period, reflect on how you feel and if anything has changed between then and now.  Then decide for yourself if you want to continue using them.

Thanks for reading

Shame: Writing, regrets, mistakes, and grudges

Earlier this week, I listened to Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong as part of my coping strategy to drown out the distracting ambient sound.  Ms. Brown built on her premise about being in the arena, falling down, and rising up again – specifically the rising up and continuing after falling – in this book.

I’m really happy that I waited until now to read the book.  If I had tried a few months ago or years ago when I first discovered her work, my mind and body would have been ready to learn what Ms. Brown shared.  Especially not about the benefits of journaling, drawing/coloring/sketching, reflection, meditation, and writing one’s thoughts on paper in general.

I tried a few of the exercises as I listened to the audiobook and came back with some lessons learned.

First Lesson:
I feel and experience regrets, but do not want them to influence or take over my life any more than I want grudges or my past to influence my present and future.  So when I say that I live without regrets, it means that I am learning from and remembering what those experiences taught me, but I my intention is to not get caught up in them.

So the phrase “living without regrets” is a trigger for me and means something different than what Ms. Brown discusses.  That’s okay too because I hope that someday I can change my opinion and live with my regrets instead of treating them like triggers or grudges.

Lesson 2:
I feel a lot of shame about my writing, writing goals, and career choices.  That shame is partly fear-based, but also tied in with my sense of self.  It’s part of what makes using coping strategies like journaling and art therapy so triggering.  Writing is something I learned out of necessity because my voice was silenced.

But before the necessity, came a love of writing that had to do with story-telling and sharing information.  Less about teaching and more about helping others learn to think, do, and act for themselves.  aka independence.  It’s something both sides of my family taught me from a very young age.  And something I wanted to share with my younger cousins as soon as I realized how unsafe it was to depend on adults.

Lesson 3:
While I am good at offering help and giving to others, I’m not as good about asking for and receiving help.  Receiving and accepting help is a lot less scary and stressful now than it used to be, but I have a long way to go before the residual shame and fear go away for good.

Beyond that, opening up and letting others into my world is not simple or easy.  One thing therapy has taught me is to be my authentic self always.  In that sense, I am learning to accept and be comfortable as a mostly-solitary introvert who is more often than not anti-social too.  Part of it comes from my own anxiety about being in crowds or interacting with people.  And part of it has to do with questioning my ability to cope with the prejudice and racism that often interferes with activities I choose to participate in.

In this, Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) is my role model.

Here’s an example of my notes from one exercise:

Shame and writing

I feel shame about writing outside of the blog.
I feel shame about being a writer.
I feel shame whenever I try to write a book or think about starting a book.
I feel shame whenever I take steps to change my career.
I feel shame whenever I think about where to take my resource website and blog.
Talking about regrets:
I want to live without regrets because every experience is meaningful to me.  In my mind, regrets are kind of like grudges.  I acknowledge regrets.  I feel the emotions related to the experience that led to feeling regret.  I learn from the experience and remember why I felt and/or still feel regret when thinking about the experience.  Then I let those feelings go for now.  My goal is to acknowledge, experience/feel, learn from, and then let go of those experiences so that they inform my present choices without directly influencing or taking them over.

My favorite part about Rising Strong:

Throughout the book, Ms. Brown acknowledges that mental/behavioral problems and substance abuse along with trauma add complexities to the concepts and learning path she shares in her book.  One chapter towards the end specifically discusses this and clearly states that the purpose of this book is for guidance and support purposes; it is not a treatment plan or supposed to be used as one.

I really appreciate this message because trauma, substance abuse, and mental/behavioral problems really do change how an individual experiences life and emotions.

My Darkness or Shadow self:

I am or can be rebellious, stubborn, bad tempered, slow to anger yet easily triggered (reactive), sometimes insecure, sometimes arrogant, curious, slow to make decisions, sarcastic, sometimes mean, often blunt to the point of rudeness, and type A personality among other things.  I often fight back and stand up when running is the safer option too.

And yet, each of these characteristics helped me become who I am now.  As part of my healing journey, I had to learn that being strong, having boundaries, securing those boundaries, and showing confidence are neither good nor bad.  How they are expressed and how I react to others decides how those characteristics are perceived.  And part of Rising Strong‘s message has to do with embracing the dark or shadowed parts of oneself as much as the lighter parts and valuing all parts of oneself.

By valuing all parts of oneself, the light shines through the darkness, burning away the secrets and fears that feed shame and negativity.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a lot to reflect on after listening to one of Brene Brown’s books.  In the correct frame of mind, her books are inspiring and thought-provoking.  In a different frame of mind, her books could be (unintentionally) triggering.

If any of you do decide to read or listen to these books, please be cautious and mindful of how your mind and body reacts.

Thanks for reading.

Family: Writing to my dad this year

This time of year, I think about my family often.  A lot of “firsts” happened between November and May.  Including the first time my dad chose someone else instead of me.  That choice left me feeling shamed, rejected, and hurt (physically and emotionally).

Perspective has taught me that, no matter what he said or did, my father loves me.  He has never chosen me or put me first, but he does love me and did try to take care of me as best he could.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if some of the things he said and did after I reached adulthood were his way of protecting me and ensuring I had the means to become and independent adult.

Self-Reflection over the past few months has taught me that I am truly in a better place overall.  I feel physically safe 99% of the time and emotionally safe about 80% of the time except during the rough periods.  My life is prosperous and overall happy.  Because of all this, I am in a position to reach out and contact my dad without the crippling anxiety or fear of discovery/intrusion into my present life.

So I am composing a letter to him.  Right now, the drafts are in my mind.  At some point, I will decide whether or not to type or hand write the letter and mail it in an envelope with only my initials.  No contact info or ability to trace anything back to me.

Why now?

I miss my dad.  I worry about him and his health.  And I worry about the responsibility he has in taking care of the egg donor.

Yes, I am still reluctant to call her “mom” or “mother”, etc.  She didn’t raise me.  And she never really took care of me.  I only got her attention when I embarrassed, insulted, shamed, or offended her in some way.  Or when she decided to “be a nice mom” and involve herself in my life to show how much she loves me and how little I appreciate her.

No I don’t want anything to do with her or my sibling and his circle of people.

Will this be difficult?  Yes because they all share a house.

Do I care?  Not anymore.

Wish me luck.  The goal is to have this letter written and mailed out by summer.

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