Coping Challenge: Grief and the movie “Groundhog Day”

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

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

Grief

Every February – March, I experience crushing amounts of grief about my past. People who have died. People I’ve lost in other ways. People who lost me. Experiential loss – failed achievements, shameful experiences, guilt, and so on. It almost always happened between February and March; sometimes as late as April.

For many years (decades really), I would go through the year and do what was necessary or required of me; then wake up one morning and feel like a blank slate – happy and looking forward to life instead of sad and confused. I had a routine that did not change much. But anything new or interesting that happened before the “wake-up” was lost. I would make friends and forget them. I would make plans and not follow through because I didn’t remember making the plans. And I would learn skills, but then not remember how to use them months, weeks, years, or days/hours/minutes later.

It was scary and felt shameful – another secret to keep from everyone – not something I could explain to the adults in my life. But it did earn me a reputation with my teachers and lots of time with the special education department instructors.

Odd part about this: even though my mind and cognitive memory could not remember or do the tasks, my body and muscle memory did remember and could do the tasks as long as I used “instinct” instead of logic.

Later on as an adult in trauma-informed therapy, I realized that the “instinct” was actually letting my alter personalities take control of my body to accomplish the tasks. They remembered the lessons and the practice. They could do what I could not. In school, though, my alters rarely showed themselves or got involved in day-to-day activities. They understood their place much better than I did.

The sense of loss and failure combined with teasing from peers and instructors crushed me so often that I started to avoid competitions and learning anything interesting.

What was the point if I tried and tried only to forget and fail every time?

And so my teen and college years went through this cycle every year. The ignorance of this pattern continued until 2011/2012 when I decided to try working with a dog trainer to self train a service animal to help with the PTSD. You (and I thought so too) would think it’s hard to forget all the love, care, training, and work and time spent with a puppy over 4 months, yes?

Well I did forget. I literally woke up one Saturday morning and couldn’t remember anything the pup and I worked on together. I couldn’t remember his favorite treats or games. I couldn’t remember writing a blog or notes in a notebook. I am lucky I remembered the dog and his name; at one point I might have forgotten the pup’s name too.

And as I tried to remember working with the pup, I started to realize how much other stuff I had forgotten too. Work-related tasks and achievements. Bills to pay. Plans made. Grocery shopping. Appointments. Memories with friends and acquaintances. And how something similar happened every year and often caused problems at work that I couldn’t explain, especially in the last few years working for the same company with the same people.

It was one heck of a wake up call.

p.s. The pup ended up having serious digestive problems and was re-homed to a loving family with a large back yard and the time/money to give him the life he deserved. And I learned that it’s not safe to live with beings who depend on me until I get my s**t together.

Groundhog Day – the 1992 movie with Bill Murray

Hans Haase / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) from Wikimedia Commons

Back in 1992, when I was 10 years old, there was a time travel movie called “Groundhog Day”. It was a grown up drama/comedy that I didn’t really understand or remember; not even when I re-watched one weekend as a bored teen. Still don’t understand a lot and am not interested in re-watching to get all the details.

What I do remember (and this is why it sticks in my memory) is that the main character (played by Bill Murray) had an awful day – that just happened to be Groundhog Day – and went to bed wishing he could do it all over again. So he wakes up the next day. Starts his routine. And realizes part way through he is re-living the events of Groundhog Day. Over. And over. And over again. Until the main character gets frustrated enough to reflect on what could be keeping him locked in a time loop and how to get out of it.

Eventually, the main character resolves the conflict keeping him in the time loop by making changes in his life and interactions with the people around him. How he does it and what those changes are, I don’t remember. All I do remember is feeling queasy and anxious whenever I thought about the movie. That continued until I got really frustrated a few years ago and looked up the movie on the internet. Once I read the description and watched the preview, the connection clicked.

I finally had words to describe what I was feeling and going through to my counselor. And something concrete to use as an analogy for the counselor. And for me too. Some of my best coping strategies come from reading books and watching movies. Being 2013/2014 when I finally looked up the movie and shared it with the counselor, we had been working for about 3-4 years by then. She had observed this happening every year and waited for me to bring it up. Once I did, we began working together to create plans and strategies to manage this recurring event.

Hope Arrives in 2019; continues in 2020

2019 was the first year I did not wake up sometime between February and April with significant memory loss or some other manifestation of grief that left me injured, impaired, or triggered in some way. I experienced the grief and felt the depression that wasn’t really depression. Expressing it safely was not as easy, but no one got hurt either. I didn’t lose weight. My physical and emotional health stayed relatively stable.

Instead, my body memories erupted as a rash that lasted months. When not experiencing the rash, other parts of me stopped feeling numb. I looked fatter from bloating and puffiness around certain muscle groups, but did not gain weight from it. Pain increased. Energy and the need to move did too. Luckily, my current counselor, Chinese medicine practitioners, and primary health physician were/are aware of these changes and helped me cope.

Having my parents and other relatives back in my life and being supportive helped too. That continues to help in many different ways.

Now, in March 2020, I recognized the signs of grief when they started last weekend and have been doing my best to cope with them. So far the only major crisis was exploding the plastic lotion bottles when I tried to get soap (made myself and poured in) out of them multiple times in the week. That resulted in having to clean and rinse the pumps; then put them back together and onto the lotion bottles. Funny – yes. The next part, not so much.

Water got stuck in the pump parts and contaminated the soap blends I made. And since I made them with soap, essential oils, and aloe vera gel (a water-based carrier), mold and fungus grew at the bottom of both containers after 5 days. Yes 2 containers because I made a hand soap and a shower gel. So, after examining the bottoms of each container a few days ago and seeing the white strands floating up from the bottom, I dumped out the soap; rinsed the containers too.

Now, they are waiting to be recycled because I don’t trust myself using the containers again. Not after I caused the pumps to pop off and the pieces to come apart after trying to pump soap through the mechanism multiple times.

If that pump exploding experience is the worst that happens this year, I will be so grateful. If not, well, I’m trying not to fall into anticipation and catastrophic thinking. Not easy, mind you. But I’m trying. And succeeding sometimes.

Thanks for reading.

Body Memories: Identity – what do I look like (self and other perceptions)

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

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

This is not something I discuss often because the memories are jumbled up – a tangled mess that is filled with distortion. My perception of the experiences will be different from others who have known me in the past or shared the experience.

So I write posts like this with the following caveat:
My memories are distorted and filled with a perception based on negative body image and negative identity. That was then and not who I am now. This story is as factual as possible given the memory holes and distortion. Please read with skepticism.

Anorexia

My anorexia started with disrupted eating patterns and negative beliefs about food, weight, dieting, and self image from early childhood until early adulthood. At first, I internalized the messages from the women in my family – most of whom had weight issues and were constantly dieting – about how a female should look, what she should eat, how much to eat, when/where, etc. in order to be a proper young lady.

I’ve always been short and skinny. My weight problems included gaining weight and maintaining a healthy weight. As a child, that got me reverse shaming – comparisons with other family members saying “oh you’re so lucky you don’t have to worry about your weight. You’re so skinny and you eat like a bird. Wish I was that skinny and could lose weight like you do.” Their “praise” always came at a cost – “Oh you look so pretty and skinny. Why can’t you be as outgoing as your cousins?” or “Look at her; she’s so skinny and pretty. But don’t worry because you’re smarter and have social skills + grace. That’s so much better since looks go away fast.”

Whenever my mom went on a diet, I did too. Because in her mind, we shared a body. So I never saw myself as skinny or thin. People around me did. I always thought I was fat, overweight, and clumsy.

Sometimes, I still feel that way.

The eating disorder started around 5 years old; after the first time I was raped and gang raped. These people liked how I looked and that I was strong and resilient enough to take whatever punishments they handed out. Losing weight was a way to punish myself, control something in my out-of-control world, and punish the people around me by giving them what they accused me of being – a weak, skinny, ugly, dumb, socially awkward child.

Hiding In Plain Sight

Anorexia physically changes a person on the outside and the inside. By the time I hit my teens, I had done enough damage to not be considered “beautiful” or “pretty” anymore. I looked sick and tired and weak most of the time. It was easy for people to ignore me and not take me seriously.

That contributed to the social awkwardness – I couldn’t speak up or have conversations or friends with all the secrets – and my ability to be invisible anywhere at any time.

The downside – once I did speak and get people’s attention, they didn’t/couldn’t/maybe wouldn’t forget me. Or that fact that I was not exactly what I pretended to be to everyone else.

But the experiences leading up to the eating disorder taught all parts of me (because yes, I had already started developing alter personalities by 5 years old) to learn ways of manipulating my body and personality to meet other people’s perceptions of who I was supposed to be. I stayed skinny. My body was thin and bruised easily. I cried a lot and was quiet the rest of the time. It was obvious that I was smart, but also flighty because I had a hard time paying attention and participating in class. Kids didn’t want to be around me because I was too shy, quiet, and weird. Easy for the popular kids to make fun of and use for mean games.

And so, I learned that my survival was based on becoming whatever other people wanted me to be on a moment’s notice.

Who was I? What did I look like in my own eyes?

Young girl: Fat, clumsy, ugly, awful, stupid girl who didn’t deserve to live. Not as good as her cousins or younger brother. Not graceful or acceptable or good at anything. Hates her body. Hates being female. Always being used and shamed.

Adolescent girl: skinny, nerdy bookworm with too many curves and a bad attitude to keep people away from her. Hated herself, hated everyone around her and just wanted to disappear. Boobs too big or not big enough. Butt too big and got too much attention. Skinny in spite of that and always too short. Everyone made fun of me for being too short. Irritable all the time because I couldn’t be myself and show my personality in school. Hated being there and having to find ways to deal with bullies and teachers without blowing my hide-in-plain-sight cover. Lots of temper and anger management issues.

Young adult: ugly, fat, woman who gets too much attention even though she wears ill-fitting clothes. nothing to live for. hates her body and her self. hates her life. ready to die, but suicide doesn’t work. questions the meaning of life when everything hurts all the time, and she can’t even move without pain anymore. Doesn’t want this body. Hates herself and everyone around her. Does not respect anyone or anything. Anger and shame all the time.

Adult in Recovery: plain, sometimes attractive woman with a slender, curvy body she is learning to love, recognize, and accept. Chooses to live and be healthy by listening to and communicating with her body. Working together with all parts of herself, she learns how to change negative relationships and beliefs into neutral and positive ones. Pain is constant, and she doesn’t like her body much because it draws too much attention. But at least she is learning to be, express, and respect her authentic self. This woman has something to live for and values all the gifts in her life.

Adult now: not conventionally attractive, but happy with how she looks. 9 times out of 10, this woman recognizes the face and body reflected back from the mirror. She appreciates and embraces her curves, works with herself and other practitioners to find/utilize effective coping strategies that feel good, are positive and sustainable, and support her healthy lifestyle goals. She lives an authentic lifestyle full of love, laughter, and as many emotions as she can feel, express, and move on from every day. Her body hurts less, and the body memories are finally starting to leave her physical form. But that creates some anxiety and confusion because now her body is changing and looking/feeling/moving different again.

Other Perceptions

If you’ve read past posts, you have an idea of the negative beliefs taught to me growing up. If you’ve read the paragraphs before this one, you also can get an idea of the perceptions others have/had about me.

Perceptions are subjective opinions based on observations and shared information. Maybe that information is factual, maybe not. Maybe the observations are accurate, maybe they are missing vital clues and cues. Subjective means the observations and information are filtered through the individual’s own knowledge base and sense of self; then mixed with existing opinions, biases, information, emotions, etc. to create the opinion.

For many years, I relied on outside perceptions to understand who I was. I didn’t have an identity or a sense of self. My trainers considered me a blank slate with no personality. Peers who wanted to hurt and insult me called me a person without a personality. They thought it was the worst possible insult ever because as teens we all want to be seen as individuals with cool personalities who also fit in with our friend group(s). My mother taught me that we were the same person living in two different bodies; whatever she suffered, I suffered too. Her problems were my problems. Her failures, my failures.

But, not true with any positive or successful accomplishments. They were all hers.

I can’t remember when I decided to stop looking outward for approval and acceptance. Maybe during grief counseling after one aunt died in high school. Maybe when I started seeing the college mental health counselors. Or a college professor/mentor took me aside for a private talk. Or maybe when the police finally broke up the pedophile ring and put many of the people in jail. I was shunned for the last two years of high school because of the rumors and also some popular kids’ witnessing of me as my alter personality at those events.

But people always looked at me and made assumptions. Their perception was always based on first impressions and my physical appearance. It made my life easy because anyone who had a negative response to me was someone to avoid. That worked until I graduated college and had to get a job.

But by then, I had started counseling and was working on the idea of identity and perception. It was a concept I learned in college psychology classes and followed up on in my own time. The mental health counselor at the time taught me how to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and meditation to work through cognitive distortions and perceptions about myself, people around me, and experiences.

Identity

Identity is a work in progress that occurs throughout life.

Change is constant – always happening, never stopping. People can learn to accept and work with the change or resist/deny/fight the change and struggle in the aftermath as the change occurs.

Who I am now is not who I was in the past. Is not who I will be in the future.

But who I am now is the best version of my authentic self I can be in this moment and who I strive to be as I continue to learn, grow, and become.

It took a long time for me to stop hating myself and all the people around me. It took even longer to learn how to respect myself so that I could respect other people; then earn their respect too. Finally, learning to love myself is a constant practice. It’s easy to say the words, but difficult to do because it means accepting all the parts of myself I like and all the parts of myself I feel uncomfortable about. It means accepting what I have said and done in the past, what I say and do now, and that life circumstances can take away the choices that make me me.

If you were wondering, this is where the meditation practice comes in. Meditation helps me observe my self, my memories, and my experiences through an objective lens or perspective. From there, I can think about my choices and what I could have, might have, or would have said/done/felt/thought differently. And the possible outcomes if something changed.

Yes, that could spiral down into negative or catastrophic thinking. But thoughtful, caring, non-judgmental observation allows me to learn from my past instead of wallow in shame and guilt about what happened. Then, if a similar experience happens again (and it almost always will), I can think back on the past and choose a different path with a potential different outcome.

If it’s the same person and the outcome is the same even with a different choice, then I can say to myself: “I tried something different this time. I made choice and a change. The other person did not change or or react or act different. My change made things worse, but it’s not my responsibility or my fault because I did my best. I can feel what I feel and express these emotions safely; then let it go and move on.”

If it’s the same person and a different outcome, then maybe it was one or both of us who created something that allowed us to create a solution or a compromise or decide to not interact anymore…

You get the idea, yes? Because that works for similar situations and different people or context too.

But these mental exercises and examinations of my self: reactions, actions, feelings, thoughts, etc. are what helped me create a positive identity and sense of self not based on external accomplishments, but internal values.

So when the external stuff gets taken away (i.e. breakup with friend or partner, job loss or change, accident, etc.), I am still me with a stable identity and secure sense of self based on faith, unconditional love, respect, and acceptance. Not just of who I am, but also who each being I meet is too.

That is why I chose the photo of a man and a woman sitting together and smiling for today’s graphic representation. They look happy, healthy, comfortable with themselves, and comfortable with each other.

Thanks for reading. I wish I could add more photos, but honestly, I struggled to find even one photo that worked with today’s topic.

Thanks for reading.

Alter Post: Body Memories, Movement, and Sensory Grounding

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

Grapes and Sensory Information

Grapes are an interesting fruit. As a sensory grounding tool, they can be used with all five senses. Taste, touch, sound (have you ever squished a grape by accident…or maybe on purpose?), smell, and sight. Plus, finding a stock photo of grapes is a lot easier than one about the five (or four) senses. So today’s featured photo is of ripe grapes on a vine.

Personally, all parts of me prefer to use semi-sweet dark chocolate or frozen blueberries for sensory grounding meditation or breathing exercises, but we like grapes, raspberries, apples, tea, and cheese in a pinch. Coffee works great too, but none of us like the taste enough to drink it. And chocolate was easy for me (any version of me) to get as it did dual jobs as comfort food too.

Fruits were not always as easy to get and store for an emergency, middle-of-the-night trigger. Or an “I’m on my way into work on public transit and am having a flashback” type of situation. You get the idea. So I experimented with a lot of different types of food and snacks. Cookies, brownies, cake, pizza, sandwiches, granola bars, and so on. Many of them engaged 3 or more senses, but they were not strong enough to reach through the anxiety and fear blocking out everything.

And so the experiments continued until I discovered dark chocolate (candy, bar, morsels, and hot chocolate drink; but not chocolate milk or ice cream) worked 99% of the time to engage all of my senses and bring me to the present moment. That was actually the beginning of my obsession with finding portable items that worked for panic attacks and flashbacks on-the-go.

But, it was also my introduction to learning how to use sensory information in present time and on purpose instead of instinctively in the background of life (i.e. hyper vigilance or chronic pain).

Body Memories vs Flashbacks – or not?

At the beginning of my recovery I thought flashbacks and body memories were two completely different symptoms of my past trauma. And only flashbacks were “medically approved” as symptoms because they were listed under PTSD and other anxiety disorders in the DSM (IV at the time and V now). So I approached coping techniques and strategies for each symptom separately.

All I ever felt in my body was a) numbness; or b) pain. There was never any in-between. More pain or less pain. Numbness or less pain. I didn’t experience or noticed that I expressed emotions – couldn’t feel them even if my body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions showed something else.

Yes, I was that separated from all parts of myself for over 2 decades.

Traditional psychotherapy and group counseling helped me learn to recognize and cope with my emotions and overwhelming mental states. But did not talk much about body sensations or physical pain.

Never mentioned the connection between emotions and physical body sensations at all.

Not every Physical Sensation is Pain
It's our body's way of communicating with us
How we move and think about moving matters
#movementmatters

That was a not-so-happy accident all parts of me discovered during a series of bad panic attacks – one after the other – while working with the first trauma specialist.

The nightmares and emotional flashbacks were lessening in strength and severity, but the physical panic attacks that left me passed out on my bed for hours after experiencing hot flashes, cold chills, and muscle cramps from my legs to my shoulders got worse. Over the counter medications didn’t help. I refused to try anything else or anything stronger because of my past experiences with drugs and alcohol. Movement was not possible; only made the pain worse.

Meditation practice from Jon Kabat Zinn’s audiobook classes did help me learn the difference between pain sensations and other body sensations. He provided mantras and medication practices that helped promote body awareness and “making friends with pain” instead of rejecting or denying it.

I used the mantras and meditation or breathing for the body memories/physical panic attacks.

Then used sensory grounding and everything else for the flashbacks and emotional panic attacks.

But that was partially effective – as in it reduced the frequency, but not the intensity or length of each panic attack fueled by triggers, flashbacks, or body memories.

And that’s when it clicked – a light bulb kind of moment – that I could use sensory grounding strategies to learn the different sensations moving through my body. Maybe even connect them to different emotions I experience at or around the same time the pain or sensation occurs.

The body memories and flashbacks were not different at all. They were/are two parts of the same symptom – experiencing triggers in my mind (flashbacks) and body (body memories) at the same time.

By working with them together and using integrated coping strategies that address all aspects of the trigger, all parts of me (or I as we) learned how to cope with and reduce the effects of our flashbacks, body memories, and panic attacks.

Chinese Medicine + Sensory Grounding + Spiritual Practice = Energy Healing from the inside out

That was enough to convince me to try acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (includes herbs, energy work, body work/massage, and a holistic approach to health/wellness) again.

And spark my curiosity about energy movement in my body. Why can I short out or freeze electrical and mechanical equipment? Why do I break computers and mobile devices so often? How come credit card machines stop working when I get stressed out?

And yes, all that and more has happened when my internal energy is out of whack.

So I used the lessons from Jon Kabat Zinn and other Buddhist teachers to learn about energy medicine through different meditation and moving meditation (yoga, tai chi, and qigong are popular versions) practices. That gave me a level of awareness that let’s me feel inside my body where and how energy is moving through my body. With my fingers and hands, I can palpate muscle groups and feel where energy is blocked and stuck inside me. During treatments, I can track what the needles or acupuncture tools are doing inside my body – i.e. where they are moving and stirring or drawing and releasing energy as it travels inside me.

Remember back at the beginning when I mentioned that this was all instinctive to me at first? I thought it was my hyper vigilance…

And in past posts I mentioned turning weaknesses or challenges into strengths…

Well this is a coping challenge turned into coping strategy.

I was skeptical at first. I didn’t want to believe in energy healing or energy medicine. That people could sense movement and problems in their bodies or be tuned in to energy of other people. But the more I denied it, the worse the physical pain and panic attacks got.

So I embraced it. Used patience and persistence to find faith that it would end soon. And it did. Each one got progressively shorter with less intense periods of shame spirals afterwards. I did not feel the need to self harm as often either.

That was one more step into embracing my authentic (if distinctly weird and unconventional) self.

Body Remembers – Finally Reveals Trauma and Ready for Healing

These days, my body is starting to trust the rest of me and our practitioners with its secrets. What secrets?

Well, the scars for one thing. And the muscle kinks and puffy places in my body that are not actually fat for another.

Wait, I’ve seen a few of the photos you shared and your skin doesn’t have physical scars. Are you talking about emotional scars? or (gasp) invisible scars?

Like everything else on this blog, the truth surprised me as much as it may surprise you:

Yes I have scars. No they are not often visible to the eyes. I think only one scar is visible all the time. The rest appear as textural differences in my skin or sometimes rashes and blemishes (acne). They show up when they feel like it and then disappear until the next time a trigger brings them to the surface.

As for the textural scars, no one notices those unless they can feel my skin or examine it under a magnifying glass. You can guess how many people get that privilege…

The physical pain in my body is caused by my muscles and tissues being frozen in place or numb for many years as a form of self-protection. The puffiness and “knots” under my skin are the tightened forms the muscles and water retention took on to protect themselves from harm.

Only now, 3.5 years after moving west and 16 years into recovery, is my body starting to reveal its secrets and start physically healing. I have rashes in unusual places, but at the same time less physical pain and less knotted muscle groups. I can feel sensation in parts of my body that I haven’t experienced in decades – yes decades.

My youthful looks are a genetic gift/curse/quirk. But I haven’t felt my lower and middle back muscles move since I was 5 years old – 32 years ago. My shoulders used to lock up every time I started to stretch and do more than lift laundry baskets and groceries until 2019-2020.

So this is all new to me. And exciting too. Because now that I can understand and communicate with my body, all parts of me can start moving more and enjoying more of life.

Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

Thanks for reading.

Holidays: Celebration with a Twist

Anniversaries: Celebration with a Twist for Chinese New Year

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

Unnecessary Comparisons & Competitions within Family Traditions

Holidays of any kind are rather stressful and triggering for me. Chinese or Lunar New Year is one that twists me up with glee and anxiety in equal measures and has since I was a kid.

Glee because I got to openly celebrate this part of my culture at home, in school, and pretty much anywhere without the usual jeers and harassment. Plus the food was always incredible and filled with rare treats our grandparents spent weeks making for all of us. The hong bows (red envelopes with money) were less interesting to me, even after I got older and better understood the concept of “free money”.

Anxiety because it meant spending time around relatives, neighbors, and other Chinese people who compared me with my brother and cousins (and found me lacking), treated me poorly because of where my parents were in the family hierarchy, or ignored me completely. I looked younger than my age, was too smart for my own good, and acted clumsy/socially awkward compared to my socially adept, taller cousins who looked and acted more mature than their ages.

Then there are the traditions and rituals involved in preparing for the Chinese New Year holiday – some that stay the same from region to region, and others unique to family mini-cultures – that actually starts on New Years Eve with dinner. That can take up to 3 weeks of advanced preparation with all the cleaning, organizing, decorating, food preparation, and cooking involved. Finally, the celebrations may start on the evening before, but they last for 4 weeks. And each day of the first two weeks have specific traditions involving travel, visiting, receiving guests, and so on.

College Drama: A hick’s traditions passed over for a green card?

Then, once in college, I met a young man from Hong Kong through a college dorm neighbor. I want to say we were friends, but it was more one sided than that. She liked having me around because my “pathetic” existence boosted her self esteem. Plus I was at least as smart as she was so our academic accomplishments became a competition she strived to win. Since I didn’t care, she often did win.

But that’s getting away from the point. She practically worshipped this young man and wanted to stay friends with him, but he was having trouble with his green card and ability to stay in the US. Before I met him, she asked me about my heritage and how I celebrated holidays with my family. I answered her questions and reached out to other family members for more details if I didn’t have an answer. It was a good excuse for me to re-connect with that part of my culture.

A few weeks later, she came back and told me his opinion: my family and I were a bunch of hicks from the country because people in the city don’t celebrate like that. He called us country bumpkins and other terms I can’t remember.

Maybe if she waited until after asking me to go out with him and consider marrying him so he can get a green card and stay in the US before telling me that, I wouldn’t have been so rude to him when we met. Then again, maybe I would have been just as rude – but less annoying and a lot friendlier during his dorm visits.

Either way, that was the beginning of the end our our pseudo-friendship and another reason for me to hate holidays. Not the first time someone proposed marriage that way even if it was for other reasons, but it was the last time. And yes, both experiences soured me on the idea of relationships and marriage – especially with an Asian man.

Celebration with a Twist

Holidays: Celebration with a Twist
Happy Year of the Rat! Reclaiming another holiday

I do my best, but cannot follow everything. The traditions I know best have been passed down from my grandparents to their children to their grandchildren (i.e. my brother, cousins, and me). Even within that large circle, some traditions have changed with people marrying in and bringing their own holiday traditions. My father’s side of the family decorates different from my mother’s side of the family. And each of my mother’s married siblings follows a blend of each side’s food and decorating traditions.

Planning my move during Chinese New Year wasn’t intentional. But the apartment came available at the right time and for the right price. I had the money mostly saved up and a plan to cover the rest of my other expenses. Plus the act of packing up my old place to move in to the new one constituted cleaning the whole apartment and discarding anything old, broken, unwanted, or holding me back with the end of the year – part of the holiday preparation 🙂

While I couldn’t decorate the new apartment with traditional good luck and prosperity symbols, I was able to do some laundry, change my sheets, shower, put on clean clothes, and cook a small meal with the basics of a traditional dinner on Friday evening. Then rest quietly until bed time and spend Saturday relaxing or napping as I let my body heal from the physical stress of packing + working + coping with many triggers and 0 down time all week.

In the end, I was able to reclaim another holiday the trauma had taken away from me.

A new home.

A fresh start.

An auspicious new year.

HAPPY 2020 YEAR OF THE RAT

Thanks for reading.

EMBRACE DIFFERENCES

Alter Post: Self Care in a triggering environment

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

You can find the latest Scent Reflections blog here. FYI, I re-posted from the Emotional Sobriety blog; a place to gain insight into other recovery strategies, challenges, and options

Background

Life is full of challenges. Some more difficult than others. Finding a sanctuary that suits emotional, physical, basic, and lifestyle needs within a specific budget is one of the difficult challenges.

For most of my life I settled for “good enough” in terms of living spaces and environmental sanctuaries. All parts of me did not believe we deserved a safe home and community that fulfilled more than the basic needs. Part of the self punish,ent and shame cycle was living in such places that were physically safe, but not emotionally or spiritually safe.

If you want to know more about my thoughts on self protection and safety, check out these posts from 2019.

If you want to read about some challenges and coping strategies for feeling safe, use the search bar with key words “self care”, “safety”, “feeling safe”, “DBT” to start. Or look the Coping Challenges and Coping Strategies categories in the archives.

“Good Enough” isn’t really good for me. What about you?

Settling for “good enough” is so much easier. Sometimes necessary, but often less scary, anxiety-provoking, triggering, etc. at the beginning. Over time, however, it’s scarier, more triggering, and extra anxiety-provoking

But for now, my alters and I will share some insights we’ve learned about triggering environments.

Growing up, people used to tell me I wouldn’t succeed in life and should settle for “good enough” since that was…maybe…the best I could achieve. Even if my work was better laid out, more creative, etc., teachers, parents, and other people told me my efforts were “ok” or “not as good as so-and-so” or “(insert name)’s work is better; work harder”.

Or they accused me of cheating, stealing someone else’s ideas, etc. Or other people (in group work) took credit for my ideas. And I let this happen instead of trying to get the acknowledgement for myself. Instead of fighting back against a community of people determined to put me in my place – beneath them.

That worked for a long time – and still does in some circumstances – to the point where I didn’t think I deserved or could achieve anything good in my life. That included an apartment that met more than my basic needs, acted like a sanctuary, and felt safe – emotionally, spiritually, environmentally, physically.

Being Different Brings Out the Best in Me – but not always in others

I didn’t – and still don’t – think I am a good person. I have too much darkness, live too often in the gray areas, and embrace my flaws/failures/negative attributes too much to ever be good and light and positive. But I like being me.

FOR EXAMPLE

  • My temper is scary and terrible; it intimidates people
  • My facial expressions and body language don’t match my tone of voice or what I talk about
  • I don’t remember or recognize people I meet on the streets; let alone remember names.
  • I sometimes talk over people and interrupt without meaning to do so; it’s an anxiety response
  • I am messy and struggle with housekeeping.
  • I stutter and lose words in group conversations or stressful experiences.
  • I can be abrasive, blunt, rude, and annoying when I feel like it.
  • I apologize too much
  • And I offend people with my unique perspective on life and comfort sharing those opinions.
EMBRACE DIFFERENCES

And yet, these flaws are as much a part of me as the positive characteristics people attribute to me. They show my personality and allow people glimpses of who I really am.

I developed these so-called flaws into effective strategies that help me cope with life before recovery. They kept people away from me. Kept them from learning my secrets or exposing me when I wanted to be invisible.

After recovery started, they became useful communication tools that helped me as I practiced DBT on myself (internal dialogue with alter personalities, negative self-talk, flashbacks) and other triggering people in my life. It wasn’t perfect, but it taught me this:

every part of my personality – aka every part of what makes me me – has value and purpose

TJ/AlterXpressions

By embracing, learning from, and turning into strengths these flaws (aka weakness), I learn how to accept myself as I am and create effective coping strategies or techniques that also work within the laws/guidelines/terms of my residence/place of business, etc.

The Triggering Environment, Coping Strategies, Moving on My Terms

First, the triggering environment is living in an emotionally unsafe apartment. Yes, it sounds a lot like the previous apartment where I needed help from an attorney to get out of that mess.

This situation is similar and different. I am on good terms with building management. The apartment itself and my close neighbors are great. I have enjoyed living and working here for the past two years.

The apartment amenities can be challenging sometimes because the building is more than 100 years old with original electrical wiring. My job and this website are dependent on Internet and electronics. Plus the bathroom ventilation system allows smells from my apartment to get into my upstairs and downstairs neighbors’ apartments. Finally, the noise from above can be heard easily below.

The reverse is also true.

I’ve had three different groups of people living above me in the 2 years renting this apartment. My first upstairs neighbors triggered me by intentionally being noisy, smoking in a non-smoking apartment, and creating a hostile living environment through their friends and acquaintances who also lived in this building.

That got settled with help from building management (different group than now) and their permission to let me use coping strategies and techniques that worked, but were not common and did not conform to cultural norms.

They left at the end of their lease, and the environmental/emotional triggers went away for a while. I settled in and started to feel comfortable. The nightmares and flashbacks eased up too.

Then the third group of neighbors moved in. These people liked breaking the rules and did not appreciate when the rules were enforced. My current building is a non-smoking building. It has designated quiet hours too.

But these neighbors smoked pot often in their apartments. Or cigarettes. Or herbal blends with pot in them. The smoke kept getting into my apartment. I didn’t know it was them at first. A lot of people moved in and out during that time period, and many of the new neighbors smoked in their apartment.

In the beginning, I used aromatherapy to change the smell in my apartment. My favorite diffuser is strong enough to use in my whole apartment. When that stopped, I used scented candles or a combination of both.

As the smells increased, I started reporting them to management during the day and the management’s’ courtesy patrol/security team in the evenings. Had neighbors come in and verify the smells. Talked with an attorney and non-emergency police lines to get details.

In other words, I followed the rules.

When that didn’t get me anywhere and the neighbors upstairs continued to escalate their intentional negative behaviors, I informed the property management that I was going to use my own coping strategies and techniques to feel safe and comfortable in my own apartment until my lease ended. These techniques could be considered unorthodox, weird, etc., but they wouldn’t break lease terms or the law. I would also be looking for a new apartment and continuing to inform them of the disturbances by email.

From then on, I started using everything in my toolbox to cope with the upstairs neighbors. First, I used them the way I normally do. Then I started experimenting and doing research to find more resources. My family helped too. Rebuilding those connections increased my support network and made some of the worst times more bearable.

Intentions, Gratitude, Humor & Patience = Moving to a better place

Last September, I set my intention.

Work on myself until I believed I deserved a home that met ALL my requirements and needs; then prepare as much as possible to take advantage of the moving opportunity when it presented itself.

I practiced gratitude and self care. Gratitude in thought, emotion, and behavior – towards all parts of myself (internal) and every being in my life (humans, animals, plants, etc.) – to find blessings and miracles everywhere. Learn from reflection and appreciate everything happening now.

I practiced Cognitive Re-Framing (cognitive behavioral therapy) and challenging my cognitive biases techniques on my own, with help from the BARCC hotline, and my mental health therapist.

How? Like this

  • Find humor in my current living situation (and laughing about the drama going on all around me)
  • Acknowledge each incident and then putting it aside
  • Discuss my thoughts and feelings with my counselor and support network
  • Focus on achieving my financial, work, and personal goals (problem solving) as distractions from what’s happening around me
  • Reflect on the situation to understand my emotions
    • Separate my present feelings (how I feel about my neighbors and this situation) from my past feelings
    • Separate my past feelings (triggers and flashbacks) from my present feelings
    • Acknowledge both sets of feelings and express them in safe ways
    • Then let the feelings go when they end
  • React to the present and not the past
  • Use these experiences as Exposure Therapy and learn from them
  • Be honest with my loved ones about the challenges (aka sharing the truth about my mental health disorders with the hope they will still love and accept me)
  • Show gratitude to the people, plants, and other beings supporting me through this challenging time – acknowledgement of their efforts, “thank you”, giving gifts, saying “i love you”
  • Being patient – not something I am good at – in spite of the OCD pressure to react without thinking

Then, when everything falls into place, make the change with courage and faith.

REFLECTION QUESTION: How will you/do you want to cope with triggering environments?

That’s my next step: I found a new apartment and decided to break my current lease.

If you don’t see much from me here or at Scent Reflections over the next two weeks, it’s because I’m busy working, packing, and moving to a new apartment.

I promise to try my best and share posts or updates, but please understand if you don’t get a new post until 2/2/2020.

Thanks for reading