Archive for the ‘PTSD’ Category

Diversity (c) MicrosoftOn my blog entry entitled Faith Allen’s Story – Ritual Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

well, I guess people who don’t fit your idea of normative gender based on their assigned sex shouldn’t bother getting help from your site. wouldn’t want to trigger you by, y’know, existing. cool. any other groups you have categorical problems with? ~ well then

I responded to this comment as follows:

Hi, well then.

I am assuming you are referring to this comment:

“To this day, transsexuals or anyone who does not display an obvious gender trigger me because, without being able to tell the gender of the person beneath the robe, I had no indication of which form of sexual abuse was coming.”

I do not have any “problems” interacting with people online who are transgender nor with any other “categories” of people. This is a trigger issue for me visually, such as when watching some of the scenes in the movie “Cabaret.” Even when I am triggered, I do not blame the other person or judge the other person for being transgender.

I just saw the movie “Rent” and was initially triggered by one character who cross-dressed. She wound up becoming my favorite character in the movie, but I did have to work through some grounding techniques first. Again, I did not think badly about the character — I was just cognizant of feeling triggered and needing to ground myself.

I can understand why someone might believe that my sensitivity to triggers might meant that I am prejudiced against that group of people or that I might be unwilling to be supportive, but that is not true in my case. I am able to separate out my triggers, which is about me, from other people’s needs and situations, which is about them. :0)

This is an important enough issue that I want to make sure I address it directly for all readers through a blog entry. I can understand how anyone who is in the minority for any reason, whether through race, gender, religion, culture, etc., can be sensitive to any comment that can appear to be critical of being part of a minority group. I freely admit that I am sensitive to comments made about child abuse survivors, such as the inaccurate but widely-held societal belief that all abused children will grow up to be child abusers themselves.

Because I am sensitive to this issue, I recognize that I might presume prejudice in the other person that does not exist. Some people are simply uneducated on a topic, such as this inaccurate comment about child abuse survivors, but truly are not going to judge me because I am a child abuse survivor. I find that most people are simply uninformed and are open to learning the truth – that only a small number of abused children grow up to abuse children.

I have numerous triggers based upon what I experienced as a child. This does not meant that I have numerous prejudices based on my triggers, and I believe this dynamic applies to numerous child abuse survivors who are healing from abuse. As an example, a woman who was repeatedly raped by men but never by women might have many triggers surrounding men without being prejudiced toward all men or rejecting all men outright.

Another one of my triggers is cowboys because one of my abusers was a horseman who dressed in cowboy garb, from the cowboy hat to the leather belt, boots, and spurs. I do not hate all cowboys, nor am I unwilling to be supportive of cowboys on my blog, despite the fact that seeing a cowboy can be triggering to me. I recognize that I am triggered and why, and I take responsibility for grounding myself. I do not categorically hate or reject all cowboys, nor do I avoid visiting places where a cowboy show might be offered for my child to watch.

I apologize to anyone who might have felt rejected by that statement and any other statement anywhere on this blog that might have made you feel like you are not welcome here. Anyone who is healing from child abuse is welcome and supported regardless of any trigger sensitivities that I or other readers might have. I take full responsibility for grounding myself whenever I am triggered, and I do not require readers to pretend to be anything they aren’t in order to receive support here.

Photo credit: Microsoft

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On my blog entry entitled Noticing the Progress I Have Made, a reader posted the following comment:

Today I got very very triggered and despite my conscious knowledge to the contrary, my subconscious mi d was convinced that my life was in danger, obviously it was not but I couldn’t rationalise this to myself at all. All my normal coping strategies were gone and I had to stay in this situation for nearly an hour. It’s been a long time since I have felt so stressed and afraid, I can’t even talk about it without feeling sick and anxious. I HAVE to be in fairly frequent contact with the person who triggered me (unintentionally) and I am very nervous about this as my brain has made a strong connection between them and danger. I’m really worried about how I’ll cope, and that experience of getting triggered was so much stronger than previous times it frightened me a lot! Hard to know what to do to “fix” this as usuals don’t seem to be working. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! ~ Sophie

This is an old comment but one that is relevant to many people. It sounds like Sophie was triggered by a person who wasn’t intending to trigger her but, nevertheless, caused a severe reaction in her. I have had this happen myself.

I was at the grocery store a few years ago, and a woman was pushing a young (maybe two years old) child in a shopping cart. The second I saw the child, I became triggered and feared I would vomit in the store. I had to get away from that child IMMEDIATELY to avoid a panic attack so severe that I couldn’t hide it in public.

A couple of years later, I ran into the same child at the public library and had the same reaction. (I have no idea why.) This time, I was with a friend, and I asked her if she noticed anything strange or different about the child. She looked surprised by my question and said he just looked a normal child to her. To this day, I have no idea why I reacted so strongly to this child, but I hope he moved away so I don’t run into him again!

The first step is to acknowledge that for some reason, this person triggers you. Don’t beat yourself up for this – it is what it is. Ideally, you wouldn’t have to interact with this person (just as I don’t have to interact with that child). When you have a choice, choose not to interact with someone who triggers you like this.

If contact is inevitable, don’t just assume that there is something “wrong” with you. Consider the possibility that you are getting triggered for a reason. I got triggered by an eye doctor and assumed it was just me since I was new to therapy. I saw him again a couple of years later (when I was emotionally stronger), and I went in prepared and with an open mind. I got the same triggered feeling. He was inappropriate but subtle, doing things holding his cheek against mine when he examined my eye. (I have seen numerous eye doctors, and none of them physically touched me during an eye examination.) I wasn’t overreacting – I was picking up on vibes from that doctor. I switched doctors after that visit.

If you are certain that you are not picking up on any “vibes” and that you are being triggered but are safe around this person, take steps to mitigate your reactions. Another option is to remove yourself from this person, such as by switching jobs or moving. There is not one person on the planet that you MUST interact with. You do have options.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I believe it was in Geneen Roth’s book, Women Food and God, where I first learned that our bodies have a physical reaction to our emotions. I have spent most of my life staying dissociated from my body, so I have had to learn basic things that come naturally to most people, such as what hunger feels like. I truly could not tell the difference between physical hunger and the need to “stuff down” my emotions, which was part of the reason for the binge eating disorder.

I am making progress through baby steps in reconnecting with my body, but I am still very new to identifying what my body feels like physically when I experience different emotions. The only emotion I am very good at recognizing is shame. Being able to identity my body’s physical reaction to shame has been immensely helpful in eradicating shame from my spirit. I flat refuse to buy into shame.

For me, shame feels like I have a small fire burning on the topmost layer of my skin. It kind of feels like a sunburn, especially on my face and arms. Whenever I feel this bodily sensation, I know that I am struggling with shame, and I have learned how to process this emotion quickly. In the case of shame, I process it by “pouring it out” – I refuse to give any energy whatsoever to shame because I don’t deserve it.

If I feel the sunburn sensation, I tell myself that I am experiencing shame, and I refuse to fuel it. I love and accept myself exactly as I am, so I have no need for shame in my life. If I have done something wrong (guilt), I will take responsibility for it and make amends, but I will do so without buying into shame. I have done nothing to deserve experiencing that emotion.

After I tell myself these things, I do a visualization to remove the shame. I breathe in deeply, envisioning lots of positive energy and love. I will then breathe out slowly, pushing the shame out with the breath. I direct the shame out through my right side – I have no idea why. This visualization came to me one day and worked, so I haven’t questioned it. Whatever emotion I want to purge always leaves through my right side.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Being Protected versus Taking Responsibility for Managing Triggers, a reader posted the following comment:

You mentioned in your post that you now knew what tools you needed to employ to get through your triggering. When you have time, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those tools..? (if it’s not too personal that is) Besides deep breathing and running away, my toolbox is a little empty I’m afraid! ~ Mia

As always, some of these tools might work for you and other might not. I think it is helpful for each child abuse survivor to figure out what works for him or her and keep adding to your toolbox. What is in your toolbox might be completely different from what is in mine, or there might be lots of overlap. What matters is that each child abuse survivor try different ways to bring yourself down when you are triggered. For me, it helps to have a variety of tools. As I build up my confidence in some tools, I am able to remove others.

The first tools I had in my toolbox were not the healthiest choices, but they did help when I was triggered. These tools included binge eating and banging my head. It was important for me to recognize that these behaviors, which I hated and wanted to stop, were serving the purpose of helping me manage my triggers. As I built up my confidence in other ways to manage my triggers, I was able to let go of those.

In the so-so category for me are tools that alter my mental state physically, such as drinking wine or taking a Xanax. Again, these might not be the “best” tools, but they are less unhealthy than binge eating or banging my head. Transitioning these tools in helped me to let go of the other behaviors over time. It might surprise you that I am starting this blog entry with behaviors that many people might classify as “less healthy” than where I am going, but I think it is important to recognize the role of self-care that “less healthy” behaviors can serve. For me, this second category belongs in my toolbox, and the tools in my first category, which are physically harmful to me, have mostly fallen by the wayside.

Some of my more positive tools include the following:

  • Calling a friend and venting
  • Deep breathing
  • Exercising
  • Expressing my emotions (crying, punching pillows, etc.)
  • Scheduling an appointment with my therapist
  • Taking a walk
  • Visualization
  • Watching a comedy on TV
  • Writing on my blog or at Isurvive
  • Yoga and meditation

I think the biggest difference in my reaction to triggers now versus seven years ago is my confidence that I am going to be OK. In my early days of healing, I truly did not know this. Something would trigger me, and I would feel “off” for days or even weeks at a time. Today, I am typically over a trigger in a few hours. For serious triggers, I might be rocked for a few days. Even when I am badly triggered, I know that these feelings won’t last. Whatever I am feeling right now – either good or bad – is going to pass.

If I am badly triggered, I remember that I am the fire hose and that the emotions are the water coursing through me. I am not the emotions. I will do deep breathing and visualize the emotions passing through me. This helps me ground myself and recognize that the feelings of being triggered will pass.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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One area of healing that has been a balancing act for me is allowing myself to be protected versus taking responsibility for finding ways to heal and/or adapt in areas of my life that the abuse has affected. As an example, I developed a phobia of Russian nesting dolls because of their use during my abuse. In the early stages of healing, a friend and I took our children to the library for story time. The story was about Russia, so the librarian brought in a Russian nesting doll set for the children to see. I was triggered by seeing the doll while she read the book, but I was able to hold it together. However, when she started to open the doll (which was a trigger of a specific threat to my sister’s life as a child), I had to leave the room and had a full-fledged panic attack in the bathroom. Thankfully, my friend knew about my phobia and watched my son until I composed myself.

Clearly, I needed to be protected from my trigger in the early stages of healing. I had little experience with working through triggers and managing my anxiety when faced with such a severe trigger for me. However, I cannot spend the rest of my life having to go have a panic attack in the bathroom every time I see a Russian nesting doll. While (thankfully) Russian nesting dolls aren’t on every street corner, I do bump into them in unexpected places, such as on display at a friend’s house (who received them as a gift when adopting from Russia) or for sale at a consignment shop that sells antiques. Part of healing for me has been learning how to manage my triggers. Another way of wording this is taking responsibility for managing my own triggers so that my friends and family don’t have to spend the rest of my life ridding the world of Russian nesting dolls so that I can function.

Of course, my life would be much easier if I could just wave a magic wand and make all Russian nesting dolls disappear, but that isn’t going to happen. I don’t want to spend my life being protected from my triggers, so I have worked hard to dismantle as many triggers as I can. It is a work in progress, but making the choice to take responsibility for managing my triggers has been empowering. Having to rely on other people to protect me from my triggers makes me feel helpless and weak even though I know I am a strong person. Conversely, each baby step that moves me toward being able to manage my own triggers makes me feel empowered.

In fact, just recently I bumped into an open set of Russian nesting dolls at a consignment store, and I was OK. I noticed them and felt a twinge of triggering, but I knew what tools I needed to employ to bring myself back down. My friend wouldn’t have even noticed I was triggered if I hadn’t pointed out the dolls to her. That’s a huge change from the friend who had to watch my son while I had a panic attack in the bathroom several years ago. It felt really good to see my growth in this area of healing.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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Before experiencing flashbacks myself, I thought they would all be the same. I actually have several different ways that I experience flashbacks/recover memories, and I suspect that may be true for others as well. I am going to share the different ways that I experience flashbacks and would also like to hear from you if there are additional ways to experience them.
Sickening Awareness
My healing process began with what I call a sickening awareness. I just “knew” that I had been sexually abused by my mother. I had no other information than the weight of knowing in my heart of hearts that it had happened. I also experienced this as the first step in working through being raped by men.
Body Memories
These are my least favorite kind of flashback. After the first sickening awareness, I could feel my body being abused. I had no other information, just that it felt like someone was hurting my body right then. I have come to recognize these flashbacks as my body releasing its own memories of being abused.
Reliving the Abuse
This is the most common form of flashback for me. While a part of me is fully aware that I am an adult lying safely in my bed, another part of myself relives the abuse. I feel and experience the event as the child I was when the abuse happened. The memory unfolds in a linear fashion just as it did when I was a child.
I suspect this form of flashback is what put the “flash” in the term “flashback.” I will see a split-second snippet of what happened. For me, this is most common with recovering ritual abuse memories. I don’t know if the different ties into the heightened terror and/or use of drugs during the abuse or not. I’ll see a “flash” of one part of what happened and then a “flash” of another. Because most of my memories were recovered through reliving the abuse, it took me a while to recognize that these were also flashbacks, just recovered differently.
I have never heard anyone else talk about this form of flashback, but I had this happen when I was dealing with being forced to abuse my sibling. I had been dealing with the sickening awareness that I had been forced to abuse my younger sister, and I had also recovered a piece of one memory involving sexual abuse. I was so sick to my stomach that I wanted to die, and the shame was unbearable. My mind released a montage of flashes of my sister being forced to sexually abuse me. I felt such relief because I knew that she was not responsible, which gave me the courage to talk with her about this form of abuse, apologize, and accept her response that she did not hold me responsible for what our abusers forced me to do to her.

I suspect there are other types of flashbacks as well. I’d love to hear about the different ways that others recover memories.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Healing Metaphor: Riding on an Airplane, a reader posted the following comment:

With all deference to your metaphor (it was wonderful, btw!), as someone with a crippling phobia of flying, I am asking you to please do a blog post soon on how you overcame this fear. ~ Karen

I am not saying this will work for anyone else, but this completely cured me of my fear of flying…

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time in yoga and meditation as I explored what it feels like to stay present. I encountered different people who believed in past lives and reincarnation, which I thought was a bunch of bunk for two reasons: 1. I had been raised Protestant and was taught that this life is my only shot; and 2. As someone who was struggling with suicidal urges as I healed from child abuse, I didn’t even want to complete THIS life much less come back for more!

I was going to be flying soon and was COMPLETELY FREAKING OUT about it. I decided I had enough with my fear of flying and just wanted to understand why – Was I abused on an airplane? Was I dropped as a baby? Was an airplane a metaphor for being out of control of where I was going? (The last one was the explanation I was leaning toward.) I prayed that G*d would show me why so I could work on healing it, and this is what happened…

I began my meditation with the intention of dismantling my reason for being afraid to fly and regressed into flashes of memories from a past life (what I suspect was my last life). I was in a man’s body and saying goodbye to the woman I loved as I boarded the plane. The plane was over water (I was always more fearful of flying over water) when it began to shake and started going down. Other people were screaming, but I knew there was nothing I could do. I saw her face as the land came rapidly toward the window.

Then, I was floating away from the wreckage, and I was completely OK. I was slowly returning to wherever souls come from – floating upward as I looked at the wreckage in a detached way. I was calm and peaceful. The best way I can describe the feeling is knowing at a heart level that I am OK.

I was a bit freaked out by this meditation because it forced me to question everything I had ever been taught about my faith. I wasn’t sure if I could believe it. I figured that my upcoming plane trip would answer some questions, and I was right. The next time I flew, which included flying over water, I was 100% calm and OK. Just like that – in an instant – a lifetime phobia of flying was simply GONE.

Even more important than losing the phobia of flying was losing the fear of death. More on that topic tomorrow…

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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One question that plagues me from time to time is why some child abuse survivors seem to fare better than others. This was another issue explored in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Some of the traumatized characters couldn’t survive without staying inebriated, and some had their sanity crack. However, others found a way to go on and find meaning in their lives. Why did some far better than others?

I don’t need a fictitious story to point out this difference to me. I have lived it. Like attracts like, so most of my pre-therapy friendships were with traumatized people. My heart breaks for how some of these people’s lives have turned out. The last time I talked to one, she was facing a prison sentence. The last time I talked to another, she had lost custody of her children and was battling addiction.

My life hasn’t been easy, but it looks pretty successful from the outside. This year, hub and I will have been married for 20 years. I have a great kid and several close friends. I don’t battle addiction, have had no run-ins with the law, and am not facing bankruptcy (another story of another traumatized friend). What makes me so special?

Some people speculate that it is the level of trauma involved, but I am not buying it. I am not saying that my trauma was the worst trauma ever endured by anyone, but let’s just say that few people would want to get into a p#$$ing match with me about whose trauma was “worse.” I, personally, don’t like to compare traumas – even one incident of trauma is too many. Some of the strongest and most functional people I have met endured severe trauma – severe enough to break many others.

I don’t think the level of trauma determines who breaks and who survives. I think it has more to do with hope. I am not sure that my story would have the same ending if not for my sister. Once my sister was born (when I was two years old), I experienced pure love. I think knowing that kind of pure love existed in the world was enough to help me fight back. For what it’s worth, the traumatized characters who fared better in The Hunger Games seemed to be those who had someone to live for.

Healing from child abuse takes an enormous amount of strength and courage, so I don’t point my finger at people like the friends I have referenced who have broken under the strain of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, I would like to understand what was so special about me to overcome the odds and heal when so many others have broken. I really think the difference is hope.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I received Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy as a present for Christmas, and I haven’t been able to put the books down! They are dark, with each book in the trilogy becoming darker than the last. The first book (the one that will be a movie in March) is about the Hunger Games themselves, where two children (ages 12 to 18) from each of the 12 districts are forced to represent their districts as “tributes” in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four children are placed in a dangerous arena, and they must kill each other off. The one survivor becomes the victor.

Book Two (Catching Fire) explores life after enduring trauma and the sickening realization that the trauma doesn’t end when the Hunger Games do. Book Three (Mockingjay) moves into trauma-induced issues of trust and grief. I am 2/3 of the way through Mockingjay. I simply cannot put these books down!

The blurb at the end of my book says that Suzanne Collins’ intent is to explore the effects of war on those who are coming of age. While the books do this, they run so much deeper. They really address the effects of trauma, which we child abuse survivors know is not limited to war.

The books explore how trauma permeates every area of the lead character Katniss’ life. If she was never brought into the Hunger Games, her life was on a course for falling in love with and marrying her best friend, Gale. However, Peeta, not Gale, was the one who endured the same traumas that Katniss did, which forges a bond that excludes Gale. When Katniss feels safe, her life seems to move back toward its initial course, but when she feels unsafe, she gravitates toward her trauma-bonded relationships. As the books progress, Katniss loses the ability ever to feel safe. Her nightmares become worse, and her ability to trust disappears. Katniss must stay on guard because being hypervigilance is what has enabled her to survive.

The books also explore how our connections with other people are both our strength and our weakness. Our love for others is what gives us the strength to keep fighting, but loving others also makes us vulnerable to those who want to hurt us. One of the strongest but most tragic characters in the books has both the strength and weakness of having nobody left to lose.

The books explore what we must lose in ourselves in order to survive trauma. They also explore how even the strongest of the strong can break inside as well as the coping mechanisms they turn to in their brokenness.

I don’t see how this trilogy can possibly have a happy ending. I suspect the goal will be achieved but that it won’t result in happiness. As we have seen with our war veterans, the effects of trauma on Katniss and others won’t disappear simply because the war is over.

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Yesterday, I blogged about a memory I just recovered. In that blog entry, I just wrote about the memory itself. I wrote that in the morning. I am writing this in the afternoon as the emotions are starting to wash over me.

I remember this process from when I was recovering memories on a regular basis. When I was ready to release a memory through flashbacks, I would get a bad headache and experience anxiety as I relived the experience. Afterward, I would calm myself down and accept the truth of whatever the flashback revealed. This almost always happened at night.

The next morning, I would awaken with the flashback being stored as any other memory, so what was hidden from me only a day before was now accessible just like any other memory. In the morning, I would think about the flashback logically – OK, that it explains why ___ always triggered me, why I did X, Y, or Z, etc. I would think that I am OK – that it is so much better to remember than repress it. In fact, releasing a new memory gives me a lot of energy, like finally putting my arms down after holding them up for too long.

If this is where the process ended, I think healing from child abuse would not be that bad. Sadly, that’s not where it ends. Later in the afternoon, as is happening as I write this, all of the emotions that I “froze” along with the memory of the event get “unfrozen” and wash over me – the shame, guilt, sadness, despair, and all of the other painful emotions that I was unable to process when the event happened.

My emotions were interesting as I processed the memory last night. I had previously recovered a memory of seeing my sister “killed,” which I blogged about here, here, and here. The emotion I felt most strongly as I relived that memory was despair. I wanted to die because my reason for living – my sister – was dead (I believed).

I did not feel despair or suicidal with this flashback, which is unexpected. Instead, I felt immobilized. I had already been through believing my sister had been killed (after “witnessing” her “murder”) and then the shock of processing that she was alive the next morning. So, I was uncertain how to react this time. I knew I was seeing her dead body a second time but did not know what to believe, so I just shut down.

Whenever I think about a Christmas tree, I see myself immobilized in front of it. I see my limp body unable to move. I think that captures how I felt as I saw my sister’s “dead” body being carried toward me.

My head is really hurting. I’ll write more as I process more. This is a hard one.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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