Archive for the ‘Staying Present’ Category

Microscopic ViewOn my blog entry entitled Returning to Isurvive’s Ritualized Abuse Forum, a reader posted the following comment:

Staying present is wrong wrong wrong for a multiple anything like me. It is the opposite. Some professionals now get that it is not about dissociation for some people. I had to discover that on my own. ~ Michael

This is the first time I have heard that staying present is “wrong” for any child abuse survivor. It is entirely possible that Michael has tried to tell me this on numerous occasions, but sometimes I need to hear a particular comment in several different ways before I can process the idea. (Sorry, Michael!)

Michael had previously told me that yoga was very bad for him. I believed and respected him but did not understand why. Considering that the point of yoga is presence, it makes complete sense in light of staying present being “wrong” for him.

Most of the literature that I have read as well as my own personal therapy has put a great deal of focus on learning how to stay present. If this advice is wrong for an entire subset of survivors, I can understand Michael’s (and others’) frustration with the mental health profession.

Michael also told me that being a multiple is not the same thing as having dissociative identity disorder (DID), which I did not understand but did accept and respect. I wonder if perhaps that is the distinction for when staying present is helpful or harmful??

The reason I say this is people generally tend to divide child abuse survivors into “singletons” (people who are not divided into parts) and multiples or DID (used interchangeably). Both Michael and I would fall under the umbrella of people who divided into parts, but staying present is incredibly healing for me and damaging for him.

Here’s one important difference between me, as someone healing from DID, and what I believe Michael’s experience to be (and, Michael, please chime in if I misrepresent you in any way). I always had a “core” inside of myself – one part that oversaw my multiple system. For most of my life, I saw myself as Faye (a host personality), but the core was running the show. I integrated Faye into my core, which technically moved me out of a DID diagnosis because I stopped losing time. Because there was always one central part “in charge,” perhaps staying present moves me toward integrating back into one single part.

I believe that Michael has never had a central part or core – that his development was such as there never was a “me” at any point – his soul/spirit was never a whole that split. Instead, I believe he actually grew from day one as a multiple. (Michael – Am I right about this?) If that is the case, then “staying present” is trying to force a unity that has never existed, which could explain why staying present is wrong for him.

Does this sound like a reasonable theory? Or am I off the mark?

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Here is what I am wrestling with right now. I hope that someone has an answer or a suggestion for me…

My healthiest state of being is staying present in my life. When I am able to stay present, my weight drops very quickly because I only eat until I am no longer hungry. Weight loss is effortless. The issue isn’t just weight, though. When I stay present, I am not so tense and intense. I am able to appreciate the little things, such as the warmth of the sun or the beautiful blue sky. Life feels like it is worth living when I can stay present in my body.

Thanks to so many illnesses in my family immediately followed by another deep layer of healing work to do (including lots of flashbacks, nightmares, and body memories), I am having trouble getting back to staying present. I am not binge eating anywhere near what I have done in the past, so my weight isn’t too bad (fluctuating by about five pounds – in past years, I could jump 10 to 20 pounds in a very short period of time). However, because I am having trouble staying present, I am also having trouble determining when I am no longer hungry. That’s a real problem when I eat out on the weekends, and restaurant portions are so much larger than my body needs.

This isn’t just about weight, although I am frustrated with that part of my life. It’s also about losing touch with the beauty of being alive. I have only had three or four “good” days since November, and that is too low of a ratio to make it feel like all of my hard work is worth it. There really isn’t another choice – my subconscious is going to keep spewing out these memories no matter what I do – but this hard work would seem more purposeful if there was some sort of payoff, and the payoff I am looking for is more than 3 or 4 “good” days every four months, which basically breaks down to one good day a month or a 1:30 ratio of good days to bad ones. That’s not okay with me.

I know the key is to get back to staying present, but how do I do that? How do I stay present while, at the same time, sorting through so many hellish memories and emotions? I worked out this morning, including yoga and meditation. Those tools will help, but I don’t know if they will be enough or not. I need a way to convince myself that I can stay present and work through the past issues at the same time. How do I do that? Just looking forward to the absence of physical or emotional pain from time to time is not enough for me.

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I am not typically one for making a New Year’s Resolution. Quite frankly, I don’t need the pressure – I don’t need one more thing to make me feel badly about myself when I mess up. So, I am not going to call this my New Year’s Resolution. Instead, it will be my “goal” for 2011.

My New Year’s “Goal” for 2011 is mindfulness. I want to make a conscious effort to “stay present” as much as I can throughout the year. I know I am going to mess up, so this isn’t a New Year’s Resolution. I recognize that after living most of my life in a dissociated state, it is not going to be possible to “flip a switch” in my head and suddenly be mindful all of the time. In fact, I am not sure if being mindful 100% of the time is even possible.

Instead, this is just a goal I have for myself in 2011 (and hopefully beyond that). I want to get in the habit of returning my focus to the present moment. I want to stop spending my time fretting about the past and worrying about the future. Of course, there is always time for reflection as well as planning, but I don’t want that to be my “normal” state of being.

This is a big leap for me after the weeks I had during the holidays. I was constantly triggered and doing everything I could to stay away from the present. However, the holidays are now over, and it is time for me to get back to living in my body again.

As I write this, I am recovering from a cold, so staying in my body is more of a challenge right now. I really need to be able to do yoga, exercise, and engage in other activities that help me want to be in my body. However, I have to start somewhere, so I am doing the best I can until I can physically engage in these activities again. I am reaching toward this goal through self-love, not through self-hatred.

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution or goal this year? If so, what was it? Have you built in room for falling down and getting back up again?

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As I write this, I have been focusing on trying to stay present (mindfulness) for roughly 10 days. I thought I would share my observations so far and then check in from time to time on my progress. (Yes, I am hoping to continue to make progress!)

First, mindfulness is definitely a skill to be developed. I have a leg up on many people because I had practice staying present (at least during meals) for 11 months a few years back before a big trigger derailed my progress. It has taken me this long to get back to it. Because I had 11 months of practice being mindful (at least at mealtimes), doing this does not feel as foreign as it did the first time. Still, it is a skill, and I have to focus and recognize when I have “slipped.” Not being present feels very “normal” to me, so I have to stay mindful about being mindful.

Some of the results I expected after 10 days are already happening. I am effortlessly eating less, and my body is gradually losing weight. I have lost three pounds since I started staying present, and that includes going on a four-day trip. (I tend to gain weight or, at best, hold steady, when I travel due to eating out so much.) The compulsion to overeat is not magically gone, but it is frequently not present during meals.

When I feel the urge to overeat, I am following Geneen Roth’s advice in Women Food and God and asking myself why I feel the need to overeat right now. I focus on staying present and observe how my body is feeling. I find that I frequently feel ice in my stomach at night, which is when I most struggle with the urge to overeat. I believe that is my body’s reaction to terror – the terror I felt as a little girl at night – and I am trying to comfort the terror. For me, expressing and integrating the terror has been one of the more challenging emotions, which might explain the continued presence of “ice in my stomach.”

I have been surprised by some results so far that I did not see coming – I have not felt the need for Xanax or wine since I started focusing on staying present. I typically drink a glass of wine in the evenings or take a Xanax, doubly so at this time of year when I tend to be easily triggered. The surprising part is that I had not even noticed the absence of Xanax or wine. It just hit me yesterday that it has been over a week since I have taken either, and one or the other has been a staple every evening for a month or two.

Another surprise is the change in my dreams. Since I have begun focusing on staying present, I have stopped having intense nightmares. Intense nightmares have been such a normal part of my life that I had just accepted that that always would be. I no longer bother showering before bed because I am so used to awakening in terror with night sweats that I just have to bathe again in the morning, anyhow. It occurred to me that I haven’t had any intense nightmares in a while. I continue to dream, and they are certainly not dreams of bunnies and marshmallows, but they aren’t intense dreams that make my heart race.

Also, I have had no issues whatsoever with insomnia since I started practicing mindfulness. I am more relaxed when I go to bed, and I have been falling asleep fairly quickly. Most nights, I sleep straight through until morning. My “normal” pattern has always been to awaken from a nightmare at around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. with my heart racing, and I had trouble falling back to sleep. I would sometimes have to take a Xanax to succeed.

I recognize that I am only 10 days into this new way of living, but I am encouraged by all of the changes that I am seeing. I am doubly surprised because this time of year (during the holidays) is typically a very difficult time of year for me.

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In my last blog entry, I wrote about how the lies we have bought into from childhood continue to plague us in adulthood. Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God is helping me to understand that the key to dismantling a trigger is mindfulness or learning how to stay present. This blog entry continues a summary of Roth’s theory on how staying present can transform your life.

I stated in my last blog entry that our minds deceive us. They have bought into our abusers’ lies, and they direct us through triggers to act and react as we did as children. That was fine in childhood, but we are now adults, and we are no longer in the same environment that we lived in as children.

Roth states that the key to dismantling triggering (although she uses different words for “triggering”) is staying present (or “mindfulness” as a reader called it). Roth’s advice is to learn how to inhabit your body again. She says that we are a society of people walking around who live in our heads or “near” our bodies but not in them. This is why people who compulsively overeat have such a hard time stopping – they are not living in their bodies, so they are unable to sense their bodies’ cues about hunger and fullness. I have personally experienced great success in overcoming compulsive overeating and losing weight when I made an effort to stay present, but I “forgot” this skill after being triggered mightily.

When we are triggered, we dissociate (or “bolt,” as Roth calls it). We leave our bodies and try to distance ourselves from all that we are feeling. This is our minds continuing to torture us with our childhood pain. We cannot trust what our minds are telling us, and that causes us to second guess all of our instincts and intuition.

Roth says that the antidote is to live in your body. Her recommendation is to practice meditation so you can learn the difference between your mind and “you.” She also recommends a breathing technique that I was unfamiliar with. Breathe in and out, focusing on your belly. Your belly is the center of your body, so noticing the way your belly moves when you breathe and focusing on your breath at the center of your body helps to bring you back into your body.

When you return to your body, you return to the present. You are able to recognize that you are completely safe in the present moment. As you learn to focus on what is around you right now – the sights, sounds, smells, etc. – you distance yourself from the pain of the past. You can learn to observe the pain and see that it is separate from you. As you approach the pain with kindness (acceptance) rather than flight (avoidance), you dismantle the pain.

This ties into my experience with integrating alter parts and memories – inviting them out, treating them with kindness, and accepting them as “me.” This method has worked very well for me with integrating alter parts, so I can see how it could work equally as well with past pain.

I still have about a third of the book to read, so I am sure I will be reporting more. Right now, I am trying to digest all of this and practice staying present.

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In my last blog entry, I wrote about my history with learning how to stay present. This is a skill that I have been good at in the past. Then, I will get very triggered, which derails me, and then I “forget” the skills that I have learned. Through Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God, I am recognizing that learning how to stay present is truly the key to all of my issues – not just in healing from child abuse but in healing all of the aftereffects of child abuse.

I will do my best to explain her reasoning. All of these pearls of wisdom are courtesy of Geneen Roth…

Roth says that our histories are like blinders that prevent us from seeing the beauty of our lives. The metaphor she uses is sitting in front of Niagara Falls wearing blinders & ear plugs and believing that there is no beauty in our lives. The fact that we cannot see or hear Niagara Falls doesn’t mean that it does not exist – it means that we are not truly living our lives because we trudge through each day blind to the beauty that is ours if we will simply remove the blinders.

To apply what she is saying to child abuse survivors, the blinders are the lies that your abusers told you and that you believed –worthlessness, shame, guilt, etc. The beauty of life is right in front of you, but you cannot see it because you have been “blinded” by all of the lies from being abused. The good news is that we have the power to remove the blinders. According to Roth, we do this by staying present.

I am going to use my own metaphor to explain this next part, but I am explaining Roth’s theory … Think of your mind as being a computer that compiles cause and effect. It records all of the childhood abuse and then makes predictions about future outcomes based upon past result. This is what a trigger is.

To use an example I read in another book, a girl was late for dinner on Christmas Eve, so Santa did not bring her any presents. As an adult, she gets triggered by being late, appearing to completely overreact to being just a little late as an adult when she is really reacting to what happened when she was a girl. The problem is that her mind is telling her that being late as a child resulted in a huge punishment, so being late in adulthood (the same cause) is going to result in another huge punishment (same effect).

The problem is that our minds are “stuck” in childhood, but our bodies have moved on from that place. In adulthood, we no longer have abusers who are going to inflict severe “punishments” for our perceived “causes,” but nobody has told our minds this. Our minds continue to try to guide the abused little boy or girl, but we are no longer abused children – we are adults who are being led in the wrong direction by our minds.

Roth says that the way to counter this is to live in the present. More on that tomorrow…

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On my blog entry entitled Choosing Not to Dissociate the Pain, a reader posted the following comment:

Hi Faith, you wrote “It sounds like the key is learning how to live in the present and feel whatever comes up in the present moment.” This is what Mindfulness is about – have you done this before? My therapist recommends practicing mindfulness regularly so that it becomes an automatic thing that I can do when difficult / stressful times arise. There is heaps of info online if you are interested. You can buy things to help if you want, but it’s not necessary. I sometimes listen to CDs but most times I just choose to be mindful to regular daily things like washing my hands, eating or house cleaning, etc. It takes time to make a new habit, but I think it’s worth it! ~ Dawn

I tend to cycle around and “relearn” different areas of healing, and staying present is an area of healing that has become a central focus for me lately. This is due, in part, to reading Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God, but this is actually not a new concept for me. With each pass, I seem to “get it” at a deeper and deeper level. It would be really great if staying present would just “stick” this time.

Like Dawn, I had a therapist who encouraged me to live in the present. He would say that the past has already happened and the future has not happened yet. The only moment I have right now is the present one. He would encourage me to engage in activities, such as playing the piano, that drew my focus to the present moment. His antidote to being trigged and dissociating was to focus on the present – on how the chair feel under my legs, how my breath feels in my body, etc.

My yoga instructor had the same advice. She would repeatedly remind me to stay present in this moment. She taught me tools, such as yoga and meditation, to help me with this. Without fail, doing yoga and meditation helps slow the internal chatter and relax me by bringing my focus back to the present.

I have not been ready to “hear” it yet, but from what I can tell from flipping through the book The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz, the key to healing sexually is to pleasure your body (at first in non-sexual ways) and stay present during it, such as walking barefoot in the grass and experiencing in the present moment what it feels like.

I also had success in conquering my binge/compulsive eating for 11 months by staying present while I ate. Losing weight was effortless – the weight dropped off as I stayed present and paid attention to my body’s cues about when I was hungry and when I was not. I got derailed by being very triggered, and I never fully returned to that place.

So, now I am reading Women Food and God, and it is telling me the exact same thing, although I am in a better place to “hear” it. While her audience is people who want to overcome compulsive eating, she is clear that her advice to stay present is really about how to live your live in the present. How you eat is simply a reflection of how you live and what you believe about yourself and your life. More on this topic tomorrow…

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I bought Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God, and I started reading it this week. It is a fascinating book addressing many of the same observations that I have made about the connections between the body, emotions, and spirituality.

For those of you who are triggered by religion, please note that she uses the word “God” to represent the “something” that exists outside of ourselves and within, which is also referred to as a “higher power.” This is not a religious book, nor is it exploring religion. The focus is on how, through examining our eating patterns, we can discover who we truly are in a metaphysical sense, which leads us to whatever that “power” is when we are quiet and still. She claims that her methods work even if you have no belief in any sort of higher power.

I am so excited about this book and will probably be referencing it a lot as I work through it. I feel like I am reading it too quickly and might have to read it twice to be able to absorb all of the pearls of wisdom it holds. Today, I would like to focus on an interesting observation about how our childhood hurts and traumas affect us in adulthood:

To the extent that we go into survival mode—I can’t feel this, I won’t feel this, it hurts too much, it will kill me—we are slipping into baby skins, old forms, familiar selves. Young children, especially infants, mediate the pain of loss or abandonment or abuse through the body; there is no difference between physical and emotional pain. If the pain is too intense and the defenses are too weak, a child will become psychotic and/or die. It is lifesaving for a child to develop defenses that allow her to leave a situation she can’t physically leave by shutting down her feelings or turning to something that soothes her. But if as adults we still believe that pain will kill us, we are seeing through the eyes of the fragile selves we once were and relying on the exquisite defense we once developed: bolting. Obsessions are ways we leave before we are left because we believe that the pain of staying would kill us. ~ Women Food and God, pp. 41-42

I found Roth’s observations about the way children deal with pain to be very interesting, especially as I have had preverbal memories/feelings bubbling up. There is no question that I continue to act and react as I did as a child, although I have made a lot of progress in this area. So, I guess my question is how to unravel all of this in my head. When I am feeling pain, how do I choose not to react by “leaving” (dissociating)?

I am trying that as I write this with some success. I am upset about a conversation with my son, but I have not turned to food, alcohol, or Xanax to “leave” the pain. I am trying to let myself feel it in the hopes that it will pass and not “kill me.” I know that I have faced much worse pain than this, but I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but feeling pain as it bubbles up to the surface. But what is the alternative? I admit that my lifelong history of dissociating hasn’t exactly made me happy, either.

It sounds like the key is learning how to live in the present and feel whatever comes up in the present moment. This is the same stuff my therapist told me over and over again, but I still have a long way to go before I am there.

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I have been reading the book The Shack by William Paul Young. This week, I am focusing upon different words of wisdom in the book that can be applied to survivors of child abuse. See my first post for more information about the book.

Unfortunately, there is no way around religion in today’s blog entry, so I’ll post a trigger warning:

******** Religious Triggers **********

One of the issues that my therapist addressed over and over again was that I needed to learn how to stay present. I spend most of my life either reliving the past or worrying about the future. It is rare that I simply enjoy the beauty of the moment. Now, I have improved upon this since therapy, but I am very susceptible to falling back into old patterns.

The book The Shack had an interesting take upon staying present. The main character, Mack, is having a conversation with God about worrying about the future:

Mack, do you realize that your imagination of the future, which is almost always dictated by fear of some kind, rarely, if ever, pictures me there with you? … You try to play God, imagining the evil that you fear becoming reality, and then you try to make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear. ~ The Shack, page 144

This comment hit me hard. I never thought out it in this way, but this definitely describes me. I have all sorts of contingency plans for all sorts of horrors that could befall me, but none of my scenarios involves God being present if these things ever actually happened to me.

This is not consistent with my past. I can look back over my life and see the many ways that things looked bleak in the present but then, in retrospect, worked out for the best.

For example, nothing could have convinced me that anything good could come out of my infertility. Today, as a direct result of my infertility, I have adopted a wonderful child, own a website that promotes adoption, and ran an infertility support group that led to a friend adopting her own child. My closest friends today would not be in my life if I had not gone through infertility because our children would be different ages, so we never would have met.

In fact, writing about adoption is what got me into blogging, so I probably would not have started blogging if I had not adopted a child, and I would not have adopted a child if I had not been infertile. So, you can actually thank my infertility for this blog.

So, I am going to try to stop envisioning all sorts of horrors in my future and trust that God will be with me. I know I will be okay in the future because I am okay now in my present. Also, the future is just an illusion. All we ever really have is right now.

Of course, we need to plan for the future, such as saving money for retirement and such. But I don’t need to “live” in the future.

This is all the same stuff that my therapist told me for years. Sometimes I just need to hear the same message in a different way.

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtOver on my professional blog, I write about adoption topics. My favorite topics to write about are trauma-related. I have several readers who have adopted traumatized children. They appreciate the insights that I can provide into the way their traumatized children’s minds work.

I have launched a new feature over there this week called “Trauma Tuesday” and “Trauma Thursday.” On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will always write about trauma-related topics. (I write two blog entries a day on those days.) Many of those topics can be helpful to adult survivors of child abuse as well, so feel free to check them out.

Last week, I wrote a series explaining eating disorders and how to help a traumatized child heal from them. One reader (an adoptive parent of traumatized children) posted the following insightful comment:

Our children came out of foster care, and have never really suffered deprivation…at least like children in orphanages. But they definitely have food issues. I see it as being non-food related. They are very unaware of their own bodies. They talk too loud, crash into things, seem unaware of how to choose clothing for the temperature outdoors. They don’t know when they are tired, they fret over minor injuries, but can’t distinguish real ones. And they eat with no shut off valve. It’s like they can’t read it. It takes lots of time and work, to get them more in tune with their own selves, and that means on every level…emotional, mental, physical. Our children don’t over eat because of fear and trauma, at least directly, but because they have “shut down”, or maybe never “turned on”. My young teens still look to me and ask if what they have on their plate is appropriate, because they struggle to know. They ask before they take seconds, because they now fear misjudging and making themselves sick. I encourage them to wait a few minutes, and “let it settle”. Usually they will decide against the extra portion. – Scrapsbynobody at Other Types Of Eating Disorders And The Adopted Child

There is so much insight in this comment that I thought I would talk about it on this blog as well.

I have struggled with the eating disorder of binge eating for most of my life. I have also struggled with feeling disconnected from my body. In fact, I used to “live” in only a tiny sliver of my head before I started healing from the child abuse. However, I never connected the two issues the way that Scrapsbynobody did in her comment. Reading her comment was a major “aha” moment for me.

I do so many of the things she mentions. I routinely find bruises on my body – sometimes large ones – and have no explanation for where they came from. I don’t think this is about losing time (I am pretty sure I don’t do that anymore) but about not being in my body enough to notice when it is harmed. I routinely ignore my body’s signals to use the bathroom until my bladder truly cannot take another minute. I had to relearn the difference between hunger pangs that signal hunger versus signaling a need for processing emotions.

I am becoming better about staying present, but what she wrote resonated so deeply with me that it drove home how much work I still have to do. Oh, joy.

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