Archives for the month of: September, 2015

Most of us hate crowds.  Our stimulus barriers get overwhelmed by the sensory overload – too loud, too noisy, too much movement, too many smells, not enough space to move without physical contact, etc. – and we start to feel trapped.  It used to be that no one noticed us.  We took pains to be invisible and move around unnoticed so that getting through crowds was easier and less stressful.

But that doesn’t happen anymore.  This year’s goal to stop hiding has made moving through crowds unnoticed much more difficult.  Even though most of us don’t want to admit it, our physical appearance is attractive and attracts interest from males.  Dressing in clothes that fit and feel good brings attention too because of the confidence that shows in our body language.  Most of the time, it can be ignored or brushed off as harmless.  But not always.  And some situations are particularly anxiety-provoking because none of us have the experience to politely cope with flirtatious, young males in mixed-company groups of 10 or more.

That happened yesterday.  It was annoying more than anything else until I got off the train and felt them staring at me as I walked faster and faster, almost running in my haste to distance myself from them as I tried to get to my destination.  Then later that evening as I passed groups of people sitting outside and eating at public tables on my way back to the train station to get home, I heard them call out to me with insults meant to get my attention by angering me.  “You’re not as beautiful as you think. And you’re not very friendly”, etc.

I never know how to handle this because my past experiences with come-ons and flirtation were forced and not consenting.  Also, I inherited genetics that make me look up to 15 years younger than I really am.  One woman yesterday told me she thought I was in my teens.  Most people at work think I am in my early to mid twenties.  Truth is I am in my early thirties; fast approaching mid-thirties.  And those of us (alters) who are interested in sexual relationships are not interested in young, college age males.  Or older males (close in age to the donors and other abusers) either.

So flirting and meeting interesting males within my/our age group in safe places is not exactly easy now.  For one thing, most popular places are filled with college students in the fall.  For another, there’s always the chance of running into people from my past in places like that.  And the crowds make relaxing and acting “normal” a challenge.  It’s a conundrum.  How many of the alters want to have a more active social life?  Will the non-sexual and easily triggered alters be able to cope with these changes?  How do we all maintain our safety and self-care while exploring different kinds of social interaction?

And how do we politely and firmly deal with hecklers like the young males who cat-called or made rude comments to us as we walked by – our body language and facial expression clearly stating that we are not interested – without escalating the issue?

Oh well.  Another aspect of recovery to explore.

One  of our favorite coping strategies is getting lost in a good book.  As a former student with a B.A. in English Literature, we have read a lot of serious fiction.  As a multiple with wide-ranging interests and a need to find hope through happy-ever-after stories, we chose to deliberately focus on reading commercial fiction instead of literary fiction after graduation.  Every once in a while, a piece of literary fiction will end up in our hands and be enjoyed.  For the most part though, we have found that a lot of lessons about character, personality, relationships, and growth are best found in commercial fiction like fantasy, science fiction, romance, thrillers, and mystery to name a few.

My all time favorite murder/mystery series is the In Death series by J. D. Robb.  I identify a lot with her main character, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, who is also a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, of the NYPSD homicide division as she moves from survival to living to thriving with a group of friends and family outside of work.

I have 3 favorites in Fantasy/Science Fiction; though they are probably closer to urban fantasy.

The first one I read was The Hollows by Kim Harrison.  Rachel Morgan with her honesty and feisty attitude; her moral code and resilience; and her growth from young adult to woman through the books really spoke to me.  She never gives up or gives in; she changes her mind and learns from her mistakes.  She stays loyal to her friends and family while also learning to walk away and set boundaries.  And even though she questions her identity and power when many people try to harass her for being different, she learns to find her true strength and have confidence in herself so when happy-ever-after comes, she grabs for it with both hands.

The second series is Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs.  Mercy Thompson is a mechanic living among a pack of werewolves when she is a coyote shifter.  I love reading Mercy’s stories because she has to use her brain and her hard-learned skills to defeat more powerful and magical enemies to protect herself, her loved ones, and her world.  Her only magic comes from her part-Native American heritage – one that is obscured by mystery and a lack of information in the present time – and is not as obvious or flashy as vampire, fae or witch magic, but just as powerful in its own way.

The final series is Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews.  Kate starts off the series hiding and isolating herself from people to prevent attachments.  But then she meets Curran and the rest of the shifters as she tries to avenge her foster father’s death (book 1).  From there, Kate starts making friends, forms attachments, and goes on adventures that make her question how she was raised and how she lives.  Is there a chance for her to be happy?  Can she be more than a killer?  Can she stop hiding and live for herself instead of the purpose her adopted father trained her to do?

Most of the books above were discovered in early adulthood.  And as much as we enjoy them, most often a comfort book is a romance novel.  Yes, we said it, all of us enjoy reading romance novels.

Why?  How can we read something like that when it is all about sex?  A bodice ripper?  Shame…etc. yeah yeah yeah.

None of us are ashamed of saying we read romance, not anymore.  And FYI, consider the Anita Blake series by Laurel K. Hamilton if you really want to read about sex cover to cover.  The following series do have sex and romance in them.  But not cover to cover sex.  The main factor in all of these books is the characters and their relationships with themselves and each other throughout the book and the series.  I learned to have hope in these books.  Hope that not all relationships are like the ones I was raised around.  Hope that love did exist.  Hope that families mean more than blood.  Hope that people can survive almost anything and still live a happy, full life with relationships and friendships and family.

Psy/Changlling and Guild Hunter Series by Nalini Singh

Sea Haven Series by Christine Feehan

Arcane Society Series by Jayne Ann Krentz

What books inspire you to dream and hope?

What is Self-Care as a coping strategy?

Self-care is intentionally doing and thinking things that:

  • Help you feel better about yourself and your life
  • Bring you joy, pleasure, comfort and / or humor
  • Promote healthy mind, body, and spirit
  • Reduce stress; calm anxiety; bring one back from flashbacks and panic attacks, etc.

Eventually, the doing and thinking also become believing.  The more I practice self-care (and I am not that great at it), the more I believe I deserve the good things happening in my life.  Self-care allows me to move forward with my plans and goals.  It gives me time to decompress and relax so that I can rest and be ready for the next round of challenges.  Self-care helps me maintain my energy and build reserves in case I need them.

Most important, practicing self-care improves my self-worth by showing me I can successfully take care of myself in spite of all of the internal and external challenges beyond my control.

How is the coping strategy different from regular, daily activities?

This is a question I and my parts constantly struggle with.  Is sleeping at regular intervals self-care?  Is doing laundry self-care? Is reading a book or watching a movie self-care?  Is buying new clothes that fit properly, look nice, and keep me warm when I already have a bunch in my closet self-care?  Is treating myself to an ice cream sundae self-care?

How and why? Aren’t these activities all daily, weekly, monthly or routine chores that need to be done in order to maintain a “normal” life?

The answer to this question came from a conversation with a hotline counselor last Friday.  She told me that self-care as a coping strategy is more about intention than action.  Then she gave me the following example: doing laundry is a regular chore everyone has to do at some point.  But if I tell myself that I am doing laundry to take care of myself and make sure I have clean sheets to sleep on, I am practicing self-care.  The difference is the intention behind the thought and action.

How do I practice self care?

Here is an example from my life: buying shoes is a scary, triggering chore.  Almost every female in my blood family has some kind of shoe obsession or trigger.  Some have hundreds of pairs they collect and never wear; only wearing the same shoes until they fall apart, but never getting rid of any.  Others have only 3 or 4 pairs and look down on those who have more.  Some have hundreds of pairs of shoes and wear them once or twice before “saving” them for a special occasion.  The egg donor is part of the first group.  And she never let me have many pairs of shoes, let alone comfortable ones, because that was competition against her.

Growing up, I avoided buying shoes as much as I could.  Then I only bought ugly shoes she wouldn’t want so that she stopped stealing them from me.  Also to avoid being made fun of by the sperm donor, blood sibling, and various other relatives.  Drawing attention to myself was bad.  The one time I did buy shoes I loved (2 pairs of knee-high, leather, winter boots) I absolutely loved, they were somehow destroyed in one season.  And by destroyed, I mean unusable and had to be thrown out. It was around the time I still made regular trips to visit family and spend holidays with them.  Hindsight tells me that during one or more of my “blackouts”, someone did something to them the same way the egg donor tormented my fish when I wasn’t around.

Fast forward to the present.  I’ve been struggling with having to buy new shoes.  it had been more than 2 years since I bought new shoes, and those had been orthotic-friendly, kind of ugly shoes I needed so that I wouldn’t hurt my feet worse during my commutes.  The first two pairs I got were out of necessity because the previous shoes did not go with dresses or my current outfits.  I did not consider them self-care and got really bad backlash from wearing them instead of returning them.  The most recent 3 pairs I considered self-care and necessity.  Self-care because I recently read a book that talked about how shoes need a rest between wears to dry out, relax, and re-shape themselves for the next wear.  Having multiple pairs of shoes and rotating them during the week helps them last longer too.

As I write this post, I ask myself, does buying 2 pairs of shoes and 1 pair of boots meet my self-care criteria above?  The shoes bring me pleasure and help improve my life because they are stylish and comfortable and not so expensive I broke my budget buying them.  Answer: YES

And what about the intention behind this action?  The intention was to take care of myself by buying comfortable shoes that looked good (to me), went with my personality, felt comfortable, and brought me pleasure whenever I happened to look down and see my feet  Answer: YES

Challenges to practicing self-care

The voices in my head telling me I don’t deserve good things in life or that I am going to be punished for being happy among other things are some of the worst challenges.  The parts of me that still live mostly in the past and are afraid to relax challenge self-care because they are suspicious of it.  Certain thoughts and activities bring back floods of scary memories, so I and my parts avoid them until we are in a better place to cope with the aftermath of participating in those activities.  Fear, uncertainty, lack of confidence, and shame also interfere with self-care.  I am better at self-care than I used to be.  And when I fail, I try to remember to have compassion for myself.  After all, this is new to me and will take practice to get it right.

3 Ways to Start Practicing in spite of triggers and backlash

  • Start small with something already part of the daily routine; make the intention behind the thought or action one of self-care – kind of like CBT where changing the feeling changes the thoughts and behaviors
  • Be mindful when practicing.  The goal is to experience positive feelings not negative ones.  If at any time the action stops feeling good or like self-care, you can stop and try something else without feeling guilt or shame.
  • Be prepared to experience triggers and backlash; they are part of the recovery process and (for trauma survivors in particular) re-learning self-care.  I will tell you from personal experience that the triggers and backlash will lessen the more you practice.  How much and when depends on you.  Same goes for the intensity of triggers and backlash when you start this.  Feeling safe and practicing in a safe environment reduces triggers and backlash significantly.

I will be posting at least two times a week.

The days and times will vary due to work and personal routine changes.  Don’t expect a post every Monday and Friday.

The goal is to post at least once during the week and once on the weekend.

Thanks for understanding!

AlterXpressions

The Beginning

A few months ago, I joined a program to help me define my personal style.  My alters and I wanted to learn how to love, accept, and see our physical self as it really looked now instead of what we were told before.  Many of us also wanted to find clothes that fit, flattered, and suited our current lifestyle instead of hiding behind baggy, ugly, uncomfortable clothes.  This was also meant to be a distraction type coping strategy to keep everyone focused on the present and getting comfortable with being female again during some rough anniversary times.

No one noticed that our body was losing a lot of weight.  The relapse was not a conscious one in any way.  I kept eating normal (for me) amounts of food; maintained a flexible and consistent meal schedule; utilized coping strategies for flashbacks and sleepless nights, etc.  But something happened to trigger our body into losing weight.  And since no one had consciously tried to lose weight, we didn’t notice until a few months later when our body was going into starvation and recovery mode- i.e. bloated in odd places, tired, clothes were a lot looser and not fitting properly.

In those few months, our body had lost 10+ pounds because of stress, sleepless nights, and massive amounts of energy use towards “being normal” for work and life outside of the house.  What started next was an analysis period of what some call “The Great Food Experiment” of the last few years.  Our dietitian had been helping us face and cope with the residual food fears and triggers making healthy eating and food relationships sticky.

Current Struggle

The dietitian says it was not a relapse of anorexia.  It was a side effect of coping and stress from the other symptoms that the body mistook for starvation and acted accordingly to maintain essential functions.  The current goal was three-fold:

  • Focus on gaining back the weight
  • Focus on finding ways to maintain balanced, healthy eating options when most of the time animal products were not included in the meals.
  • Focus on finding ways to prepare healthy, delicious meals when panic attacks or flashbacks make using knives and other cooking utensils unsafe.

FYI, I am not vegan or vegetarian.  If you have to label me (or all of us), omnivore works.  I am one of those rare individuals who does not like the flavor and texture of most animal based foods no matter how they are cooked.  On top of that, those kinds of food are extremely hard for our body to digest and makes us feel a lot of discomfort.  So, animal protein and related foods are not excluded.  They are limited to times when everyone wants to eat the food and is willing to tolerate the consequences that come from eating such food.

I like to see this as a way of widening my options by eating and experimenting with the vast variety of whole plant-based foods available.  By doing this, I can stay healthy, enjoy what I eat (since I’ve always preferred eating plants – veggies and fruit and grains – to animals since childhood), and live my values.

It’s not easy, and sometimes I have to make compromises with myself and other parts, but it’s worthwhile.

Some Helpful Coping Strategies

Utilize support networks and resources: I talked to my doctor, therapist, dietitian, friends, and knitting circle before making the choices above.  They shared information, offered opinions, provided suggestions, and supported my choices.  They helped me choose kitchen tools, find an apartment, find creative alternatives to traditional cooking, etc.

Distract with research: I read a lot of books, asked millions of questions, viewed videos and blogs, and got my vitals checked over a period of years to understand why I felt like I did about food and what options I had besides eating the Standard American Diet.  It was a fun challenge for me.  Maybe solving a different kind of puzzle can help you.

Invest in quality tools for the long term: One of the most difficult parts of my symptoms is the loss of motor skills when I have a panic attack or flashbacks.  I lose gross and fine motor skills to the point where sometimes walking around is dangerous.

Those are times when preparing food and getting enough to eat are a big struggle.  Additional stress comes because I’ve been on a tight budget for the last 3 years – starting over put me into some debt that I am just finally recovering from this year – and struggled with buying things I absolutely needed and things I wanted without going back into debt.

So I have set up my apartment with a dishwasher to help with the burden of cleaning up, a trash can with a secure lid for times when I have trouble getting to the dumpster, a slow cooker to make meals, and a blender for making smoothies and other meal alternatives.  All of these items were purchased over time and mostly on sale.  As for the dishwasher, I made sure to move to a relatively safe neighborhood that met my commuting requirements and budget, but also had a dishwasher in the kitchen.  It takes a little planning, but definitely worth the effort in the end.

Have Compassion for Myself: I tend to be too hard on myself and overly critical.  My parts are the same way.  So we work hard to be kinder to ourselves during difficult times.

A poem from a friend

Back when all of this started, a co-worker left this poem on my desk.  It inspired me to make positive changes in my meal routine, so I am sharing it below:

What Food Can Do
Food can fill our stomachs.
It cannot fill our souls.
Food can nourish our bodies.
it cannot nourish our hearts and minds.
Food can give momentary pleasure.
It cannot give lasting pleasure.
Food can distract us from our pain.
It cannot take away our pain.
~Author unknown

Remember, nourish and nurture yourself

Self Worth

One of the worst consequences of abuse is having one’s self-worth destroyed.  Someone a long time ago once said to me: “If you don’t like yourself, no one else will like you either.”  The same with holds true with words like “value”, “respect”, “trust”, and “love” to name a few.  I was taught at a young age to hate myself, not value myself, not respect or love myself by the people who were supposed to love, protect, and raise me to be a decent human being.  I was also taught to love myself; respect myself; have compassion for self and others; protect and be loyal to those I cared about,; and value myself by an uncle by marriage who died when I was a little girl.

The lessons he taught me stayed deep inside, protected by the alters, until the right time came for me and the others to remember them.  They came out during the most difficult times to counter thoughts about death, suicide, starvation, etc and kept everyone in the system alive.  I can share this now because I remember now.  If someone had asked me this a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give a coherent answer.  Two years ago I did not remember that much.  And so on.  But now is different.  We, all of us in the system, are safe.  And safe means they can share memories with me and other alters.

Safety & Support Networks

There are two kinds of people in my world: safe and unsafe.  Every individual can be both safe and unsafe.  What matters is the degree in with I and my parts feel safe or unsafe interacting with the individual or individuals – that defines the first, most important, boundary in our relationship.  For a long time, I did not believe I deserved to spend time with safe people.  I was not worthy, so I stayed away from them.  Then I decided I was worthy of spending time around safe people; but I was too scared to let them in.  So I again found myself surrounded by unsafe people or isolated and alone.

Nine years ago I started my first real job in a field that no one in my family had connections.  First as a temporary employee; then as an independent contractor; finally as a full-time employee.  And here I learned about people, relationships, family, friends, and safety.  The people in this company became my pseudo-family and support network.  Because of my full-time job there, I was able to make myself safe when the time came to separate from my family.  And I had a support network of safe people who liked, respected, valued, and accepted ma as I was then.  They still do that now.

Punishment Comes in Many Forms

Shame is my biggest emotional enemy right now.  It undermines my feelings of self-worth and pushes me to punish myself through backlash.  By the time I started seeing my current therapist, I had stopped practicing and using the worst of my self-harm coping strategies.  The ones that caused physical injuries and life endangerment were off my list because I (we) decided to continue living.  But the punishment had to come from somewhere.  And it had to hurt bad enough to convince me that experimenting with more good choices was a bad idea.

So, even as I worked to surround myself with safe people, parts of me sought out people like the abusers and surrounded us with them too.  They felt that they/we deserved to be surrounded by people who emotionally and verbally abused us, used guilt and shame or manipulation/intimidation, to bully and tear us down all the time.  And since that was the type of people we spent most of our lives with, it was easy to find them; and easier to manipulate them into hurting us; easiest by far to gauge these individual’s emotional status and then put ourselves in a position of emotional/verbal whipping post.

For me/us, the backlash is triggered by shame and feelings of self-disgust that come from past lessons.  The shame floods parts or all with memories and feelings in the form of flashbacks and body memories and nightmares.  Sometimes the dominant personality does not know this has been triggered and can’t understand why she/he/it is being put into such situations.  Other times, an alter switches with the dominant (a complete switch with memory loss, etc.) and goes through the process without anyone else knowing.  The only  way any of us knows something “bad” happened comes from the feelings of anxiety that crop up every time I/we are near or have to interact with the individual.  And no one except my therapist or people who really knew me would realize (let alone believe) that I was harming myself by doing this.

This is part of what damaged relationships with good people and caused communication issues with co-workers and supervisors that almost cost me my job.  I am lucky that my current therapist understands DID and specializes in trauma because she helped all of us learn to communicate better, establish internal and external safety, boundaries for work and home, and ways to interact with outside people who do not trigger shame or backlash.  But we still had to make the choice to use these options.

Choices

In the abuse cycle, the victim’s choices and free will are taken away.  In the recovery cycle, choices are given back.  But making choices, and living with them, is difficult for people not used to them.  Making choices, showing preference for something, sharing an opinion is anxiety-provoking and scary to the point of freezing.   By freezing, I mean not making any choice at all; avoiding the situation so one doesn’t have to make choices.  It’s funny to share this because I’ve always advocated for other people’s right to choose even as I shied away from mine.

One Year without Unsafe People in My Network

Once I realized I was doing this, I asked myself why?  Then I asked my parts why?  When none of us could answer, we asked our therapist for help.  You see, there is a hard-wired rule inside my head that says I am not worthy of interacting with safe people.  I don’t deserve surrounding myself with people I like and respect, who value and accept me as I am and vice versa.  And that rule is strong.  It’s one of the strongest pieces of conditioning that rule kept being reinforced until the day I walked away from my previous life.

Last year, I decided to not spend time around people who made me feel bad about myself.  And If I had to because of work or friendships, I chose not to let them make me feel bad about myself.  The choice was mine because I was the only person with the power to let others hurt me.  I stood up to various people.  We severed relationships.  Now, my circle of friends is small.  My support network and co-worker base slightly larger.  But I am happy and safe.  So are my alters.

Anniversaries Coming Up

  • Labor Day: In the US almost everyone has Monday off to celebrate the holiday.  Except for retail, transportation, and a few other jobs where employees get a half day or reduced hours day instead.  For me, it means barbecues with family; going out to activities and events; getting bullied by cousins and shamed or ignored by everyone else; sometimes abusers found me and did stuff too.
  • Sperm Donor’s Birthday: He is 30 years older than me and does not like to celebrate his birthday.  My memories as a little girl are warm and fuzzy – I was the quintessential Daddy’s girl until I started school.  Probably because I filled two important roles: 1) kept the egg donor occupied and out of trouble; and 2) easily controlled and dominated (never physical abuse, but everything else for sure).  Then I started school.  The egg donor was left alone to her own devices.  And he started sexually abusing me.  But once I hit puberty, I was persona non grata.
  • School Starts: Every year, I looked forward to escaping my home life by going to school; even if that meant I would get bullied by my peers and teachers.  At least they weren’t physically or sexually abusing me.  Except for the principal, but that’s another story.  And at school, the other abusers (not related by blood or marriage) couldn’t get to me either.  But being ridiculed, bullied, the victim of racism and prejudice, etc. wasn’t easy either.  And then came middle school/high school with all that angst on top of everything else.  By then, everyone ignored me because I was “rude and annoying” to many, but also set up by the egg donor who worked in the juniors department at a department store and told my female classmates stories about me.
  • Moving to College and/or Apartments: September 1st is the most popular moving day for everyone where I live.  The first few moves, my donors coordinated and organized everything.  Then I had the responsibility of doing it myself.  They hated my going to college.  They hated more when I moved out and took every chance to bash me about those choices.  Then they complained enough to have the rest of the blood relatives and other connections harass me about it too.

Weekend Coping Strategies

This year is different in a lot of ways.  Here are a few:

  • I am safe – living in a place where they can’t find me that is all mine
  • I can stay home or go out on my terms
  • I do not have to move this year
  • My mental and emotional self is in a healthier, happier place than it was before
  • I have weekend projects to keep me busy
    • My favorite is making shades for hard-to-fit windows
    • Cooking and baking at home
    • Laundry and dying some of my white t-shirts a less bright white
    • Knitting – finish a scar for my friend
    • Write Monday’s blog post
  • I have movies to listen to in the background
  • Three days means I can make my own hours and not have to worry about lack of sleep and having to work on Monday

My goal is to not sleep the weekend away.  I might not be able to leave home – that gets difficult because of the fear and anxiety that comes from going out (all of us feel this way) – but at least there is plenty to do at home.

Here are my coping strategies that utilize the list above.  I am using them starting end of work today:

  • Redirect thoughts by stating facts about the present, future plans, solving problems or getting answers to questions
  • Go shopping and have everything in place for the weekend
  • Practice emotion regulation and distraction by doing the activities on my list
  • Making sure I also stop and take regular breaks – either by doing something fun and relaxing or by not doing anything at all (includes naps)
  • Use my self-care compulsion rituals to help relieve the OCD stress that comes from triggers sometimes
  • And if I don’t end up doing anything on my “Want to do” list, then that’s okay too.

I’m ending this post with one of my favorite Lin Yutang quotes