Archives for the month of: December, 2015

Dear Guests,

The time between Halloween and New Year’s Eve can be stressful and triggering for many people, especially survivors and their connections.  It can be hard to cope with the memories, emotional overload, and overwhelming triggers in positive and healthy ways.

Personally, I’ve disliked holidays, holiday seasons, and celebrations of many kinds for years.  Even more, I’ve hated what they represent and remind me of.  The first years after I left my family, I hid and slept through most of them.  Then I started staying awake more; did not remember much as I was dissociating at the time, but I was awake.  And eventually, I started being active while I was at home.

And as I reflect on anniversaries this year, I’ve realized that sometimes escape is healthy and positive.  Even if it means doing something that appears wrong, crazy, sick, or just plain weird to outsiders.  As long as it helps me cope without causing harm, why not try it?  So this year, I started substituting memories by creating new ones before, during, and after an anniversary.

It’s not easy.  And it’s not always fun.  Sometimes I do too much and get triggered into flashbacks.  Other times, I don’t do enough and get overwhelmed by a panic attack.  But each time I try to make new memories, I succeed in letting go of scary ones.  Then next time is less difficult.

Whatever you celebrate or not celebrate, however you choose to spend your time off, I and my alters wish you a safe, healthy, happy, peaceful next few days.

AlterXpressions

 

 

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Introduction

I’ve been in therapy for 11 years.  The first 3 years, I worked with a psychologist who helped me rebuild my foundations, but also made me feel like I was crazy because she did not believe in trauma and abuse.  We parted ways after I realized a) she wasn’t helping anymore; and b) trying to fit sessions in between grad school and work was impossible.

The next 4 years were spent with an LICSW who specialized in eating disorders and anxiety.  She flat out told me that she did not work with trauma and was willing to help with the other stuff if I was ok with that.  I agreed, and we had a great relationship until the trauma got worse in 2009.  From her, I learned the tools to manage emotions and triggers that caused relapses in anorexia.  She also helped me learn to improve my self-confidence and feelings of self worth in spite of the pressure from outside sources to go back to what I was.

The past 5 years have been about understanding and learning to cope with my trauma history.  That meant remembering, coping with anxiety and overwhelming feelings, working through shame, setting boundaries, and ensuring my safety.  It mean accepting that PTSD and DID were part of my identity now.  It meant acknowledging I was a victim of domestic violence and other abuse.  It meant acknowledging I was a survivor who did what was necessary to get through hell.  It also meant making the choice to be me with all of my weirdness and quirky characteristics and alternate personalities or be part of a family system that hurt and abused me.

The Event

When I decided to separate from my family and disappear, I didn’t know it would lead me to where I am now.  The first two years were all about making sure they couldn’t contact me (phone, email, work, home).  The third year was about trying to feel safe where I lived in spite of people from my past continuing to stalk and harass me.  That is when I started the process to change my name and move out of the city.  This past year has been about not hiding anymore.

Part of the not hiding goal was to develop a personal style so that my outside (physical appearance) self matched my inside self.  I wanted to show myself in my appearance; be me and have that reflected in my clothing choices, accessories, etc.  Because wearing clothes that fit and feel comfortable are stepping stones to rebuilding confidence in self image and appearance – two parts of myself that were taken away a long time ago through hate and shame.

My genetic history blessed me with looking physically beautiful and having an attractive body.  Not hiding anymore meant I’d be getting a lot of unwanted and triggering attention.  But hiding wasn’t an option anymore.  Wearing ugly clothes and playing down my physical appearance made me feel awful.  The journey to finding my style started in April of this year with a personal style program and is ongoing.

The not-hiding part was completed last week when I attended the company holiday party in a stylish and comfortable outfit that brought out my inner confidence and personality.

Post-Event Backlash

And I know I had a good time, that all of this was real, because of backlash the next day.  Started with a dreamless sleep that left me waking up in terror.  Continued with a moderate headache and lots of distraction at work.  Culminated with knots and lumps inside no matter what coping strategies I and the alters employed on the way home.

Once we got home, the urge to self-harm came back.  And nothing we tried could make the compulsion ease or go away.  The flashbacks, the memories, the shame knocked us out.  Talking to a counselor on the hotline helped a lot.  We walked through the feelings to understand where the trigger came from.  Then she helped me create a safety contract.

Coping

We were expecting backlash.  We were not expecting the compulsions for self-harm or the flashbacks.  It didn’t happen at the previous holiday party.  Why would it happen this time?  And how come everything we tried was necessary but not sufficient?

The list of coping strategies for this backlash goes as follows:

  • Distraction – books, music, work, Facebook style groups, chatting with co-workers and friends, cooking, playing games, making budget and shopping strategies for next year
  • Self-Care – doing one of the style challenges for the day; remembering to eat all of my meals and drink fluids; putting on chapstick; taking walks; laughing with a friend; downloading books; wearing comfortable shoes; going in to work later and staying later to make up time
  • Self-Soothing – eating chocolate; drinking juice and bubbly water; enjoying flavors that remind me of happy times; wearing clothes that felt good against my skin; staying warm and dry; getting enough rest; going to safe spaces in our mind
  • Emotion regulation – sitting with my feelings; acknowledging the turmoil inside and letting it pass; listening to my alters share stories and movies; laughing with them as we used lucid dreaming to change scary nightmares into successful adventures; identifying and naming our feelings; doing the opposite of how we feel to change our thoughts
  • Comfort – cuddling with stuffed animals; playing dress up; wrapping up tight in a blanket; listening to nature sounds; keeping in touch with close friends
  • Asking for help – when all else fails, reaching out for extra support from people who understand trauma and are willing to offer help

Lesson Learned

Not hiding feels great.  But the reasons for hiding still exist.  The shame and fear that caused us to hide hasn’t gone away.  And now the memories are back with clarity that comes from hindsight.  That means more change, more unsettled feelings, and more coping challenges.  Someday, though, this will get easier.

That belief, the hope that coping will get easier as I move on, keeps all of us going.

 

Introduction

Some weeks are harder than others.  It seems like everything converges at the same time; one after another the triggers hit.  Downtime is nonexistent.  Coping becomes an olympic sport.  As my therapist put it: “descent into triggering hell” becomes reality.  Then I lose 6 or 7 months of the year to traumatic amnesia.

Or that used to be my normal.

My alters and I have hope that this time will be different.  The changes came slowly like water eroding rock.  The child alters feel safe and confident enough to let go of past memories.  The adolescent alters feel safe and self-assured in their protection and coping skills to let go of past memories.  And we adults feel confident in ourselves, the system, and our combined experience to maintain safety no matter what happens.

Gratitude

We are grateful for many things in life.  This time of year, though, we are especially grateful for our true friends and connections.  They made the difference between scary hell of flashbacks and coping with overwhelming feelings in healthy ways.

We are grateful for a warm apartment; a fulfilling job; unexpected gifts; nice weather; clothes; food; and self-acceptance.  By meeting these basic needs, we have the tools to take care of ourselves and be safe.

We are grateful for our therapist, providers, and support organizations like the hotline.  Without their unconditional support and belief in us, maintaining the balance between our inside world and outside world would be that much more difficult.

Inspiration from a friend

Last week was tough.  But one friend in particular helped me through a lot of it.  She called to check on me; offered me support and a sounding board without judgement; and sent me inspirational news articles and posts.  Reading it made me smile and turned my whole day around.  I hope it does for you too:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/opinion/the-year-of-unearthed-memories.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

Giving myself permission to (fill in blank)

This is one of those times when nothing works.  Every coping strategy, every technique I’ve learned helps a little or not at all.  Whatever the others come up with, we try.  Sometimes it offers a little relief.  Sometimes it makes the anxiety worse.  This is when someone calls the hotline.  We talk through the triggers with a volunteer; brainstorm ideas; make a plan; sometimes all of them in one call.  Sometimes over multiple calls.

The lesson we learned: sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to do nothing.  Or feel crappy.  Or cry.  Or be kind to ourselves.  And so on.

Then we follow through with action or inaction.  And doing this with the intention to help ourselves brings unexpected relief.  It also feels scary the first few times.  DBT helps with that.  Emotion regulation and Distress Tolerance work well.  And for readers with alters, I’d add Effective Interpersonal Communication and Assertiveness modules as well.

Conclusion

Feeling safe provides a framework for self-confidence and security in one’s identity.  With that security comes a belief in one’s ability to cope with anything that could happen and the skills to do it.  The changes do not happen over night.  They take time and practice like everything else.  To us, the investment is worth the payoff.

What do you think?

Another Interview Style Post

Have you ever had a week or a month when all you get is scary, triggering, difficult, or sad news about people and events from the past?

Yes.  This week has been exactly like that.  First time was my choice.  The alters supported it.  We all wanted to have fun and enjoy the party.  Didn’t matter who was there.  Then found out about the unexpected death of a co-worker on Monday.  Then Tuesday found out the relative we saw on Sunday lied and said she did not see us when asked by the hostess.  Wednesday found out the sperm donor had been sick in the hospital and was out now.  Thursday was making choices and coping with more flashbacks.  Today is dealing with rude people who stare and then give the cut when I turn to find out who is staring – happened 4 times in one store as I did errands on my way home.

If yes, how did you cope?  Or in my therapist’s words: “How did you navigate through the experience?

First by accepting the feeling running through me.  Then by doing a self check to make sure I was able to work.  Shock kept me/us numb through most of Monday; followed by calls to hotline.  Stay home and process/sleep/self-soothe on Tuesday.  Chat with friends via text and phone or in person on Wednesday; more calls to hotline; books, music, grounding, food.  Counseling session; problem-solving; exploring all options; making a choice that feels right for everyone; focus on rest and comfort coping strategies; do the opposite; help others; smile; focus on work and meeting deadlines; call hotline to help process; accept that the issue was about the other person; make a plan to talk with store manager if negative encounters keep happening at store.  Make a plan to be safe and get away from triggering experiences.

What can you learn from this week?  Any positive events happen to remind yourself of?

Yes.  Feel a lot safer and more confident so that first response to unexpected, unwanted, or aggressive verbal and physical contact is an assertive verbal response to back off instead of a verbal or physical punch/slap/kick to remove contact.  Be polite and professional in spite of mean comments and bullying.  Get some rest; continue to work; be nice to self in spite of feeling shame or guilt from not feeling shame or guilt about choices.  Being friendly and polite to outsiders in spite of the chaos going on inside instead of snarling at people.

How would you describe your biggest challenge this weekend?

My biggest challenge this weekend will be to not let today’s or the past week’s experiences stop me and my alters from following through with our weekend plans.

This is a follow up to yesterday’s post about life changing moments.

Introduction

We started counseling/therapy/pscyhotherapy in 2004.  In the past 11 years, every one of us has gone through transformation and change.  We worked through our fear; took down the barriers separating us from the rest of the world; let outsiders see our inside self (the real us); all while coping with rages, fear, shame, guilt, anguish, pain, and grief that did not seem to have a source.  Baby steps.  Learn to trust ourselves.  Learn to trust each other.  Learn to trust outsiders.  Make mistakes.  Try again.  Keep on trying.  Do what is necessary to survive.  Accept that survival means acting and speaking in ways that are not aligned with our values.

Stop shaming ourselves like the others did for taking steps that felt right to our instincts, steps that went against our conditioning.  Steps that caused physical/emotional/psychological pain and obsessions/compulsion to cause harm as punishment for breaking the rules.  Learn how to cope with panic attacks and dissociation.  Learn emotion regulation and anger management so as not to harm innocents (including ourselves).

Present

Yesterday I posted a life changing moment just after it happened.  Today I am writing about the backlash.  Because as much as I hope that someday every survivor finds a way to move on from surviving to living to thriving and experience the confidence that comes from hard internal work, I also know that it is a dream.  Success comes to those who work hard; learn from mistakes; keep an open mind; cultivate empathy, resilience, compassion; and persist in moving towards healing will someday experience insides and outsides matching.

The inner changes will be reflected in outside personality and treatment of self/others.  A friend at work is presently going through such a transformation; it’s an honor and a pleasure to support him as he becomes the person he wants to be on the inside and the outside.  And much appreciated to have him as a supporter of my journey too.

As my current counselor says: what you put into your recovery is what you get out of it.

We got the courage to face our fears with joy and trust in our support system.  And backlash in the form of flashbacks reminding us that the woman we saw yesterday knew and did nothing to help before.  What used to be fuzzy sensations and fragmented memories are now full color, motion-picture style memory videos looping through our brain.  Awake or sleeping we cry at unexpected times, feel anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame.  The headache means some are suppressing the tears so as not to cry at work.  The tense muscles mean pain is on the way.  Body memories will appear if we don’t let go.

So what to do?

I am not sure.  We all will be trying different methods of self-care tonight.  Soothing, grounding, connecting with friends, getting perspective from others, a call to the hotline, making dinner, and remembering that every encounter has multiple perspectives.  Because even though walking away was the best thing I did, I still love my family.  And I know that a lot of them love me in their own way too.

Seeing my aunt hide from me was a shock.  I did not feel smug or proud that she hid from me.  I felt confused and conflicted.  It was never my intention to cause her pain or harm with my presence.  Nor was it the intention of my alters.  A mutual friend (of mine and the aunt’s) who did not attend the party (other commitments) helped me get perspective on this.  The friend also reminded me that the aunt loves me and might have been trying to respect my boundaries/not hurt me by hiding.  The aunt might also have been giving herself time to make a plan since she was not sure how to cope with the situation.

Conclusion

While not having contact with immediate family and anyone who knowingly participated in past experiences is absolute and unchanging, I am reluctant to shut out family who might be willing to change and meet me part way to create something new from the ashes of the past.  I will not ever let any of them hurt me like before.  And I won’t forget.  That is part of why I/we experience the backlash.  But I am in a place now where I am secure enough in myself and my ability to be safe that taking baby steps outside of my comfort zone are possible.

This is what we want and hope for our visitors and guests.  That some day each and every one of you will be able to live the lives you deserve.

Early last week, a friend emailed me with an invitation to her holiday party.  In the invitation, she mentioned that one of my paternal aunts might attend too.  This friend is retired, a member of my knitting circle, and someone who’s known me since I was five years old.  We reconnected about 2-3 years ago through a mutual friend I ran into before moving to my current residence.

It took a few months, up to a year, before I really began to trust them both and open up.  They were still connected to my family and had been (continue to be) the paternal aunt’s friend before I met them.  But they protected my privacy; accepted my differences; worked with me to help me learn better coping strategies so I could attend knitting circles and go out more; and always supported me with their actions.  Because of them and my friends in the knitting circle, I’ve become more social and more comfortable with socializing.

Back to the invitation.  She lives about 2.5 hours away from me, so I wrote back telling her that I’d try to make it.  Sundays are difficult because there are less trains and buses operating throughout the city.  On Thursday, I decided to go to the party and wrote an RSVP Friday morning.  She wrote back with her address and also confirmed that my paternal aunt would be there.  It was considerate and caring of her to warn me.

A month ago, I might not have attended the party.  3 months ago, I definitely would not have gone and might have experienced some negative flashbacks thinking about the event.  One year ago, I would be having flashbacks and panic attacks about being invited to a party with few friends and many strangers.  The travel arrangements alone would have scared me enough to make an excuse not to go.  And forget it if there was a hint of snow on the ground.

This time, though, I decided that I was going to go.  I would dress up in an outfit that felt and looked good (gave me confidence) and take my time traveling there.  Since many of my knitting friends were going, I’d also have a built-in support network and people to hang out with.  And with my phone handy, I could easily find many ways to leave if I wanted to leave.

At the party, I would be polite if she approached me and then ignore her the rest of the time.  If not, I’d ignore her.  But I wasn’t going to hide.  And I didn’t hide.  Spending time with my friends, meeting new people, chatting with them was way too much fun to miss out on.  My friend’s friends are wonderful and unique – think United Nations – and made me feel comfortable even though I was the youngest one there.

In the end, I heard my aunt come in (her voice is loud and recognizable) before she saw me and moved to be with a group of friends, my back to her.  We chatted and laughed in our corner; my friends were facing the other way and kept an eye on her for me.  But she didn’t approach.  Instead, she hid until I left.  Not very long since my ride was getting ready to leave 20-40 minutes after “auntie” arrived.

But seeing her silhouette, the back of her head did not bother me like I thought it would.  I had a moment of fear before I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of.  I was warm and safe and supported among friends.  And shocked that she would hide from me.  She who always was loud-spoken and brash, displaying confidence and being pushy with criticism and set-downs ready.

Instead, I felt at peace inside.  Confident, self-assured, and comfortable enough with myself to cope with whatever happened.  I wasn’t afraid of her anymore.  And that is big.  Because I’ve spent decades being afraid of her and everyone else in my family.  Intimidated, less than, all of it around them.  And now, I feel equal to them.  Not more, not less; equal to them as a human, a woman, an individual.

I am smart, successful, independent, female, and able to cope with my past and present.  I control myself and influence my choices.  My past and the people who shaped it do not control me or my choices anymore.  I have strategies and plans to help me feel in control of stressful situations.  The planning itself is a wonderful coping technique.  Building in flexibility allows me to adapt to changes easier.  Finally, having options allows me to make choices and ground myself when I start to feel out of control.

Thinking about them still brings on flashbacks sometimes.  This time of year; certain scents and sounds; images and crowds still trigger me into feeling uncomfortable.  Until after January 1, I have to cope with encountering higher than normal amounts of rude and insulting people from the past who know or recognize me without my being able to return the favor.

So this is my life changing moment.  I went to a holiday party knowing I’d see family.  Instead of being scared and panicking, I enjoyed myself.  Instead of hiding from her and being invisible, she ran and hid from me.  Without all of the hard work from before, I’d not be here now.

We all hope that someday, the guests here will do the same at least once.

Extra post this week.

To maintain professional boundaries and confidentiality, I try not to get too specific about the details of my job and co-workers.   The same is true about friends and people I consider family.  Only if I have permission from them, do I share specific details or information.  Bear with me if this post is clunky as I try to maintain the boundaries and confidentiality and share my story.

Most of my job is to make sure deliverables get to the client within the deadline.  In order for me to do that, other people in the department have to be able to meet their project deadlines.

Makes sense right?

And also a good reason why I do my best to ensure that happens by doing the other part of my job.  That part is to troubleshoot small issues, connect people with each other to get answers when someone gets stuck, and share relevant information with people in my department.

Since all of the big changes over the past year, everyone in the company has had to learn a lot of new processes and programs while also doing their jobs.  Some of the processes like user names and passwords for different websites are time consuming and difficult to learn/remember.  Others not so much.  And a lot of people are resistant to change.  They ignore the emails and try to use the “old” ways instead.  Then get frustrated and blame someone else for the problem.

Usually the messenger whose “instructions are not working”.  AKA me.

Then they, (not always with respect) request that I fix the problem for them because (put the excuse here).  Mainly they don’t want to learn the new process and will ask everyone else to fix it for them until someone does.

It happened again last week.  Yesterday, I received the 5th email/call telling me my instructions didn’t work and demanding I fix the problem remotely.  And I got fed up with it.  Because I am not part of IT.  I am not a computer specialist.  And my job is not to do these tasks for other people.  it’s to share information with them so they learn how to do it themselves and are not dependent on someone else to solve their problems.

So how does one address this boundary issue?  I talked it over with my supervisor – mostly because I wanted to be clear what my job is and is not before I send something out publicly.  Then I asked my contact in Customer Support (IT for software programs and someone with experience dealing with these people) who works closely with IT for advice.  She gave some great information that helped me refine what to say.

Then I had to figure out how to get the message to everyone in multiple states, territories, and countries while also maintaining a professional tone.  Being a writer, I chose email and spent an hour crafting my message.  After I sent it out, I felt better.  And I got some positive responses back too.

But I still feel triggered.  And it’s not helping with my sleep issues and feeling vulnerable this time of year.  My therapist says I did a good job.  And so far I haven’t had any negative feedback from my supervisor or any of the managers.

Will I be able to do this next time?  I hope so.

Will I be able to avoid the backlash like I did this time?  Maybe.

Do I feel better, safer, more confident now that I pushed everyone back to the other side of the boundary?  Absolutely, yes.

This time of year it is so easy to fall back into old patterns and then start the new year feeling bad.  I hope this story empowers others to maintain their boundaries too.  Because maintaining boundaries this time of year ups our chances for a better time in the future.

Working on accepting my body as it is and some of the changes occurring since I am not at or close to my ideal body weight.  Good because now I am physically healthy and able to do a lot more.  Scary and stressful because my body is not straight, flat, or stick-like.

It’s not a fashionable or trendy shape, but it gets a lot of attention.  And the attention scares all of us.  Acknowledged sexual attention and attention of any kind by outsiders is scary.  And with the new shape comes challenges in buying foundation garments that fit.  So we are researching ways to cope with these new feelings, sensations, and experiences.

To that end, I’ve worked with some alters to update the resources page.  We’ve added 3 links to Pinterest Boards:

Affirmations

Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Personal Symbols of Power: Animals that make me smile

The first link has some of my favorite image quotes.

The second link offers specific resources for Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  Anyone with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or working through Posttraumatic stress might benefit from these resources too.

The last link has images of some of my favorite animals: otters, turtles, dogs, etc. that make me smile.

CAVEAT: I also have another public board on there called “Wish List”.  It’s a wish board of items I want and/or need for next year since I am having a “no shopping December” challenge.  Feel free to visit and view that page too if you like.  We’ll be adding more than hats and scarves as the month goes by.

How do you take control of your life when it feels out of control?