Anniversary: Family Reunions, Birthdays & Shame

Background

End of July and most of August are typically the time of year when out-of-town relatives stay at my aunts’ houses and visit for a long family reunion that ends with the maternal grandmother’s birthday.  Some used to stay with my parents, but that changed sometime when I was in college.  This is speculation because no one ever told me anything, but I guess my relatives couldn’t face the truth of who was acting out against (aka abusing and scaring) their young children.  It’s easier for them to blame the scapegoat than to face a reality they refuse to acknowledge.

Why this anniversary is so scarring

But back to family reunions.  As scapegoat, I was mostly ignored or bullied by everyone.  And made to be the de facto babysitter as a young teen to keep me separated from the rest of my age-mate cousins and younger brother.  I didn’t mind because that gave me something to do with my time.  As I got older, though, so did the kids.  And the next generation of young children came from my older cousins – people who didn’t trust or like or respect me – and other relatives by marriage who didn’t want my help.  So I suddenly had nothing to keep the anxiety away.

And that generation of children were raised to treat me the same way as the adults.  And they did it with relish.  No one scolded them for being mean or indulging in bad habits around me, so they constantly made up ways to antagonize me.  And then with the silent treatment and shunning from the adults, I basically had no place to hide at family reunions.  No one to offer empathy, compassion, friendly conversation, etc.  And no place to go and cope with my anxiety or triggers.  I was on a stage with bright lights pointed at me all the time; they used every word, every gesture to humiliate and condemn me.

Typical Response

Dissociate, not leave the house, feel hyper-vigilant and scared all the time, stop sleeping, have nightmares, miss time from work, have panic attacks, severe body pain and memories, get sick, pass out, not eat, etc. for days or even weeks.  Lose time, lose memories, switch and practice self harm.

Response in new environment

Some disturbed sleeping, lots of anxiety, some flashbacks, lots of shame and tears, problems with my digestion and visit the bathroom a lot, increased body memories and body pain but not so much that I stay home and am incapacitated.  Some switching and reckless behavior – but that is more due to mistakes and learning a new environment that the shame capitalizes on than anything deliberate.

I am:

  • still working 5 days a week
  • going out with friends
  • active on the blog and website
  • going shopping/cooking/to restaurants
  • exercising
  • decorating my apartment
  • keeping in touch with safe family and friends (another post)
  • Utilizing my coping strategies (especially the hotline) while I try to find a provider here
  • making and keeping appointments for graduate school, scholarship research, etc.

Conclusion

The 2 months of anniversaries are tough.  Remembering how I was treated brings back lots of negative feelings that are hard to accept and cope with.

But being here in my new place, I truly feel safe and able to move beyond the typical fear.  Yes, it hurts.  yes I cry a lot.  Yes my body loses control sometimes.  Yes I feel aggression rise to the point where I scare myself of what could happen.

But it all goes away much faster.  I can let myself cry and experience all of these sensations instead of blocking them out.  And because of that, the pain and fear and anxiety lessen each time.  And each experience takes less out of me too.

So yeah, I’m still in rough shape.  The shame overwhelms me and causes me to apologize and over explain and feel terrible about good decisions.  It is constantly messing with my mind.  But I can get help from the hotline and my friends; they listen and help me find self-compassion through validation and reality testing.

I need my quiet evenings and 1 day a week of staying inside.  But I can spend that time being productive and happy (either doing something or doing nothing) instead of out of my mind with fear and disorientation.

Thanks for reading

DID Post: Different Parts; Different Symptoms to Address

CAVEAT

This will not be an in-depth post.  Goal here is to explain that not all alters experience all  of the same symptoms at the same time or ever with examples from our system.  The adults and teens are searching the memory banks, but no one can remember exactly which book or news article or blog post we read that explains this phenomenon in layman’s terms.  Finding and confirming the source may take a while.

This is a very big topic with multiple layers.

It will probably be explored as part of different DID posts, PTSD posts, Alter Posts, and Life Changing Moments posts.  If you are ever in doubt about POV or tone, you are welcome to leave a comment and ask for clarification.  Writing with alters can be tricky to navigate and consistently use the correct tone of voice, grammar, point-of-view, etc. for the guests without getting confused or awkward in the flow of writing.  It’s also a pain to organize multiple POVs in 1,500 words (Maximum of 2,000) or less.

Why is this important to understand?

To the outside world, I am one person with a set of symptoms and co-curring disorders that make up the complex PTSD diagnosis.  As such, I (the whole person) experience all of the symptoms below.

In truth, I am 1 person made up of 88 alternate personalities.  About 20 of these personalities maintain control of our system (aka parenting, basic wellness care, interacting with the outside world, ensuring basic needs are met).  Not all of us experience the same kind or severity of symptoms even though all of us feel body pain and physical symptoms to different degrees.  This is because not every one of us alternate personalities has every symptom and disorder on the list.

Confusing and scary, yes?  Or no?

A List of Symptoms and Co-Curring Disorders related to the Complex PTSD and DID:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic Attacks
  • Body Memories
  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Fear related to crowds and feeling trapped
  • Dissociation
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Phobias – spiders; agoraphobia; bathrooms, pools/oceans/swimming; slugs/caterpillars/flies and other insects that leave trails of slime, silk, sound in the environment; the dark; falling down
  • Fainting/passing out
  • Severe body pain
  • Insomnia, restless sleep, disordered sleeping, nightmares, night sweats, night terrors, sleep walking
  • Flashbacks, deja vu, and related fugues
  • Shame/guilt/anger/self-harm/emotional overload

Some examples:My child alters experienced the most abuse and have all of the symptoms above.  But they struggle with utilizing coping strategies because the shame is embedded so deep in them.  The disordered eating started young with neglect, got worse with diets, and became full-blown anorexia by 6 or 7 years old.  But they don’t understand body pain or menstruation – any kind of physical pain scares them and reminds them of abuse.

My teen alters experienced less physical abuse (thank you for the martial arts training), but more physical and non-physical sexual abuse in the form of inappropriate visuals/touching/talk and body shaming.  Many of them have the worst body image issues and eating problems.  They have a hard time accepting our body.  The physical pain is acknowledged, but hard to cope with – triggers self-harm, starvation/restriction, suicidal thoughts, etc. to numb it out.

The adult alters experienced mostly verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, shaming, isolation, public humiliation, silent treatment/shunning, emotional blackmail, bullying (all alters experienced this, but not like adults), and stalking to  isolate and remove opportunities to move forward.  They experience the most body pain and have the best resources to cope with it.  But their ways of coping are not always useful or helpful because they do not address the needs of teens and children to learn how to acknowledge, accept, and cope with physical pain or the accompanying triggers and flashbacks.

Female alters have trouble coping with the pain related to menstruation because of memories related to specific punishments for any talk or overt physical changes that took place during puberty.

Male alters have trouble with body image and sexuality because of the sexual abuse and gender misdirection during childhood.  Females and males sexually abused our body/self.  They also liked to physically abuse our body during the sexual encounters.  Mom kept trying to convince daughter she was a boy and adopted throughout childhood.  Many non-incestuous sexual and physical abuse experiences also happened in a quasi-religious/cult environment with drugs and alcohol involved.

And the non-human alters hold most of the negative feelings like aggression, anger, guilt, sorrow, and of course shame.  Their first response is: a) fold up and disappear; and b) lash out and hurt/defend/protect with violence.  They also hold the internalized messages from abusers and struggle with hearing the voices, obeying compulsions, obsessive thoughts, and reality testing.

Conclusion

When I and my alters get triggered, we all experience a range of flashbacks, anxiety, and symptoms.  One strategy does not work for everything – not even grounding or self-soothing or meditation.  Sometimes one strategy can help take the edge off of the worst of the symptoms for everyone in the short-term.  But that strategy will not work in the long-term or even feel helpful sometimes.

As alters learn to trust and communicate with self and each other, they find ways to “tell” what kinds of coping strategies will help, what kinds will make the symptoms worse, and what ones they are unsure about.  Having one body with so many different needs to address can be difficult.  That is why many of the strategies and techniques here are mental and emotional based instead of physical.

With imagination and creativity, many alters can learn to use, utilize, and/or adapt the coping strategies and techniques on their own or in groups on the inside while the ones “in charge” and maintaining life on the “outside” are working, walking, shopping, interacting with others, etc.  That’s what we do, and it allows us to function better in the outside world.

I hope maybe some of this can help others struggling to understand and cope with the internal confusion that sometimes comes with unexpected and expected triggers/anniversaries/symptoms.

Thank you for reading.

DID Post: What does my internal system look like?

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I haven’t written much about DID lately.  That is because my alters and I have been quietly working on internal strategies related to communication and organization.  We’ve been creating a map of where everyone lives and trying to establish coping strategies to help with shame and backlash that comes from self-expression and communication related to switching.  This way, even when alters go away for alone time or get lost, they have a way to find home again.

My first DID homework

After my therapist finally admitted to me that I had DID and why she didn’t tell me sooner, she gave me a homework assignment.  It was a long-term, multipart project that ended up taking months.

The assignment: identify my alters and map out what the system looked like visually.

My first attempt identified 20 alter personalities and looked like an idea map (brainstorming tool) of bubbles.  The next one had 60 alters and looked like a flow chart.  Finally, a flow chart and idea map became a spider web.  But no one inside liked that version.  For almost a year, I believed our system topped out at 60 alters, including me.  But then I started hearing a voice speaking in Spanish.  And another two or three played songs related to how they felt.  Many sent pictures or movies.

In fact, 80 alters showed up for the next roll call.

By now, we’d stopped trying to map out the ever-changing landscape and trying to identify the alters with names.  No one had a concrete visual of safe spaces.  And many alters changed their names as they grew and changed through the recovery process.  When I explained this to my therapist, she agreed to put this exercise aside and concentrate on other parts of IFS therapy.

2014 is the year I legally changed my name and finally started to feel safe.  It’s also the year our last 7 alters appeared to the system.  They appeared just after I re-read a book called Amongst Ourselves and started reading/listening to Pema Chodron’s books about fear, courage, and compassion.  And that’s when I realized we were coming at the homework assignment from the wrong perspective.  Instead of going back to our roots (pun intended) and looking for a nature-based metaphor, we had been using logical tools to draw a reasonable representation of an ever-changing, chaotic landscape.

What our internal system looks like

My internal system looks like a bent, twisted, stunted tree with a short trunk and many strong branches that extend in every direction instead of a straight, tall one with a strong trunk and perfect horizontal branches.  Our underground root system is deep and strong like any other tree, but visually, we look different from maples and pines and cedars, etc.  More like an oversized bush that got lifted during a wind storm and continued growing.  Or maybe like a bamboo that a got knotted and twisted into various shapes before continuing to grow to maturity.

IMG_7080  This tree reminds me of the knotted bamboo metaphor above.  I wrote the first draft of this post before finding the photo, but decided not to change either description.  It’s not often I find a mature tree that represents my internal family so well.

But this is important to us because with switching and communication comes a giant helping of shame and self-hatred.  For too many years, we all were taught not to communicate with each other, not to work together.  And when caught, we were abused even more – many of my alters are mouthy and assertive.  They speak their minds and do not hold back.  This was seen as rebellion and defiance; two actions that caused any and all perpetrators to escalate their tactics in order to shut everyone down again.

So you probably will be seeing more posts about DID and coping strategies we use to help with anxiety induced switching, panic attacks, shame, and other triggers.

You will also see a few posts about mindfulness and meditation as relates to trauma and recovery.

Thanks for reading.

PTSD: Depression is not always a chemical imbalance

Introduction

I was talking with a friend of mine over dinner earlier this week, and she mentioned not wanting to take meds for depression.  Another male friend of mine said the same thing a few months ago.  Both said that the medicine makes them foggy and feel numb, so preferred not taking the psychiatric prescriptions.  And during my final visit with my dietitian yesterday, depression and stress related food issues came up.

So I thought this would be a good time to share some facts I’ve learned about depression and anorexia as related to (symptoms of) my PTSD.  You see, the complex posttraumatic stress disorder sometimes includes symptoms and side effects that can also be standalone diagnoses.  Depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, self-harm, phobias, Dissociative Identity Disorder, and dissociation to name a few.

Depression

I struggle with depression often.  It comes and goes in waves depending on a schedule of personal holidays and anniversaries embedded in my mind and body.  For a long time, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses tried to give me all kinds of pills.  Sometimes they gave me the same ones my mother was on; this made sense to them as our supposed symptoms of anxiety and depression were similar.

Then they started giving me other pills to help with the psychotic symptoms: hearing voices; hallucinations, sleep issues, and so on.  The pills were supposed to make the symptoms go away – i.e. I wouldn’t hear voices or hallucinate anymore.  The nightmares would disappear.  And I’d sleep through the night.

Well I did start sleeping a lot.  And for a few months at a time, my mind would be quiet.  But, I felt numb and spent most of my time living in a fog.  Nothing penetrated the fog.  And my coordination problems got worse.  Concentration became difficult.  I started to get sick often.

So I stopped taking medicine and tried to find other coping strategies.  But I kept wondering what was wrong with me that the medicine couldn’t fix a biological/chemical problem like depression the way it did for others.  If I had depression, then it was a chemical imbalance.  Medicine fixed chemical imbalances.  Right?

Not exactly…my last psychiatrist explained to me that people who have experienced severe trauma do have problems with depression.  But their depression is not biological or chemical based.  It comes from having been traumatized; only therapy modalities that focus on healing from trauma can help with that kind of depression.

He said that about anxiety too; the symptoms of anxiety can be masked by medicine, but the cause of the anxiety cannot.  So when the medicine wears off, I will experience all of the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression that were masked.  Sometimes, the symptoms will be worse because they were repressed (backlash).  It’s a risk I would take every time I took one of the pills.

These days, the only time I take one of those pills is if I haven’t slept for more than 24 hours and need to knock myself out.  Hence the nickname “knockout pills”.

Final Thoughts

Find a mental health provider who understands trauma (trauma-informed or trauma trained).  Not all of them understand trauma or how it affects mental health.  Then discuss symptoms and past experiences with medication with this person and see if medication is the right path.  If it’s not, ask for other suggestions and options.  If medicine does seem like a good path, keep a journal of the different symptoms and side effects that occur or not occur when on and off the pills.

I am not opposed to taking medicine or pills.  I am opposed to having my mental clarity and independence compromised.  So if ever there comes out an FDA approved pill that can help with my symptoms without making me foggy or so tired I sleep 20 hours a day for weeks or sick to my stomach, I will try it.  Until then, I am better off without the pills.

Thanks for reading

Body Memories: Am I sick or reliving an experience or both?

CAUTION: The story below is kind of gross…read at your discretion

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Every year around April and May, I get really sick with a sinus infection of sorts.  It’s viral and causes my sinuses to get filled with fluid; it blocks passageways around my jaw, ears, and throat while leaving the areas around my nose and eyes slightly swollen and heavy-feeling.  The sensation itself is not unknown to me as I have been prone to head colds and sinus infections since childhood.

The difference between this one my others is the intensity of symptoms that come with it.  As a child and teen, I spent the months sneezing and blowing my nose; it looked rather gross to people who saw me constantly sneezing and using up tissues like people change underwear or socks or started sneezing and couldn’t get tissues quick enough.  During college, when I realized tissues were hard to carry and dispose of with class schedules, the sneezing changed to nausea followed by bouts of vomiting over a period of days.

And if I was lucky, that wouldn’t happen again for a while.  As for outward symptoms, nothing swelled up or looked obviously wrong with my face.  My jaw and teeth started to hurt.  My nose and eyes started to hurt.  Then my throat and ears.  Everything felt stuffy.  Finally, headaches and exhaustion kept me from feeling hungry or thirsty.

The doctors told me it was allergies and gave me medication.  The medication kept the stuff inside me so I stayed sick longer; made me sleepy and lethargic; caused other reactions that made me sick.  Then they thought it was a bacterial infection and gave me antibiotics.  Then they thought maybe it was a deviated septum; that got corrected in high school and kept the worst infections away for a while.  When I switched doctors, the new PCP told me that there are bacterial and viral sinus infections.  Antibiotics don’t work with viral ones, so try saline solution, lots of fluids and warm liquids, tylenol, etc.  That actually did/does help some.

Odd part is, I only get sinus infections and head colds around or after certain events and anniversaries:

  • Visiting parents and certain relatives
  • Going to parties, bars, dancing, social events with family or acquaintances
  • Memorial Day, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day
  • Birthdays and family get-togethers
  • School beginnings/endings, holidays, graduations

And the severity of symptoms depends on how long I stayed at events and anniversaries.  A new trigger is painting my nails; I tried it over the weekend for the first time in over 10 years.  Won’t be doing that again.

So now I wonder: am I really sick with an infection or is my body reliving something that is making me feel and act sick?

Either way, I have to treat this like an illness, yes?  It’s not going away on its own, so I guess the answer is to try the usual and then some less typical strategies?

Thanks for reading.