Coping Strategy: Changing Environment

Introduction

This is my first post since the cross-country move.  Before I moved, there was not a lot I could do to change my environment.  And even the parts I could control (apartment, office cubicle, etc.) felt unchangeable because of my safety fears.  I didn’t feel safe in either place to really decorate and make the spaces my own.  Because of that, there were too many reminders (smell, sound, textures, and visuals) that triggered anxiety.

Outside of my safer spaces, the houses looked similar to ones I was raised around in the suburbs or like the ones in other city neighborhoods where I lived or worked in the past.  The people who are raised in that state hardly ever leave; instead they move to different locales and neighborhoods.  That makes leaving one’s past behind especially difficult.

What makes an environment feel unsafe?

When I changed my name, I wanted to leave the northeast too.  But I needed my job and was invested in my mental health care.  Leaving without a secure job and limited resources would have been too stressful and traumatic.  My support network was still shaky too.  Making and maintaining safe connections is not as easy as life coaches and self-help books advise.  Also, with a large family like mine, it’s not easy to find a state in the US that isn’t populated with people who know or may have heard of me.

No, I’m not pretending.  Both of my parents are 1 of 6 siblings.  5 of the 6 (including my mother) had lots of kids who also spread out, got married, made friends and connections all over.  But my parents’ generation also has lots of cousins and relatives who live in many different states too.  And then there is the community aspect.  A whole city or group of cities in one state full of people who know of my past or took part in my past and have connections throughout the northeast and other states too through family, friends, work, networking, etc. took time out daily to make me feel unsafe and uncomfortable in public.

These people would talk about me, try to instigate trouble and set me up to be embarrassed or talked to by store managers.  In restaurants and stores, they disappeared and refused to serve me outright.  Or ignored me and acted rude and hostile the whole time they did serve me; with bad service and terrible food.  They verbally abused me with insults and deliberately got in my way so I missed trains or crossways.  Some used passing by as an excuse to try to physically push me around.  Shouting and arguments on streets also ensued sometimes.

During really bad times, I’d switch and let my alters take over.  Then come back to myself with cuts, bruises, sore muscles, and not knowing how I got them until the nightmares came.  That was my life growing up, living with my family as an adult, and living on my own even after my name change.  When family had keys to my apartment, I couldn’t risk having anything important because they would come in without telling me and take or destroy whatever they wanted.  After I moved, I worried about break-ins or people finding me and getting in somehow.

A change of pace

The plane landed on Thursday morning Pacific time.  Today is Sunday.  For the first time in my life, I’ve slept for more than four hours at a time without nightmares.  I still wake up, but that’s due to the new sounds and my own restlessness from jet lag.  Every day, I’ve gone out and met people; been friendly and socialized; been made fun of and insulted without getting triggered into a panic attack.

I’ve been stared at; checked out; and sized up by people of all ages, colors, religions and living situations (there are a lot of homeless around).  Each time it happened, I felt a little scared, some adrenaline, an increased hyper-vigilance, but not triggered into a panic attack or dissociation.  My mind and body went into defensive mode: changed posture, took out phone, moved purse, looked around more often, and maintained as bland a facial expression as possible.

All of this is because I feel physically and emotionally safe.  There is freedom in being able to express myself without fear of my past coming back to haunt me.

Conclusion

Environment has a large impact on emotions and the physical self.  Sometimes, the biggest triggers come from unconscious memories and sensory feelings that can’t be put into words or images.  Sometimes, a small change works miracles.  Other times, a moderate change acts as a better tool.  And for some people, drastic change is needed.

Most often, many people forget that an environment can be changed.  Not just an apartment or a house or the inside of a car, but also other physical surroundings by taking a walk or living in a small town instead of a city.

Like all other changes, making this kind of change is difficult.  But it’s worth thinking about if you, like me, are in a place where everything else in recovery seems to be going well, but something hard to pin down keeps derailing progress.

Thanks for reading

Back to Basics: Anger Management and Putting Me First

An unedited post…

There are 4 parts of DBT: Emotion Regulation, Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Effective Interpersonal Communication.  I learned them during my first time in a partial program.  They helped with anger management and emotional control.  At the time, I did not know about Dissociative Identity Disorder, alternate personalities, or triggers.  All I did know was that my anger and fear overwhelmed me to the point where I stopped thinking, stopped talking, and started reacting.

The partial program helped me deal with my present distress by teaching me to stop and think before reacting (mindfulness).  And after the experience, look back and analyze what happened to identify feelings and reactions to feelings (mindfulness).

Once I understood my feelings and reactions to them, I could plan ways to change my reactions or not react at all (distress tolerance) through coping strategies like distractions, self soothing, meditation, exercise, etc.

In order to do the above, though, I had to learn what emotions were and how they affected my body/mind/self (emotion regulation).  Then find ways within my control (diet, sleep, exercise, relaxation, positive experiences, self-talk) to help me regulate my feelings when I felt overwhelmed or distressed (emotion regulation).

And then I could find a language to help me communicate my feelings to myself and others without crossing boundaries or compromising safety (interpersonal communication).

This all worked great until I discovered that my distress feelings and triggers were not from the present time.  Most came from flashbacks, body memories, or remembered experiences triggered during stressful encounters with people or certain environments.  And as much as I tried to use DBT, it didn’t work.  And I got really frustrated.  Especially when my family shunned me and turned up the pressure to fall in line or else.

That brings me to the second partial experience.  It was not helpful or positive like the previous one.  But it did help me better understand the people in my family and their struggles.  It also helped me get in touch with my alters.  For the first time, I could clearly hear them in my head and recognize when I switched.  And we could communicate with each other.

My time with these people: younger and older, but not really in my age group, from different life situations and cultures reminded me that I am only responsible for myself and my choices.  I can’t change or help people who aren’t interested.  I can’t be around people who have issues accepting my real self too.  All three of those situations combined make for a very unhappy individual in an unsafe environment.

So I took what I learned from them and shared it with my therapist.  We agreed that my family wasn’t safe to be around at the time.  It was necessary to put my emergency plans in place and walk away for real.  And also to learn more about the voices in my head.  They needed the coping strategies and tools in my tool box as much as I did.

And when they started practicing DBT too, life got a lot less scary.  Communication at work improved.  My work environment got more comfortable.  I was able to take better care of myself at home because advocating for myself was easier.

And my alters had something to keep them busy while I worked.  Yes, multitasking again.  Different alters, alone or in groups, practiced DBT and other coping strategies on the inside while I or someone else lived and worked and did chores on the outside.  It became a main staple in “acting normal” and surviving in the outside world.  We set up an elaborate communication and transportation system so that everyone had immediate access to each other, but also privacy and alone time.

And I learned that solitude is very important because the “alone time” gives all of us in the system dedicated periods of “together time” like family time.  They all get a chance to be in control of the body and interact safely with the outside world.  We all get to do activities together and share information.  And there’s time for meditation or exercise and self care.  Everyone gets a voice and an opinion.  Sometimes the adults act like adults and make the final decisions.  Other times, it’s a community decision.

But we’d never have known this or be able to put ourselves first without having learned DBT.

And this is why I and others who write here struggle with how to write about what DBT means to us.  Because DBT is meant to be used in groups with other people and a moderator.  But we use it to help our internal system and work sometimes with our therapist, but not a professional moderator (like group therapy).  And our way of meditation is more like in martial arts (original training) or Buddhist practices not what Ms. Linehan teaches.

Now that I spend more time in the outside world, my solitude means a lot.  The times I spend walking from place to place during commutes are less about interacting with people on the street and more about catching up with my alters.  If that makes me less approachable, appear snobbish or remote, or act confused/abrupt, etc. then I’m okay with that.

I don’t want or need a lot of people in my life.  And the people in my life are ones I cherish and value; relationships to nurture and build on.  So yes, I put myself first and everyone else next.  Then I put time into relationships I care about with people I care about.  The rest will come as life changes.

Thanks for reading.

AlterXpressions

 

Survival Mode: A different kind of survival part 1 – PTSD

Introduction

I’m late with this week’s post.  The last few days have been difficult with high anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and an adrenaline high that wouldn’t stop; my reactions to recovered memories involving physical violence combined with seasonal body memory pain.  It’s a different kind of survival mode for me and one that I struggle with a lot.  Instead of typical essay format, I’m using a Q&A interview style for this series

Questions and Answers

Q: What is an adrenaline high?

A: I get triggered into panic without having a panic attack.  Adrenaline surges through my system.  I suddenly have extra acute senses, strength, mental clarity, etc. in order to run, fight, or freeze until I can escape.  But once I realize the threat is over, the adrenaline keeps on flowing.  The hyper-vigilance stays and increases over time.  I am jumpy and anxious and unable to concentrate.  I can’t relax.  The adrenaline does not stop.

Q: Why doesn’t the adrenaline stop?  Isn’t there a physiological on/off switch built into our bodies/minds?

A:  My on/off switch was permanently disabled because of past experiences.  Yes most people have an on/off switch that automatically controls how, when, and for what length of time the adrenaline flows and then slows down without crashing too hard.  I have to find ways to manually turn the adrenaline off without causing harm to myself and (potentially) others.

Q: How does it relate to PTSD specifically?

A: Symptoms of PTSD get exacerbated.  Agitation, irritability, anger easily, frustration, lack of focus, increased anxiety, panic attacks, etc.  PTSD is considered an anxiety disorder.  For me that means all of my “natural” alertness and environmental sensitivity get put on steroids to make flashbacks, nightmares, and triggers both more likely to occur and more intense with each occurrence.  That sends more adrenaline into my system until I am flying on super high energy levels and awareness even as I start to crash from being physically and emotionally drained of energy from the last wave.  No matter how tired I am, no matter how much I want to relax, the adrenaline and hyper-vigilance won’t let me because my brain senses a threat that doesn’t exist anymore.  Once I identify the cause of this state (that I call Adrenaline High), I have to find ways to slow down the adrenaline until it stops.

Q: How do I know when my adrenaline starts/stays on/stops?

A:  My first signs are physiological.  As in my body reacts to the adrenaline first.  Sweating, chills, shaking/trembling limbs, chest tightness, muscle tension, headaches, face pain, joint pain, extra saliva in my mouth, skin feels itchy, flushed or pale skin/skin changes color.  Then comes acute senses: everything is more sensitive and reactive; I jump at noises, can smell or scent objects from longer distances, flavors increase or decrease – taste too much or nothing at all, etc.  And then comes the distraction, loss of vision (everything is blurry), and an increase in mental static/confusion caused by the “hearing voices” that are not my alters trying to convince me that the past is reality and present is a dumb fantasy that will get me (put your idea of a threat here).

Q: Do automatic defenses and coping strategies kick in during adrenaline?

A:  Yes.  I try everything in my arsenal first.  All of positive, healthy, healing coping strategies and techniques from therapy, programs, hotlines, books, etc. get used and reused until I get frustrated.  Then I try last resort strategies.  Hopefully they work.  And if not, there are the strategies I refuse to consciously use: my past automatic coping and defense mechanisms: chemical help (something stronger than Tylenol like prescription anti-anxiety meds); inducing a panic attack that causes me to pass out; self harm (emotional, verbal, physical, spiritual).  As I’ve mentioned before, self-harm comes in many forms and is not always noticeable.  Luckily for me, I have caring friends and co-workers who gently point out and remind me when this happens so that I know it happened and can be more careful next time.

Q: What are some ways to make the adrenaline stop?  Are they positive/neutral/negative?

A:  I don’t know.  This is where I am still experimenting and learning.  The only ways I know for me to successfully make the adrenaline stop are negative (see question above).  Some neutral ones suggested by others include: exercise; deep breathing; hobbies and activities that allow adrenaline-based energy to be released and do not require a lot of focus; listening to music or lullabies; distractions like favorite books, TV, and movies.  I call those neutral because they can be triggering to some and not to others.  As for positive, I am still working on that.

Q: Is there anything else you want to share?

A: Yes.  The backlash from using what’s necessary to come down from an adrenaline high can be worse than the adrenaline itself.  It can cause guilt and shame and more triggers or memories to resurface.

If you can ride it all out with minimal harm to self and others, you have won.  That is the attitude I have to take or else I’d be swimming in shame and guilt every time it happens.  Instead of healing, I’d be back in the downward spiral.  So, when nothing works, ask for help.  Reach out to supports if you can.  Help comes in many forms.  Sometimes I ask myself for help and support to get  through the next (time period varies).  Or I ask for spiritual help.

If you can’t reach out, do what you have to do to stay safe and protect yourself. 

And always remember: this is not going to last.  You got through it last time.  You will get through it again.

Life Changing Moments: Sometimes Moving On Can’t Happen Without Remembering

Introduction

Last week, I wrote a little about meditation and how it is different from dissociation.  One aspect of meditation that always astounds me is how easily I can communicate with my alters when I go into a meditative trance.  Visions, sensations, verbalization, body memories all pass through a rotating amphtheater with unusual clarity and consistency.  My alters and I are in the audience looking up as the sensory information reveals itself.

Sliding into that meditative trance is easy.  Why, no one is knows for sure.  Here are some possibilities: Being able to dissociate at an early age helped.  Early meditation training taught me focus and patience.  Practicing exercises and lessons from John Kabat-Zinn’s audio tapes reminded me to acknowledge whatever is going on inside instead of suppressing it.  Reading about Buddhist and Daoist meditation practices, watching qigong videos, and practicing yoga opened me to other kinds of meditation.

Variety helps because I never know when I will need to meditate or for how long.  Meditation is less scary and anxiety provoking than dissociation so my alters and I often try to meditate instead of dissociate during a flashback or panic attack.  And being able to meditate anywhere allows me more freedom to move around.

How does this connect to remembering?

Meditation allows me to step back and view memories as an observer (think amphitheater) alone or with my alters.  The meditative trance offers a safe space where the sensations and feelings are distant instead of acute.  And since meditation is controlled and focused, my breathing stays steady.  Steady breathing controls the nervous system and keeps my mind, body, spirit calm instead of stressed.

I can’t control when the memories come.  I can’t control how my body reacts if a flashback slides in and takes over everything.  I can do damage control and take steps to minimize the onset of a panic attack.  Or I can set alarms in place to alert me when I get triggered.  By “I” I mean everyone in the system.  Different alarms for different alters, etc.  It’s not perfect, but any little bit helps.

What about the moving on part?

Sometimes, a survivor can’t move on without remembering blocked memories.  They are important and necessary to provide a framework that allows the survivor to make informed choices in the present and future.  Problem is, many survivors with traumatic amnesia (myself included) don’t know they are missing vital information until they remember and can make the connections.

 

Recovering memories causes me to get physically ill and have panic attacks followed by painful body memories for days or weeks, sometimes months.  They come as flashbacks and nightmares over a period of time; bits and pieces from different alters and different times congregating in a part of the internal world reserved for memory puzzles.  The pieces stay there moving around, coming together, pulling apart, reforming themselves until something clicks and becomes a memory.

The Memory

Last week, I remembered while in the shower.  I was grumpy from cramps and PMS; the water and steam helped with relaxation.  My alters and I slid into a flashback without conscious realization.  Suddenly, it was a different bathroom in a different house with a different (younger) body.  And my alters were talking to me trying to bring me back to the present.  Their voices competed with the voices in the memory.

All I heard at first was muffled sound.  As usual, I was blind; coudln’t see anything.  My nose told me there were mold and stinky flowers somewhere close.  My body hurt.  I tasted chemicals in my mouth.  And the water was cold instead of hot.  My belly hurt.  Back hurt too.  Lower back and abdomen, not stomach area, hurt and moved funny.  Suddenly my alter’s past thoughts came back to me.  I cupped my hands around my abdomen and felt sadness.  That’s when I came back to the present.  That’s when I heard one of the adult alters talking to me; reassuring me that I was safe and that the memories my body shared were real.

Then other alters, young and old, confirmed the memories in their own way.  And I had to face a truth I didn’t want to think about days before my favorite holiday.  The memory scared me.  It upset me and turned my world view upside down.  And the memory explained so much about my reluctance to pursue the next part of recovery: intimate relationships.  My therapist, after we discussed the memory and what triggered it, told me that maybe I had to remember this before I could move on to the next big change: moving out of state.

Conclusion

In another post, I wrote about not wanting to have children without knowing exactly why.  I’ve also touched on other fears related to intimacy and sexuality.  Now, I know why.  An unexpected teenage pregnancy followed by a painful, non-surgical abortion.  None of which was my choice.  And that lack of choice, that fear of not having control over my body, keeps me celibate.  I never want to go through that kind of experience again.  And if I want to experience an intimate relationship, I have to figure out a way to cope with this fear.  So meditation, moving on, remembering all comes together in one fell swoop.  And now I have all of this to work through too because moving out of state opens up a lot of avenues for me.

Recovery: Boundary Maintenance

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.