Friday, May 29, 2015

Disassociation Part 3: The Different Parts of Me

There are parts of my life that still don't work because of the trauma, and that bugs me. I want to beat it. Relaxing to fall asleep seems to be impossible without a pill, that's a problem. Aspects of marriage that I won't go into here are a big problem, not only for me but for my spouse, and I feel bad about that. Pursuing healing is not just about me: The traumatic experiences have affected many people I love. And that makes me mad.

Trauma memories have affected the way I parent in many destructive ways. I've worked hard on overcoming this. For instance, I had to consciously train myself to learn how to cuddle with my little people, and not feel like shoving them away when they were “on” me. Eventually I came to enjoy snuggling (with a child at least). But I wish I could have a do-over with my kids’ baby and toddler years. There were so many times I would freak out on them, and it wasn’t their fault. I was being “triggered” because of traumatic experiences in my past, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was doing the best I could. In the end, hopefully it will have been good enough. I have a fifteen year old and a twenty year, and both of them are turning into quite decent, highly individual young men, though there’s been some very rocky places along the way.

At this time in my life, maybe there is enough space and distance from the traumatic experiences, enough basic safety (the person who did the horrible stuff to me is sealed away in a nursing home, I've had no contact with him for many years), and enough time to myself (something I certainly didn’t have with babies and toddlers), that I can pursue healing. It’s incredible to me that at age 43 I am learning about so many experiences in my own life for the first time. Though parts of me have always known. Those parts had just been separated from the whole. That’s what disassociation means, or dissociative identity disorder. Click on the link for a good article on DID from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. I read through several articles on the topic, and this one seems balanced and thorough. 

I’ve been trying to invite these broken-off parts of me back. To tell them that it’s safe now, it’s going to be O.K. They don’t totally believe me yet, but we're working on it.

One day I had a migraine. Assuming it was allergies, I took my prescription pill and tried to lay down a bit to kick the headache before my daughter’s soccer game. Then I started having weird, intense pain in my back and shoulder and other places and thought, Great. This is body memories. My head hurt too much to sleep anyway, so I decided to sit up and try writing in my journal. And I tried an experiment. I tried allowing the different parts of me to talk to each other in my journal. It was hard. The things these different parts have to say are difficult. There are very good reasons why they've been in hiding--or have gotten shut down--for so many years. But after spending about an hour journaling, the migraine had faded into the background, and I could go on with my day.

So I’ve been trying to do this every so often. At long last, I am letting these different parts have a “voice”. It’s scary, but so far I’m managing O.K. Last week I felt myself going down into depression, something I haven't struggled with for a few years. But then some neat things happened during my Monday night Survivor’s group, and I was able to rebalance. I’m very aware of my red flags, and I know what to do when I start to get overwhelmed (I've written about that here).

I’m also drawing some. That’s even scarier for me, it feels even closer.

A caveat here: I would not recommend for anyone to experiment with these kinds of activities unless they know they have the basic safety and support they need to get themselves back to a stable place if needed. When I first went to counseling several years ago, I worked on grounding techniques and how to deal with crazy feelings and emotional pain--learned how to get myself back to a safe emotional place--for an entire year before talking much about the actual memories.

So I have DID. But apparently the boundaries to the different parts inside me are “permeable”, meaning I am aware of switching between the different parts. My counselor explained all this to me when I told him how I had noticed my handwriting changes dramatically in my journal. I can remember this happening once when I was in third or fourth grade, looking down at my handwriting paper and wondering how that happened. When remembering and connecting with times of severe pain and fear my handwriting gets very, very tiny.

There’s also an angry teenager in there. Her handwriting is bold and messy. She is very black and white in her thinking, very harsh to the smaller one, and extremely conscious of what other people think. These "parts" feel different and distinct on the inside. It’s like I enter into a different “feeling state” when I allow each one her have a say. But I am aware of this happening, aware of switching back and forth. Apparently there are different levels of dissociation. The spectrum runs from simple daydreaming or “blanking out” for a short time which is normal for everyone to do, to the far extreme where fully distinct personalities develop and live in the outside world with different names, jobs, habits, relationships and outward appearances, and these separate people have no awareness of each other, and no awareness of when they switch from one to another. On the spectrum of being disassociated, I must be somewhere in the middle.

Lately, as I learn more, I’ve been understanding how smart and wise I was, even as a very little person. I needed to preserve myself. I needed to not be overwhelmed. And I desperately wanted to be able to connect with others in the bright outer world. So I split parts of myself off. I did what I needed to do to survive, and not only to survive, but to connect with other people, and experience some happiness. I’m proud that I was able to do that. For the few that take time to hear my story and really listen, they are amazed that I have done so well. And so am I!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Disassociation, Part 2

Trauma memories are stored in a different way than normal memories, no matter how painful or intense those memories might be. Trauma memories, once we are able to access them, can feel freakish and unreal. Because trauma is by definition an overwhelming experience, a part of you that experienced the trauma can be stored in a way that has been severed from the rest of you. The experience was so overwhelming, horrific, or terrifying, that you literally "disown" it in order to keep living with yourself, to stay safe and survive. 

During trauma, the brain switches into a different mode than when recording normal memories. A non-verbal, non-logical mode. The memories might be stored as visual pieces (as opposed to a full, complete picture), as physical sensations, or both, but they don't have a slot in the normal time sequence of your life. They are kept separate. They remain in the short-term memory, not the long-term memory where your normal experiences go. When trauma memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell that might actually be benign (and you don't even have to be aware of the specific memory for this to happen, it can be hidden and inaccessible to you), trauma victims can feel like the trauma is literally happening again in the present. They can curl up in actual physical pain, experience heart-pounding adrenaline, hear sounds and see sights, or bolt and run, when the danger is actually long past.

Supposedly the goal of trauma work is to move these crazy-feeling trauma memory pieces in with the normal long term memories, so they can take their rightful place in the timeline. So they no longer feel immediate, but are in the past where they belong. And so you don't feel, well, crazy. In the process of EMDR and trauma work, I keep asking, how long does this take? Because to be honest, I function pretty darn well fragmented. That's how I know how to do life. I'm pretty skilled at distracting myself, at shutting out the dark traumatic stuff (at least in the daytime!), and at simply not thinking about it, keeping it separate. Yes it constricts my life as I do a dance around the various "normal" things that trigger the dark stuff for me. But in general, living fragmented works.

It is possible to be so fragmented you actually don't know things about yourself. It used to be this way for me. Vital information was missing, and there were things in my life that didn't add up. I had crazy reactions to seemingly random things that didn't make sense. Life can feel surreal then. And lonely. Nobody knows the real you. It is possible to be disconnected, divided on the inside, even from yourself. I imagine that for people who don't have traumatic memories, this does not make much sense. But for those who do--you completely know. And it helps you feel less crazy to know that there are others who understand.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Faith: The evidence when there is no evidence?

This sentence caught my eye in my Bible reading today: "When your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing." It's from James chapter one, and the section starts by talking about faith. Which seems to suggest that endurance and faith have a lot in common. That's the conclusion I have come to in my own life. A couple of people have noticed this "life philosophy" in my novel. Here I'll quote from a review written on Amazon by someone I don't know: "Because it's not long since I knew a grief of my own I was so encouraged by this quote from the book, 'I've come to believe that stubbornness and faith have a lot in common. Just flat out not giving up.'" You can see the review and my book here. And whomever you are, Alison, thank you--it's nice to know that someone "got" my book!

I used to be very confused by the word "faith." What does it mean? How does one do it, or have it? In some church settings I've been in, it seemed that "faith" meant you made something happen out of sheer will, or because you (or a collective "you," in a group setting) worked up enough emotion and stirred up enough desire that you could somehow command God to do a thing, like heal someone of cancer, or provide someone a job, or whatever. If you could just believe hard enough, these kind of things would happen. This never felt right to me. And both individual and group experiments with this kind of "faith" at some point will lead to disappointment and disillusionment. God is simply not ours to command. And so often his agenda is different than ours, and beyond our understanding.

People want faith to feel all warm and tingly, but most of the time, it just feels like endurance. Like patience, and long suffering. These words are closer to the essence of faith. But it is not endurance for nothing, or suffering without purpose or meaning. Faith is rooted in the sure promises of God. Like the heroes listed in Hebrews 11, however, we might never experience many of these promises in our lifetime.

Hebrews 11 starts with a strange definition of faith, which pretty much says that faith is "the evidence when there is no evidence," evidence being something tangible that you could touch or feel or see, something that could stand up as sure proof in court. Faith means holding on to the promises of God and living like we believe them, even if we never see their fulfillment in this life. And it's hard. But with people like Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Gideon and David in the line-up of those held up as examples, it's evident that perfection--or never doubting--is not a requirement. In the lives of these men and women you see a heart returning to God over and over again, despite suffering, doubts, and disappointments. I think that is a realistic picture of faith for us as well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Disassociation: To some extent, we all do it

I'm going to write for a bit about disassociation, or fragmentation. I will not be sharing all of these on facebook, because it is a rather specialized topic. But I started a post several weeks ago that quickly became long, unwieldy, and rather close and personal, so I decided to split it into separate posts and we'll see where it goes. If the things I have learned and are learning can help someone else feel not so crazy, I'll be happy.

Disassociation, or fragmentation, is a gift. It is one reason people survive really horrific things, and can walk away and keep living, instead of being overwhelmed or destroyed by their experiences. But to begin with, I was wondering to what extent fragmentation is a normal process for everyone. For example, a certain smell or a glimpse of a view like a sunset or a woodland trail can take you back to a memory that you may have thought you'd forgotten. For a few moments you're transported to a different place and time, and in that place and time you can feel like a very different person than the person you function as in your workaday life. There is a piece of you, or your personality, stored in that memory. Maybe you feel wistful, and realize you want to be that person more often, or maybe you shudder and turn quickly back to the present, because it reveals a side of you that you don't like.

Many of us in our vast country of open spaces spend a lot of time driving, and I've read that some amount of disassociation is common when we drive. Part of us is paying attention to the road, but another part of us can go somewhere else for a while. Hopefully we don't miss our exit, though that has certainly happened to me! The mind roams free during rote tasks like this, tasks that only require part of our attention to complete. This is why sometimes in the shower, or while driving or walking the dog, connections are made and ideas come to us seemingly out of nowhere.

I would think quite a bit of fragmentation is necessary for everyone. You could not function while experiencing all of your deepest emotions all of the time, or while consciously aware of all the different pieces of memory from all the ages and stages of your life at once. Most things get filed away, and flicker back onto our screen either when we need them or are triggered to reconnect with them by some association in the present. Some downtime or "relaxed brain time" is healthy for everyone, so our brains have time and space to process our present life and make the needed connections. Whether it's running, swimming, walking the dog, drawing, yoga, rocking a baby or moving a paintbrush across a canvas, it's important to have "connecting time". Important connections also happen when we dream, and good sleep is also important for both physical and emotional health. Life starts feeling too crazy when we don't have time to think and process things.

But trauma, whether it is one catastrophic event or a series of overwhelming events over a longer period of time, takes fragmentation and disassociation to a whole new level. And that's what I'll be writing about in my next few posts.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Productive Unemployment, and Flexible Scheduling for the Non-Structured Personality

Something many people don't consider or value is that a household economy is "money in and money out." Looking back over the past year and half of having a half -time job, I was able to do much better on the "money out" side of the equation when I was home. I had time to shop at thrift stores, take advantage of store sales, and cook more things from scratch. I only needed a few nice dressy items instead of a closet full, and I didn't need to drive as much or figure out child care during school holidays.  All that said, it was great to have a financial "cushion" and more security, and we've done some good things with the money: Bought one vehicle outright and paid off the other one, remodeled a kitchen debt-free, built up our savings account, and taken some neat trips. But the additional income came with a high price tag in time and stress, and personally, I haven't done well with that. With working, my stress skyrocketed, and my sleep (always a battle for me) nose-dived.

As for my husband, he is half-time ministry (which I used to do with him more, but could not when I was working), and half-time handyman. Each which could each easily be full time when he does not strictly lasso them in. The man is busy. Before I had a job too, I was able to do his bookkeeping and correspondence and the like, and I'll be going back to doing that again. With a lot of different things going on, things worked better when we could both be pulling in the same direction.

I'm looking forward to life not being so crazy as it has been. To being able to do things like regularly exercise so I can sleep and manage stress better, and bake snacks and meals instead of buying them. I'm excited about planting a big food garden, and I want to learn how to freeze and can my own healthy, chemical-free food. I can't wait to reconnect with friends and be able to open our home to others--hospitality is a huge value for my husband and I, and we have both felt frustrated that it was barely happening with me working. I was just too tired, and my evenings were filled chores and errands and kids' sports. Last summer when the kids were home all day was especially hard, but this summer I'll get to take my daughter out to do fun stuff instead of shuffling her from house to house, or leaving her home to most likely sit inside and look at a screen all day.

The question is not what will I do, it's which few things among the many possibilities teeming in my brain will I do? Because I've always had way more ideas and interests than I have time.

I have an idea for a new novel I would like to write on and develop. I was able to edit an already written manuscript while working, but story creation is a different thing, requiring a lot more time and focus. I have a manuscript of poems that go through the Pentateuch that I would like to polish up and put together. And I'd like to start writing on how to recover from complex PTSD and severe sexual abuse. I'd like to share some of the things I have learned with others. Looking back to my college-age and young-mother self of 20 odd years ago, there are things someone could have told me that would have made a huge difference. Things that would have helped. So maybe I can help someone else in the way that would have helped me.

In my new schedule, I want to use my time well. At the same time, I don't do well when every moment of time is blocked in and designated, where there's no room to move. Too much structure and no room to "go with the flow" kills my mojo, and makes me want to rebel. What works really well for me is to have some basic "neatening up" routines in place, along with a goal or a few goals for the day: From a "master list" of tasks, what do I want to tackle today? What needs done the most?

The basic routines are things I barely have to think about. Examples are doing the dishes and deciding what's for dinner while I'm making breakfast or lunch, since I'm in the kitchen anyway. Doing laundry on Mondays (if Monday is busy, this stretches to Tuesday as well), then folding it all while watching a good show (a treat!) on Monday or Tuesday night. Picking up and straightening things for ten minutes before bedtime. Walking the dog: I get that in most days though not at a fixed time, because it's good for both of us, I totally enjoy it, and the dog herself doesn't let me forget. If I'm lucky this can combine with time with a good friend. The kids' doing their chores (vacuuming and bathrooms) on weekends. It's nice to just have fixed routines that don't take much mental energy, and keep the house running smooth. Now that I'm home I'd like to have routine times for more items, like exercise (yoga or pilates? something beyond just walking the dog) and 2-4 regular writing sessions per week. And bookkeeping and grocery shopping, instead of these things happening at inconvenient times because "yikes! the fridge is empty!" and "shoot, that bill is due tomorrow!"

The goals-for-the-day (or week) is the form of planning that I have found works best for me. Here's how it works: I have a master list of stuff that needs done or I want to do. This list tended to be either in my head, or occasionally written out in random pages of my journal, but recently I gathered it all together and put it on Evernote (Now it's online, so I can't lose it! Same goes for Google Calendar on my smartphone, the only planner I've never lost!). Stuff like: buy birthday or mother's day gifts, install a watering system in the garden, buy a shower curtain, paint a wall, finish editing or formatting a writing project, organize my digital photos, or deep clean the bathrooms. These are not the the day in, day out every-week chores, which happen better in a regular routine, but all the other stuff I need or want to accomplish.

So what I do is I look at the day or the week ahead (Really, no more than one week ahead! Because in my experience, life is changing constantly), and I ask these kinds of questions: What is the most important thing right now? Out of all this long list, what thing is bugging me the most? And, what do I feel like doing today or this week? Some things are timely (buying birthday gifts or planting out in the garden), others are more flexible and can happen on the less busy weeks when I have the time, or simply feel inspired to do them. Some weeks I may feel like painting a wall, others I just totally don't. For my friends with a more structured personality, maybe this would drive them nuts. But I've found that this is the approach that works for me, and in the end, the stuff gets done.

This kind of flexible planning style evolved back when I was struggling with severe depression, and I was trying to homeschool as well. I kept trying to copy the very structured and regular schedules of other families, and I always failed. I would get what I call "low-energy days," or "sad days." On those days, I was doing good to get the very basics done, like get everyone fed. But then I would have "high energy days," and accomplish three days in one. Eventually I decided to stop trying to copy other people's schedules. To stop putting pressure on myself, and just go with what worked.

Now I don't struggle with depression much (anxiety--that's a different matter!). I very rarely have a "sad day." It does happen, usually when sad memories are triggered in some way. I know how to draw back, how to rest and take care of myself, how to distract myself with something comforting (usually, a novel), do the minimum required for the family, and ride it out. In the end, the stuff gets done. Which is what routines, schedules and structures are all about. You can make them work for you, and honor your individual make-up, your personality, and the unique circumstances of your life. Be sensitive and notice how you work best, when you feel productive and satisfied, when and how you are able to best get things done.