Only A Monster Could Love Me.

I teach a mindfulness class. Inevitably, after the first class a few people drop out because they  had some misconceptions about what mindfulness meditation was. Mindfulness is just partly  breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.

The primary component is noticing how you are feeling and noticing the thoughts you are having in this moment. This is a practice that many people have spent their lives avoiding. A lot of people are out of touch with their thoughts and feelings. When I ask them to pay attention it literally scares them.

This is called back draft. Sometimes when we open our hearts to our thoughts and feelings they can feel overwhelming and frightening. This is because we are trained to follow the rules no matter how we feel and what we think. This conditioning is hard to break and for some potentially impossible. We just go through the motions of our lives never having really lived. This happens so much more than people realize.

Further, some people have their wires crossed. For some of us,  the people that were supposed to love us and keep us safe did not do the best job. This can lead to shutting off our emotions completely or thinking that love is unsafe. This means that when I try to extend love or compassion to you, you will literally be repulsed by me. It is how some people stayed safe. Some people literally feel unlovable. If you try to love them they will think something is wrong with you. “After all, only a monster could love a person like me,”  they think.

What also breaks my heart are the people that do not even realize that they were abused/traumatized as a child. I once asked a person if they had any history of abuse and they stated that they had not. Some time later the person recounted the violent psychological and physical abuse they had endured. When I questioned why they denied having been abused they reported “I thought I had a normal childhood” No, that is not normal and it certainly impacts a person’s ability to be present, vulnerable, and connected in their lives.

I write this in the midst of an opioid epidemic. When the pain is too much to bear, we find a way to make it bearable, even if that means slowly killing ourselves.

Love.

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Not Everything Happens For A Reason.

cheryl strayed quotes | Acceptance is a small, quiet room" -Cheryl Strayed:

-Cheryl Strayed

I harbor a great deal of resentment towards the positivity movement. When I am sharing a struggle, I do not need to hear “think positive” or “everything happens for a reason.” Even if you believe that everything happens for a reason, there are some things that happen and they are just so incredibly painful that I can’t accept that response. In fact, it feels like you are minimizing my experience. Am I just supposed to feel better because there is a reason out in the ether for all of this? What I hear when you say phrases like that is”your pain is too uncomfortable for me and I need to make this conversation stop.”

For some people, life offers up some seriously messed up situations and there is no positive way to spin it, make it good, or make it make sense. By all means, please use whatever faith system you have to make sense of suffering but please do not expect me to accept your coping mechanisms as my own.

There are some things that happen and they are so traumatic and so awful that there is nothing else to be said about them. There is no going back and reflecting on the situation in the hopes that it will somehow or someday make sense. This is about acceptance. We must accept that this thing(s) happened. We must stare at it and absorb the truth of it and understand that it will always be part of us. There are no pretty bows or lines of poetry to soften the impact.

If you happen to be present when someone is sharing one of these life moments with you, please, please do not tell them that “everything happens for a reason” or “think positive” or “it’s all in God’s plan.” Those phrases do not make anyone feel better. They make people feel worse. Because, why would God plan for me to suffer so much? I bet you can’t answer that question because you’re not God. So, it’s best to leave it alone. It’s fine to think everything happens for a reason and believe it to be true, it’s just not okay to say it. 

What can you say? 

“I am so sorry and sad this happened to you/or is happening to you.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“I love you and I’m here for you”

If you are the person suffering? You can say to yourself:

“I am so sad and sorry this happened to me, I am just so sad this happened”

“This is really hard for me right now”

“It’s okay to not be okay”

“I will probably never get over this”

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Love.

The Wounding Healer.

I’ve spent the last few months exploring and studying Complex PTSD and Polyvictimization. This came about for a few reasons, namely, I knew little about the diagnosis and I was seeing a significant increase in clients presenting with these issues.

Complex PTSD and Polyvictimization are when a person has experienced multiple traumas over a period of time. This can be related to combat situations, law enforcement, child abuse, domestic violence, living with crime, bullying in schools, and the list goes on. Some researchers describe it as a feeling of being trapped in a traumatic situation with no hope of it ever ending (because it doesn’t end). These people may have a more challenging time recovering given the impact trauma has on our physiological and emotional health. It is hard to heal when you are exposed to trauma again and again.

What I found most interesting in my reading so far, is the idea of the Wounding Healer. A number of years ago, I expressed some concern over comments made by a coworker in a meeting. The comments were graphic and detailed her own history of trauma. When I shared my feelings with a close friend he said, “She did not ask permission to share that” I loved that. We need to be more cognizant about how sharing our experiences influence those around us.

The wounding healer doesn’t know that they are wounding the people around them. Often, we share stories about our lives with little knowledge about what another person may have experienced. I think we must always be mindful in our interactions as not to cause distress to those around us. A lot of people have experienced trauma and are extremely sensitive to the experiences of others. Or, for the people that have not experienced trauma, hearing about a traumatic event can be extremely distressing.

I know we can’t “trigger warning” all of our conversations but we should try to consider the content of our conversations. For many of my clients, they are often exposed to conversations that trigger them or cause them further distress. When this happens they again feel trapped because they don’t want to shame the person for sharing vulnerable parts of themselves. This is particularly damaging if the wounding healer is a healthcare provider. As mental health professionals, we must be very careful about using our own stories of healing to heal others. Each story of recovery is unique.

If you feel the need to share about your history, maybe ask permission first. Or, it might be time to see a professional that is prepared and equipped to handle what you need to work out. After all, sharing trauma is something that needs to be handled delicately and with compassion.

“Unfortunately, not all wounded healers are aware of their own issues, and certainly not all healers are healed. Some become wounding healers, who are not fully aware of their own injuries or haven’t worked on them sufficiently and therefore too easily project their issues and unconscious needs onto others. These people can be quite dangerous to someone as vulnerable as a trauma victim, whose trust in others may have been betrayed in all sorts of ways. What makes matters worse is that wounding healers generally don’t recognize their weaknesses. They believe that they have healed and don’t realize when they are using their clients to continue their own work by proxy.” -Jasmin Lee Cori

 

My Love For You Saw Me Through.

“Life is a journey for us all. We all face trials. We all have ups and downs. All of us are human. But we are also the masters of our fate. We are the ones who decide how we are going to react to life.”
Elizabeth Smart, My Story: Elizabeth Smart

I had the wonderful pleasure of listening to Elizabeth Smart speak yesterday afternoon. Like most people, I followed her story from a distance. The horror of a child abducted from their bedroom in the middle of the night is enough to grab anyone’s attention. She spoke with such a softness about the unbelievable trauma she endured during her nine months in captivity. I was deeply moved by her resilience and grace.

What struck me the most from her speech was what she described as the moment she decided to survive. She spoke about the night she was kidnapped and raped for the first time and the unbelievable shame she felt after the assault. She thought about giving up and dying but then she thought about her mother. Her mother told her, after a particularly challenging day, that neither God nor her mother would ever stop loving her. That no matter what she did or what happened to her, her mother assured her that her love was unconditional. She thought about that love and decided that she would do whatever she needed to do to survive. And, she did just that.

It reminded my of Viktor Frankl making a similar decision as a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp. He brought to mind the face of his wife and his love for her. He thought of her and his love for her every time he thought about giving up. He did this even though he knew she was probably dead. He survived for her. And, she had not survived.

I am constantly reminded of how important our connections are in our lives. In my own life, there have been hard times, and I too brought to mind my loving relationships and it was those bonds that brought me through those times.

We must love one another unconditionally. We must reassure the people we love that we do love them unconditionally. And then, this is the hard part, we must show up for the people we love in all the ways we can.

Elizabeth Smart started and ended her talk reminding the audience that we all struggle and we all endure hard times. But, we all have a choice what to do with the what we are given. We always have a choice: bitterness, resentment, or Love. She also said that the love of her family healed her and that she was blessed to have had them. Faith and Love empowered her to tell her story and in doing so she has helped so many people.

Love is magic, love is power, love is everything.

Love.

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The Gift Of Trauma.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Mary Oliver

We often hear of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but we seldom hear of Post Traumatic Growth. What is post traumatic growth? Well, let me share the researchers’ definition:

Posttraumatic growth tends to occur in five general areas. Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before. A second area is a change in relationships with others. Some people experience closer relationships with some specific people, and they can also experience an increased sense of connection to others who suffer. A third area of possible change is an increased sense of one’s own strength – “if I lived through that, I can face anything”. A fourth aspect of posttraumatic growth experienced by some people is a greater appreciation for life in general. The fifth area involves the spiritual or religious domain. Some individuals experience a deepening of their spiritual lives,however, this deepening can also involve a significant change in one’s belief system. – Post Traumatic Growth Research Center

What does this mean? It means that surviving trauma or great suffering may allow you to experience a deeper and richer appreciation for life. I suppose this makes sense, one cannot have the sweet without the sour. If you allow for it, for all the sour you’ve experienced in your life, you are allowed the potential for just as much (if not more) sweet.

For example, if you grew up poor, having resources and a safe home are not something you take for granted. If you grew up in an abusive home, living peacefully feels like heaven. If you survived an illness, you appreciate every breath you take and every morning you wake. You are able to truly enjoy the simple things that so many people take for granted.

If you allow yourself to moon over the little things (sunshine, puppies, laughter, friends, glass of wine, a peaceful day, a warm bath, time with loved ones) that make up the ever so important details of our lives, you will continuously feel overwhelmed with gratitude. If you pause to reflect on the amount of courage and resolve you demonstrated when you were faced with adversity, you will know that you are made stronger and adversity is genuinely a gift.

I don’t necessarily agree with people who claim to blessed or lucky for never having to struggle. The expression, “But for the grace of God” never made much sense to me. Often , these people are fearful because they haven’t been forced to survive the unsurvivable. They don’t know that they will be okay no matter what (and they will be). I would never wish a traumatic event on anyone but, if you survive, a certain kind of courage and resilience is born.

I believe resilience and courage can develop without trauma. I think that when a person steps out and is willing to live a life they love and risk upsetting some people in doing so, a certain kind of courage is cultivated. Don’t wait for trauma to have post-traumatic growth. Go out and be brave now. 

Life is a curious journey because I would have never chosen a path with so many winding turns and potholes. If given a choice, I would not have chosen to experience the pain and loss that my life has provided. But, I was not given a choice. I was given a choice as to what to do once the pain was in my lap. I can say from experience, traumatic events have the capacity to enhance your life in ways I never dreamed.

The darkness was indeed a gift. The wrapping paper sucked and I don’t know why some things happened the way they did (and will never know) but I’m here now, sipping coffee, looking out the window, filled with gratitude.

“Despite the real struggle associated with trauma recovery, there is often a simultaneous increase in a person’s capacity to enjoy the mundane. A blue sky, a delicate fragrance, a small act of compassion, the subtleties of nature, and the innocence of children and animals are often noted as having significance. Perhaps the sweetness of normalcy is illuminated when confronted with certain kinds of darkness.” The Unexpected Gifts of Trauma

My Gut Saved My Life.

“Intuition is always right in at least two important ways;
It is always in response to something.
it always has your best interest at heart”
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

Gavin de Becker wrote an incredible book, “The Gift of Fear.” In the book,  he highlights the warning signs that often precede a violent crime. In his research he emphasizes that our intuition (gut) will let you know if a person is safe or not. It is in those initial moments of interaction that we can sense whether someone is safe or not.

The problem is, women are socialized to be nice over being safe (and trusting their gut). This is why Ted Bundy used a broken arm to lure women to their death. He knew his weakness would lower women’s ability to say no, even though I am certain they could sense something about him was not right.

Intuition is not always a scary thing.

A few years ago, I was attending a professional conference in Austin, Texas. As professional conferences tend to become late night parties, I did not end up back at my hotel until really late one night. The taxi dropped me off at what looked like my hotel and when I walked in, I realized that I was at the wrong Hampton Inn. Apparently, there are several Hampton Inns in Austin.

This situation was particularly frustrating because I was a broke college student. I was barely able to afford the conference let alone all the additional cost of another cab ride. In the midst of sharing my stress with the desk clerk, two middle-aged men offered to take me to my hotel at no cost. I sized them up and decided that this was a fine idea.

Mind you, it was now around 1am and I was getting into a strange car, with two men I did not know, in a state far from home. Not one person knew where I was or where I was going. My cell phone died hours before. This easily could have ended in a Dateline Murder Mystery. Thankfully, it did not. I arrived safely at my hotel and crashed out.

Why is that story important to me? I trusted my gut. I try my best to make this a hard and fast life rule. My gut tells me what to do and what not to do. When I sized these men up, I paused to consider how I felt about them. There were no red flags (other than they were men and I was a young vulnerable woman). The hairs on the back of my head did not stand up. I did not get a stomachache. I did not feel like running towards the door. My face did not get red. I was not suspicious. These men did not pressure me to get in the car. They did not make me feel guilty. I was not afraid of them or intimidated by them. I rode with them more out of convenience then desperation.

It turned out fine and I saved money. I am grateful that these kind men were able to help me out of a bind. In retrospect, it was not an ideal situation but we are sometimes put in less than ideal situations and forced to make a decision. Unfortunately, cabs and ubers are not always safe either.

“Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.”
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

In my late teens and early twenties, I did not listen to my gut and this resulted in dangerous situations with unsafe people. Thankfully, I was not seriously hurt but I was definitely in situations where that could have happened. Frankly, I’m too embarrassed to go into detail but if we were friends when I was an undergrad, I’m sure you can identify a few of the aforementioned incidents.

If you are one of my best friends you are familiar with the phone call: My gut says something is off or my gut says I need to do this. And even though I’m calling for support, I know what I need to do. When you follow your gut you may have to do things that might make you feel guilty or bad but when I consider my options: I would rather be safe than sorry.

How do you trust your gut?

Pay attention to to your body! Your body is highly invested in survival. If your stomach starts to turn, your hairs stand up on your neck, you think “they’re lying,” you feel like something is not right, and/or you “just know”that you shouldn’t: DON’T DO IT! Your gut is a primal tool set to survival mode. Use it.

Also, I believe that your gut has the ability to encourage you to go for something if “it’s right.” So, believe your gut if it says: “Hey, that person is cute” or “You could totally do that job” or “You should ask for that raise.”

Your gut has your best interest in mind. Give it some love.

 

“The subjects did not always follow through with what their slightly sweaty palms were telling them to do, but the slightly sweaty palms were almost always right – in fact, they even had the ability to predict the future (by about 2-3 seconds).” – The Science Behind Intuition

Love.

My Time In Therapy.

“I know you said that you do not like the word survivor, but its just saying that you lived through, you survived, things that were traumatic…which was (and is) true. Much metta” 

I had my first session with a client as a therapist in 2005. I can remember every bit of the experience. I could probably recite, verbatim, every word we exchanged. To say I was nervous is an understatement – I was a wreck. It meant everything (and means everything) to me to be good at this work. Not to mention, my training involved years of clinical professors analyzing me through two-way mirrors and commenting on my every little move. At the time, I hated that process, but now I see the benefits of such intense self-reflection and self-awareness.

Then I needed to see a therapist. 

I have always struggled with depression and anxiety, and for the most part, I have been able to manage it fairly well. However, in early 2010, depression swept me up like a tsunami. I was not sleeping well (among other things) and I had the thought (at about 3am), “I could just disappear.” It wasn’t that I wanted to die, but it wasn’t that I wanted to live either. That thought scared the shit out of me. I knew in that moment, I needed professional support. In retrospect, I should have called for help much earlier.

I asked some of my colleagues for recommendations. I presented for my first appointment (scared and vulnerable) in front of a woman a few years older than me. From the beginning, she avoided eye contact. She asked me several stock questions, in a flat tone, and wrote out notes on a legal pad. At one point, I was describing how I was feeling and she said, “Oh wow!” and scribbled something on the pad. I thought to myself, “This sucks.” I left that appointment feeling even more hopeless.

As I reflect on the experience, I think if I had not been a therapist and known that there were better therapists than this, I may have never tried again. It takes immense courage to present in front of a complete stranger and lay your story bare. This business is serious stuff. I suppose she might have been off her game that night. Who knows, I never saw her again.

Still needing help, I tried once more. I asked around and this time the masses recommended Ken*. I sat in the waiting room of a dimly lit historic home that had been lightly (it still looked and felt like a house) remodeled into offices. A thin balding man with a Hawaiian shirt came down the stairs to greet me. He smiled warmly and called me by name. As we walked toward his office, he asked if I liked dogs. I replied that I love dogs. This is when a three-legged collie appeared (I cannot make this up).  I sat in a soft comfortable chair and the dog curled up near my feet.

Little by little, I disclosed the details of my story. He nodded and asked all the right questions. There was no legal pad with scribbles. It was simply, perfectly, and beautifully a conversation between a scared, sad person (me) and a person saying that it was okay to be scared and sad. He told me this repeatedly for months. I wish I could tell you that he had a bag of tricks or magic words but that was not the magic at all. The magic was that he never tried to make me feel better. It was safe to share the scary thoughts and feelings and in doing so, it made them less scary and sad. It sounds simple, but there was nothing simple (or easy) about that process for me.

Let me also add that I have an incredible support system. My partner, my friends, and my family were literally by my side through this period in my life. But, when I hurt they hurt. I needed someone with a bit more objectivity. Someone that could sit with my pain and not try to make it better. That was the alchemy of my time with Ken – deep pain and sadness transmuted into intense love and compassion. The only way out of pain is through, and I needed someone to light the way.

I write this story because reflecting on my work with him fills me with so much gratitude, it’s intoxicating. My work with him changed my life and may have saved my life. It also taught me to treat my profession with greater reverence. I literally understand the level of vulnerability that sits in front of me on a daily basis. I am humbled and honored that this is what I get paid to do with my life.

Even now, when I need to, I see a therapist where I live (I’ve since moved away from Ken). My current therapist is remarkable (and she is certainly magical).

Ken and I shared email correspondence throughout our time together and I’ve included two excerpts (including the quote at the top).

“Dear Ken, Sometimes the most valuable lessons our parents teach us are through their mistakes and suffering. This should not get lost in all that sunny-side shit. I credit my parents for these very reasons. They helped me “be better” by their own struggles. I have to believe we all do the best we can with what we have to work with. This inevitably will be different for everyone. There is so much to be learned in the darkness. lovingkindness.”

Love.

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality and the integrity of the relationship.

 

 

 

I’m A Runner And Not The Good Kind.

Amy worked in a bar in Exeter
I went back to her house and I slept beside her
She woke up screaming in the middle of the night
Terrified of her own insides
Dreams of pirate ships and Patty Hearst
Breaking through a life over rehearsed
She can’t remember which came first
The house the home or the terrible thirst
She keeps having dreams”

When I was in graduate school a professor noted that when topics became stressful, my eyes went towards the door. This perceptive professor was correct. I am a runner. When I feel stressed, overwhelmed, sad, or scared I look for a literal way out. I think it’s important for all of us to know what our brain/body tends towards when we are triggered and sent into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

“And on the worst days
When it feels like life weighs ten thousand tons
She’s got her cowboy boots and car keys on the bed stand
So she can always run
She can get up, shower in half an hour
She’d be gone”

Fight: push people away, act aggressively, physically act out, and verbally act out.

Flight: leave the situation, disconnect, shut down, and isolate

Freeze: disconnect emotionally, disassociate, go limp, and shut down

Fawn: people pleasing, smoother, devalues their own needs, makes other people happy at the expense of themselves, and present in codependent relationships

For example, if I’m in conflict (even perceived conflict as opposed to actual threats) I will likely try to leave the situation as soon as possible. This is not always healthy because if you don’t stick around, you can’t sort out the problem. I’m also likely to get quiet or shut down and go inside myself as a way of escape when there is no out. I’ve had to learn how to calm myself during times when I feel like I need to run. Running is of no benefit to me unless I am in a life or death situation.

Because “fight” is my least preferred of the three (it scares me), It is hard for me to partner or friend well with people for whom this is their default (or I perceive that it is their default). I arrived at this self-awareness only recently and when I reflect back on my life, it makes complete sense that those relationships suffered. It is not that there is anything wrong with the fight default. I’m not sure that we get to choose between fight, flight, or freeze as to which is our preferred default. Depending on the situation, your brain’s preferred survival mode might change.

“And on the worst days
When it feels like life weighs ten thousand tons
I sleep with my passport
One eye on the back door
So I can always run
I can get up, shower in half an hour
I’d be gone”

In fact, recent research related to sexual assault demonstrates that victims are likely to freeze. This is why some people will say “Why didn’t you fight back or run?” It’s because once you are in survival mode you do not get to direct your body as to a preferred way to survive. Many survivors will freeze when they are triggered and reminded of the assault later. This makes testifying and interviewing challenging for some victims. “For example, sexual assault survivors frequently disclose “losing the ability to move and/or call out” during the attack which has sometimes been referred to as “rape-induced paralysis” (Marx, et al., 2008, p. 78).”

If you notice that you experience these threat responses regularly, please talk to your friends, family,  and/or seek professional support. Ask the people you love what they think. We’re not wired to sort through this stuff alone.

Love.