Dulled Senses, Empty Body

CW: Discussion of dissociation, PTSD and effects of trauma

After a long weekend during which my illness and the weather has kept me house-bound, I am finding myself feeling and acting disconnected and detached. As part of my chronic PTSD, I struggle with dissociation, which manifests in varying degrees. At its most extreme, I feel physically numb and unbound by the normal constraints of time and place, unsure of where I am, who I am and what is happening. Today isn’t like that, but is instead a more subtle form in which I feel deflated, apathetic, mentally dulled and aloof. The more I try to find myself in terms of sensing my body, the farther from it I feel.

I’ve been in and out of crisis mode after a series of severe triggers last holiday season. I know that seeking accommodations at my job is likely to lead to a confrontation of some sort, whether it is in needing to advocate further for what I need or dealing with the fallout if I get what I’ve requested. On days like today, where I know a storm is coming but the weather is perfectly calm for now, I shut off to a degree that all of my creativity, spirituality and even my connection to my physical being feels severed. Internally, I’ve gathered all the valuables and am boarding up the windows and doors, even though I feel so calm in my actions that the shift seems invisible.

As I sit with this reality, the relational disasters I’ve endured make more sense. Someone triggers me, but only the parts of me who protect me fully perceive the danger. They scatter inside me and prepare to abandon ship, but I’m still listening to the band play and enjoying my dinner, oblivious to the coming calamity. When everything lists and panic ensues, I’m somehow already at the head of the line for the lifeboats, but can’t understand how the small gesture or unkind word was the tipping point. In other words, I perceive events through multiple filters, and have already pulled the plug without knowing I was about to do so, yet am conscious of my decision to jump overboard after a more minor rattling or shaking–
“the final straw”–occurs.

It’s terrifying to feel that the leavings I take are pre-ordained and mostly out of my control. Yet, I have not regretted very many of them, irrational though they seemed at the time. It is scarier still to feel hollowed-out in the moments between the initial decision and the final withdrawal, abandoned yet waiting to run. I think I’m afraid but I can’t feel fear, because fear could quicken my footsteps too much and I wouldn’t successfully plot my course. So instead I am feeling and knowing nothing but the awareness that an signal is coming and I will need to, with immense speed and focus, react to it when it occurs. I’m living wartime again, the battle of a childhood of indifference and hatred punctuated by sheer terror and violation.

Self-care is only conceptual to me right now. I can try to rest but will drift into flashbacks. I can reach out to a friend but may endanger my relationship by being easily triggered. My main coping skills are to immerse myself in television and stories, so that other people’s stories replace my singular one into which all the threads of my life weave and to gorge myself on unhealthy foods so that the confines of body become known to me again. I intensely and spontaneously craved junk food yesterday for the first time in weeks and couldn’t understand why, but its purpose now seems clear. I shut down to conserve energy for the fight to come, even though my methods likely soften rather than harden my defenses.

I will come back to myself and will come more whole again. I’m in a temporary state of dissociation after repeated triggers that overwhelmed my healthier abilities to cope. Were I hysterically crying or having panic attacks, it would be easier to first detect and to then address my needs. It is substantially more difficult to notice the lack of a normal reaction as opposed to an exaggerated one, but they can both be equally destabilizing. Have you ever dealt with dissociation? How does it tend to affect you? What do you do to cope with apathy and detachment?

Not Backing Down

I’m back at work and the misgendering is already in full gear. I also received several lectures about how asking people to treat me the same way I treat them (by gendering me correctly) is way too much to ask. It’s invalidation after invalidation. When I’m invalidated, I’m sent the message that I don’t matter and that the other person’s comfort is more important than the recognition of my full existence. The harm is multiplied when someone then goes into why what I am asking for is such a burden and so difficult for them to manage.

In sitting with these experiences, I feel prodded to share the pain that they cause me with the people who cause them. The issue with doing this is any guilt they feel will likely lead to increased defensiveness and additional invalidation. I do think that it is worth speaking about the dysphoria misgendering causes to a wider audience, as those who are capable of empathy and compassion will be motivated to stand in solidarity with trans people and to correct others who harm us.

One of the biggest costs I am enduring is increased isolation because putting myself in environments in which I know someone will harm and no one will do anything about it is Retraumatization 101 for me. My complex PTSD/dissociation issues are creeping into my experiences as an open trans person in that I am triggered by feelings of betrayal and elements of abuse when people carry on as though I am the binary gender I was assigned at birth. These same people ignore my mental health issues on the whole as well, so the layers of invalidation are starting to stack quite high.

As I sit with this experience for a longer period of time, what I realize is that the powerful vulnerability I set as part of my mission statement for 2020 has to be targeted in its application. I do not need to open up to the people who are hurting me. I need to open up to the people who can do something about it, namely to my HR department and potential legal resources at my disposal.

I don’t have an option to run away when my employment is at stake, so I need to assemble my game plan. What disgusts me in this is the fact that trans people can be stereotyped as being litigious, when, along with other marginalized groups, I’m coming to see the reason we may be viewed that way is that our attempts at soliciting respect through interpersonal means are completely disregarded. A person can only take so much mistreatment before they have to stand up for themselves. I have little faith in the legal system, but I know any progress I might make will pave the path for anyone who comes after me.

In considering what I am dealing with in the context of the many forms of oppression and marginalization that exist in American society, the commonality that I find is a commitment to responding to the whims and proclivities of those who already have a disproportionate amount of power. In my situation, those who are cis-het are sheltered from the consequences of their exploitation of those of us who do not or can not conform to their worldview. This toxic stew is further concentrated in the power of its poison for those who face racism, xenophobia and the like.

I feel so disgusted in knowing that the people who mistreat me have vulnerable young people who trust them and look up to them, ripe for harm as their unchecked prejudices and biases play out. As this feeling of revulsion rises in me, I always come back to the same thought: I can never slip fully into us/them; I am vulnerable to the same prejudices and biases and must be vigilant in my own inner work in this area. I must do better and I must do what I can to force those whose bias harms me to do better. We can only change ourselves, but we can seek consequences for bad behavior. If you are trans and/or non-binary, where are you at on a scale from acquiescence to riot in terms of how you respond to misgendering? Where have you turned to for support? How have you taken care of yourself in these experiences?

Expressing Gratitude through Journaling (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

I connect a push towards gratitude with invalidation and ignorance of injustice, especially when statements such as “well at least…” or “everything happens for a reason” come my way. It’s hard, therefore, for me to focus on that for which I am grateful in the midst of feeling grossly mistreated yesterday. If there is anything for which I feel appreciative, it is the experience of being fully present and settled in my body.

Present-moment awareness comes and goes for me as I contend with PTSD and dissociation. When I was younger, I lived for the future, thinking that if I changed my circumstances, I could change how I felt inside. Over time, I learned that the scars of my past would continue to ache, even if I left those who wounded me behind. My future seems as relentless as what as gone before: unknowable, uncontrollable and unlikely to make me happy on its own.

Where I find my solace now, when it happens, is in living awake instead of in slumber by connected to my body, my breath and the world around me directly through my senses. These are the moments for which I am grateful, when I am no longer lost in rumination or dread. I have to feel “safe enough” in order to turn my powers of perception from my inner mental world to the outer physical world; anyone or anything that enables me to do so is also an encounter I cherish.

Practice Mindfulness (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

As a person with dissociation, complex PTSD and a significant trauma history, being present in my own body has proven an elusive task. Mindfulness meditation and related practices are by far the most grounding techniques I’ve encountered. I believe that the best in life is found in the present moment, if we can engage it simply as it is.*

For today’s Simple Pleasure experience, I lit a few candles and sat in front of my altar. My dog decided to accompany me, which was a good challenge in managing distractions. I started by centering myself on my breathing and then began to attend to each sense, one at a time, experiencing what I heard, smelled, felt and finally saw.

In the dim light, there were many items glittering, including a few geodes that I’ve collected. Their sparkle in the candlelight, flickering in and out, brought me back to my breath as well as to my inner body, including areas such as my circulation and digestive system. I sat with each for a few moments and scanned my body from head to toe, returning to the breath any time I felt distracted. I felt surrounded by a golden, healing warmth.

I lived the first few decades of my life with almost no access to what my body was experiencing, other than to protest its malfunctions and pain. I still feel awestruck when I take time for mindfulness and realize how many inner worlds remain unexplored. I do not want to bend each one to my will, rather, I want to sit with myself until every part of who I am that wants to gets a chance to find the warmth and presence of my inner community.

*There is a lot to unpack in this statement that I will leave to another post. Moments of trauma are the one place where I think it really falls short of applying, but, in other types of experiences, including not only connection and excitement but also the daily grind and minor frustrations, I think it holds.