Inner Complexity (In the Cards)

I brainstormed questions to my parts for a card for my In an Open Hand deck today; I have several left to create for the spring season. Today’s focus was about showing all sides of who I am. In reflecting on this theme, I was struck by the contradictions and nuances I’m finding in the unexpected expansiveness of being able to work from home.

From last August till this March, my mental health condition (PTSD) had been getting significantly worse, and I was struggling to find hope as I faced a seemingly unending series of triggers. Being able to disengage from face-to-face contact with people entirely has been a godsend to me, an experiment I never would have contemplated life would have enabled me to undertake. I’m “supposed” to be feeling lonely and anxious, but I feel calmer and happier than I have since last summer. My daily thought isn’t “when can I get back to normal life” but rather “oh shit, what am I going to do when I have to get back to normal life?”

I keep reminding myself that I’ve had more phone calls and text conversations and Zoom sessions than ever, so the feelings of peaceful relaxation may not be due solely to the change in the frequency of in-person interaction I’m having. I don’t know what it would be like if my internet and phone went out and I was truly alone with my thoughts, but I’m not convinced it would cause me immense suffering. Having to interact with people, especially in tense situations, causes me immense suffering.

The image that comes to mind is a broad path to the top of a mountain. I’ve managed to wander off of it and now the bridge across the stream it crosses has washed out, so climbing it is out of the question. I’ve meandered into a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies and tall grasses and a healing sun, and the shouts and commotion of “other people’s presence” are growing more and more distant. I’m no longer remotely convinced climbing the mountain of success through relationships and money holds any proximal or distant joy for me. I still require a sense of community, a sense of being a part of humanity, but what if I live it in my own garden and share my bounty in ways that work for me, rather than in a rigidly-defined and prescribed form?

There is still immense grief for others and the potential for my own losses in all of this; I’m not rose-colored in my meadow. I feel that finding my own place and pace is allowing me access to expressions of community and solidarity, instead of isolating me from them. Perhaps the best way I can say it is, more days than not (there was a notable exception), in the past two weeks I think I’ve come closer than I ever have to experiencing what it would be like to live without PTSD triggers constantly at the ready, and I love it and I don’t want to leave it. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to experience this side of things. I hope who I am inside can bundle the memories of this in a way that informs choices I make for myself in the future. What are you learning? What inner needs are making themselves known to you?

A Change of Pace (Today's Moment of Gratitude)

I’m struggling through a migraine today and nearly forgot to make a daily post! Although taking time to appreciate the good I have in my life has been an intentional practice that’s enriched my day-to-day experience, focusing on it lately has felt at times like a way to escape grim reality or to brag about privilege more than a genuine stance. I am truly grateful, though, for the change of pace my life has undergone.

I’ve worked for the last three or four years to cut as many obligations out of my life as I could, after coming to terms with the fact that I have both physical and mental health conditions that are disabling. In some ways, the triggers that remain have become more destabilizing, as though I’m in shallower waters and therefore feel each ripple more acutely. I haven’t been able to arrive at a place of feeling secure and balanced.

Being allowed to work from home and having it be socially acceptable to minimize my contact with other people has felt like a prescription for good health, not a burden. People, especially when they are angry, are my main trigger, so having more control over the circumstances in which I encounter them has physically slowed my heart rate and lowered my blood pressure. I’m calmer and more grounded.

February was busier than normal for me, and the reset of my life through which I’m living right now is welcome, even if the circumstances leading to it are devastating and terrifying. Things will pick up again soon for about two months, and then I will have three months off of work entirely. This experience is teaching me that I might need a lot more physical distance from others than I thought I did. I’ve dreamed of moving to a remote area and living off the land. I figured it was one of those things that sounds good until you actually try it, now, I’m not as certain it’s a bad idea for many reasons. And, best of all, I have some space to try it out in small ways to see how it sits with me. What has happened to the pace of your life as of late? How has it affected you? For what are you grateful today?

Answering the “What Ifs” (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

After several days of non-stop work, today has been a bit slower. And, predictably, my mind now has a few seconds to spare to race towards “what if” scenarios. The area where I live is already in a state where bars, restaurants and schools are closed, and I’m afraid that even more stringent requirements may be enacted. My primary concern is about whether I’ll be able to keep my job and keep my house in functioning order. I’m mentally (not in reality) racing to the place on the path where I’m at the end of myself and have no idea how to proceed.

About a decade ago, when I began my current job, I moved across several states and had barely settled in when my then supervisor (thankfully not working at my job anymore) threatened to try to get me fired. I honestly believe her motivation was jealousy more than anything else; it is a long story. That experience was the closest I’ve come to “I’m lost without direction.” I dissociated to the point where I kept thinking I was dreaming and would snap in and out of glimpses of reality. I worked the way I’ve worked the past few days for months on end, doing everything I could to prove myself worthy (I also kindled a flame of burning hatred I carry to this day towards her). The experience scarred and traumatized me; the feeling of having put in decades of work and finally “arriving” and then being told it could all be taken from me without cause hasn’t left me. I didn’t learn anything from it because I did truly lose myself when the crisis hit; I became suicidal and a workaholic rather than comforting or being with myself through it.

I want to say to the terrified small parts of self who chorus their “what ifs” to me: I’ll be here with you in it if it comes again. I may lose my job, my house, my pup and my health (my four biggest worries), but I do not have to discard who I am if any of those losses occur. I have resources and I have coping skills that I did not have in the past. What do the little or young parts of self need to hear from you today? To which events in your life does your mind unconsciously cycle if you are feeling anxious, helpless or hopeless? What’s different about your life now than it was then?

All Together Now (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Things are shutting down left and right where I live as daily cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 are doubling within a few days. As my coworkers, friends and neighbors and I deal with the situation, a singular experience is rising to the surface for me. This crisis isn’t personal, it’s global.

I cannot tell you how many times in my life I’ve dealt with a personal crisis and felt completely alienated from the happy, calm people around me whose lives seemed to be humming along perfectly while mine fell apart. There is such a lie at the heart of trauma–that. because our experience was unique, we alone have been ruined and bring ruin into our lives. I feel more energized and empowered than I have in months. It is because I can move away from a place of “I suffer alone” to “we’ve got this, how can I help.” I was made for this type of situation, and, because it has not yet involved an overwhelming amount of interpersonal conflict, I am not triggered by it.

The realness of the fact that I have a mental disorder, PTSD, rather than a personality flaw is becoming crystallized in my mind. Sure, I’m not coping perfectly and have had mood swings and trouble sleeping. But, I am not feeling helpless or hopeless. I am attacking the challenges that face me instead of crumbling underneath of them, and it is happening in large part because almost everyone around me is validating that this is a crisis and that we are here to support each other in it. How different would my everyday life be if people responded to my PTSD with support and care and took my triggers as legitimate?

Underneath of all of this is a feeling of being a real human for once, rather than a cobbled-together set of traumatized parts trying to masquerade as a real person. I feel more adult, more helpful, more reassuring and more kind than…I don’t know when. Apparently all it takes is absolute chaos, danger and a global pandemic to realign my interior into an optimally-functioning collaborative. If you are a trauma survivor, especially one who deals with dissociation, how are your parts holding up right now? What reorganization is occurring? What inner truths are rising to the surface?

Action and Acceptance

In my graduate school education in psychology, I was taught to treat questions of “but what if” with a healthy dose of skepticism, to then ask, “what is the likelihood of that happening in real life?” I would then typically challenge my client to see how improbable it was that the fear would be realized. Sometimes, though, the unlikely occurs and we have to move through our disbelief into action and acceptance.

Psychologists frame action as a coping mechanism that stands in opposition to acceptance–namely, that we try to problem-solve. When our problem-solving fails at finding a solution, we move to a place of tending our emotions. We are also different culturally and constitutionally as to which strategy we tend to employ.

I wonder, though, if there is ample room for both. We can take steps to control what can be controlled as well as to make our peace with our fate. I cannot with people who try to placate me with telling me horrible outcomes could never happen, who discount the need for any type of coping. They already have for me as a small child, so I experience “don’t worry” as “I can’t hear or see your fear as legitimate.”

To me, acceptance is the antidote to denial; it is a coming to rest at a crossroads, knowing that I do not know which paths will remain open to me and that I do not control the maintenance of the roads. None of us can predict the future and none of us can preemptively problem-solve for all eventualities. All I ask of my future self is that, if tragedy awaits, I do my best to keep my dignity and self-respect intact.

My worst fear, the “but what if” that keeps me up at night, is losing my autonomy–my ability to choose for myself where I tread through my own solution-generation. I know there are monsters who prey on the vulnerable. But there are kind souls as well and, whether it is rational or not, I attempt to believe they are in the majority. I think that is what I will focus on finding in this trying time–examples of human compassion that existed even when it seemed like all the roads were blocked with boulders. In my own timeline, I do not know who I will meet if all my ways forward collapse into one, but what if they were trustworthy and brave? What if you or I are that person for someone else?

Finding Peace in a Time of Panic

Leaders around the world have begun to reference the global pandemic within the framework of a humanity facing a war. We are admonished not to panic, whatever that means. In my country, our leadership’s been rudderless and we’ve received daily contradictory messages. Things are not fine.

As a person with lifelong severe anxiety, including PTSD caused by childhood abuse, it feels like I’ve spent so many years trying to tell myself that the world was now “safe” and that I could let my guard down. I’ve felt so jealous of people who are carefree and secure in their daily lives. Now I’m not sure if it was they or I or both of us whose prior learning deceived us.

The truth, most likely, lies somewhere in the middle. Our lives are likely more fragile and less guaranteed than the “everything will be fine” but also on stronger footing than “we’re all going to catastrophically die now” crowd would have you think. As a group, we need a range of tolerances for risk, otherwise nothing or everything would be chanced.

I keep noticing a theme of uncertainty as a driver for panic, but those of us who live deep in the realm of fear might know a different cause: no good options. The unknown isn’t what frightens me per se, it is the potential unavailability of a solution to whatever threat I might face that I find intolerable. I know what it is like to be trapped with no way out; I spent many years living that reality and it caused me to split myself apart internally simply to exist.

I refuse to bind my peace to the notion that no catastrophe will ever arrive at my doorstep. I find it insulting to be told not to worry or to trust that the higher-ups know what they are doing. The peace I seek is simply this–that there is more beauty than pain in the world. That, even in the darkest moments imaginable, kindness and compassion remain somewhere to be found, if not by me, then by the next person.

I’ve been shocked to find myself arriving at an inner well of actually giving a shit about the people in my life, a place I thought long lost and dried up. I’m not resorting to “me and mine” to the extent I would have predicted. I believe that crises can bring out the best in us, not because we avoid feelings of panic and terror, not because a solution will arrive if we simply hope enough, but because there is something central about teamwork and collaboration to the nature of being human. We will find our peace in this, together.

Even in My Dreams, She Haunts Me

I dreamt of my mother last night. The specifics of the dream, upon awakening, were immediately lost to me, but the impression of herself she’s carved on my psyche feels as though it is pulsating with remembrance of the scarring she caused. So many years have past since I’ve seen her in person that the line between who she was to me and what she represents to me has blurred.

I wrote yesterday that my capacity as a person isn’t related to the approval of cishet white men. I think I need to acknowledge part of what that means to me is that my parents’ views of me are irrelevant to my worth as a person, but also admit, in the same breath, that they still contour the shape of my inner world so much more than I wish they did. My reactivity to being dismissed and disrespected, the impulsiveness with which I direct my energy to defend myself, is a straight line from being constantly verbally abused and gaslit as a child and teenager.

My mother, real and internalized, was the queen of denial. She could cry and say she was never unhappy. She could have a conversation with me and, hours later, tell me she’d not seen me all day. She could witness my father sexually abusing me and pretend nothing happened. Reality was a malleable, unsequenced energy that she bent to her will. I didn’t have access to voice recorders or cell phone video growing up, but I have no doubt she would have found a way to deny the digital as well as the physical world.

She’s entered my mind as of late because of the pandemic. I fully expect, if she becomes ill, to hear from my siblings for the first time in years as to how desperate she is for my presence. This happened a few years ago when she got cancer, and, when I tried to form a limited amount of communication with her, she denied that she in any way initiated their contact with me. She thinks she owns me and can manipulate me to suit her needs after all this distance, time and hard truths.

I feel contempt more than any other emotion for her and it leaks through when I am disrespected by people who might, even in an oblique way, stand in for her in my mind. My dream had only the emotion of terror and the sensation of being trapped, that she found a way to make the story of my life collapse into itself and become only the abuse, the denial, the betrayal and the fear that underlies my relationship templates. A part of me wants to light up all the circuit boards the next time I’m rebuked for sharing a verifiable truth, to call out the privilege that is no doubt driving the “well, actually…” I’m receiving. I know this will lead to a response of useless and defensive posturing. The truth of my triggering will be apparent if I start emailing sources and data to prove my point.

My mission statement for this year includes “powerful vulnerability.” I wonder what the response would be if I responded with “you telling me I’m wrong about something I’ve extensively researched and for which I could easily locate 10+ scientific sources is reminiscent of how my parents responded to me when I spoke a truth they didn’t want to receive as a child. I’ve learned how futile it is to argue with someone who doesn’t give my voice the weight it deserves, so I’m not going to waste any more energy on this discussion.” There are people who show me through their responses that they value what I have to say and take it in without defensive skepticism. There is a new story of my life I can tell, but I have to stop stalling out in the shallows of my past in order to do so.

A photograph of a small journal into which a colored pencil drawing of a sunflower-like image has been sketched.

Draw Anything (Today’s Daily Work of Art)

I have been so blocked when it comes to drawing these past few months. When my perception of external threat reaches a certain level, as it has at my job, I shut off from my creative energies in a futile attempt to protect the hopeful and joyful parts of self from harm. My viewpoint of the world being bleak and lacking pleasure is no doubt related to this inner exile.

So, for today, I pulled out a small sketchbook in which I’d created several drawings last year. I was stunned to notice there were several images I had little memory of creating, which tracks with the internal separateness I experience. I decided to put as little pressure on myself as possible and to draw a sunflower. Upon making this decision, I immediately felt overwhelmed by the prospect of accuracy and the need to research how to create a sunflower. I almost gave up before deciding realism wasn’t my goal and that I could draw an image that had the essence of a sunflower even if it didn’t accurately reflect what it would look like.

The experience of drawing itself followed a familiar pattern. I spent several minutes in a blissful state, happy I had finally cracked open a sketchbook and was “being creative” at last. I felt relaxed and peaceful. Soon enough, however, once I’d made the decisions needed for how to finish my drawing and switched into filling in the petals, my mindset changed. I suspect that this was because the decision-making part of my brain, the prefrontal cortex, was no longer required as the central player, and I likely transitioned to relaying on the “muscle memory” part of the brain, my cerebellum, to complete the task at hand. Doing so meant that my thinker (prefrontal cortex) was back to having free reign to ruminated and stress out about upcoming events.

There is an obligation coming up this week where I may experience transphobia. I found myself worried that I was embedding anxiety into my drawing in that, when I look at it, all I will think about is (possible) harm. I have serious weirdness with both holding onto peaceful mental images and with creating them, and this small encounter may offer me a few insights as to why this could be happening. The moment of change today seemed to be when I lost my ability to be mindfully present with what I was doing.

Art is not always pleasant and it does not always make me feel better. I am so grateful that I am learning this lesson on my own rather than trying to go to art therapy and giving up after the first session because I think it didn’t “help.” It takes a disproportionate amount of energy and effort for me to engage in it as something in the process gives free reign for my inner torment to rise up. The threats I perceive from the outside do not fade from view when I’m being creative, if anything, they take shape and become manifest. This doesn’t mean I should avoid art, but rather, that it may be a way to confront my fears rather than to escape them.

Are you mindfully aware of yourself when you are creating visual (or other) art? What is the relationship between your emotions and your artwork? What helps you overcome blocks in your ability to create?

At the Edge, With Helplessness and Hopelessness (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

It is not a good day for my capacity to feel optimistic and bright. My attempt to get accommodations at my job is beginning to look like I am going to be retaliated against or, at the minimum, discounted. I could not sleep last night and now have no appetite. In the face of this situation, I need to take some time to access my inner world.

I feel helpless and hopeless. I gotten to this place many times before in my life, but have often failed to label what I was feeling in the moment. I would get stuck on the external threat, perseverating on how to mitigate it, and would ignore all of my internal processes. After several hours of frantically searching the web exploring my next steps, I saw into my inner world and noticed how much each part of me was scattering in every direction at once. I could not calm or come back to myself at all until I acknowledged the state I was in. I’m feeling trapped, alone without anyone to help me bear the burden and worried that even more devastation lies–unpredictably and uncontrollably–ahead.

I fear that I’m at the edge of the crevasse I’ve done everything in my power to avoid, the place where I lose my job, my home, my healthcare and anything else that provides a semblance of normal life. I’ve never asked for accommodations because I feared doing so would lead to this outcome. Logically I know I’m many, many steps from this dire fate, but the landscape feels tilted towards my inevitable demise. That is what helplessness and hopelessness look like to me–drifting from “functional human” into an animalistic state where moment-to-moment physical survival is my only focus. Openly acknowledging the effects of my trauma feels like a direct portal into reliving it writ large.

The few responses available to me when I feel helpless and hopeless center primarily on either engaging in a fight for control or on surrendering in acceptance of my fate. The “be louder” side won last night as I spent hour after hour complying a list of questions and additional documentation for my employer. I won’t get any clarity for a few days at the minimum, and my energy is flagging quickly, collapsing into “come what may.”

The ledge I perceive to be closing quickly has never left me ever since I came to terms with my childhood trauma and ended contact with my parents. I knew living my truth meant I could lose at winning or fail at succeeding at life; I knew I had to take that risk over denying what they’d done to me in hopes of having a “backup” plan. I’ve sworn up and down I’d die on the streets before I’d let them back in my life and I mean it as much today as I did the first day I said it.

Rage starts overtaking me when I sit too long in this place. They (my parents) irreparably broke my mind and the thin lines of glue with which I’ve managed to cobble together a person are yielding to the pressures of my life. I’ve come to a razor’s edge but I’ve never been hospitalized or taken off any significant amount of time because of my disability. I’ve walked and ran and scampered to stay back from the ledge and I’m so, so tired of fighting for a foothold. I feel like I literally asked my job for one g-d extra rope to help me stay secured, and all that’s happened is I’ve slipped further towards the breach. I’m sure if I fall in, people will suddenly, magically gain an ability to see my struggles, all while totally and utterly failing to account for the shoves downward they gave me and the shrugs they offered when I extended my hand in desperation.

Let me, come hell or high water, not be a bystander to someone else’s helpless and hopeless moments, even if all I can do is point them towards available resources. That’s all my suffering ever teaches me, how to not add to other peoples’ struggles. I have no greater insight into when to fight and when to yield, or how to avoid my personal pit. How do you handle feeling helpless and hopeless? What feels like your personal “worse case scenario” in life, and how do you cope with its existence? What are some resources you use to keep from going over the edge into despair?

Exercising Mindfully (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

My day is jam-packed with activity, so I decided to get creative and double-up a chore with a mindfulness practice. Specifically, I combined snow shoveling with body and breath awareness. I was surprised to find myself enjoying the benefits of both!

My attention was first drawn to my breath, more naturally than it is when I’m meditating while sitting, because I was breathing more heavily from the physical exertion. In terms of what my eyes were drawn to, I noticed that my field of vision was constricted to the snow I was moving, and I felt more centered when I purposely widened my gaze to include the trees and skyline. My felt sense of my body was quite noticeable and this brought me the most joy, as I felt the muscles in my arms and legs kicking into high gear with each shovelful I tossed. I could not smell or taste anything in particular. It was not until several minutes into the practice that I realized I’d been able to tune out most background noise, no easy task for someone with PTSD.

I thoroughly enjoyed engaging in mindfulness in a new way, and will be considering other places in life into which I can bring present-moment awareness. I did find my thoughts eventually drifting into what else I have to accomplish today, so the “return to breath” needs to be an anchor-point to which I hold. Have you attempted present-moment awareness in any settings aside from sitting meditation? If so, what was your experience like? How did it compare and contrast to more traditional forms of meditation?