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?

Naptime in the Winter (In the Cards)

The astonishing snowstorm this weekend in Newfoundland has brought back memories of significant snowfalls I’ve experienced, during which the only means of getting around were small paths carved out of the snow. I think that if, upon opening my front door, I was met with a wall of snow, I’d be tempted to retreat inward (and perhaps to chill some beverages in the natural refrigerator). The theme of an inward-looking viewpoint speaks to me as tied to winter. Deep inner work is, to me, the heart of the winter season, alongside an invitation to a slower and more gentle approach to self-care. I am attempting to allow myself to actually rest, rather than to opine the importance of it while ignoring my needs.

I tend to give myself enough time to sleep at night, so I don’t nap on a regular basis. One of the few times I will physically lie down during the day is if I’m sick. This weekend, the weather where I live has turned bitterly cold and I am still not feeling well. In particular, I find my energy flags by mid-afternoon. I purchased the best robe I’ve ever owned in my life this winter, and have been curling up in bed in my spare room with my pup while wearing it.

It may seem obvious to those who are more able to still themselves, but it has felt like the height of luxury to be able to be warm, cozy and at peace without having to watch the time or jump up to accomplish the next task. I’m a good sitter, in that I do lounge around quite often, but there is a distinct difference to me between being at rest and fully unwinding, as I do not flirt with sleep when I watch TV or sit on my couch. I find myself wondering if I would be more productive if I completely stopped what I was doing and napped on occasion, rather than going into a halfway-state of resting my body without resting my mind.

Even in the time it has taken me to write this post, worries about being lazy and unhealthy are already creeping at the edges of my mind. I’ve been sick for a week and a half and I still cannot accept that my body needs care and cannot always go at one hundred percent. Part of my mission statement for this year involves owning my limitations. My physical constraints have always been a primary source of frustration and struggle for me, so I hope I can allow myself rest in the form of napping when I need to as a simple reflection of my desire for self-care and comfort. Do you nap? If so, is it a part of your self-care routine? If not, do feelings of guilt related to productivity or other self-judgments hold you back from doing so? How can you be kind to yourself today?

When We Fail (Today's Daily Remembrance)

Are the endpoints of success and failure the only way to encapsulate our life experiences? This is a question I am considering for today’s Daily Remembrance. In contemplating ways in which failures have helped me grow, I believe one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to look at the largest possible framework in any given situation. (Content warning for discussion of eating disorders below).

What may feel like a personal failure often looks quite different when we take the broader context into consideration. I did poorly on a science fair project in high school. I was extremely embarrassed and ashamed of myself when this happened, to the point that it held me back in my future career. The main reason I did poorly was that I did not stay after school and work with a teacher on it. I failed to do this because I had an eating disorder at the time and was near collapse by the end of the regular school day. Had I received the treatment I needed and been supported in my healing, perhaps I would have been more successful.

I also believe “success” is relative. Success in the situation I described above might have been me working through the underlying trauma that led to my eating disorder, science fair be damned. In a lot of situations, someone “succeeding” on the outside by garnishing money, fame, connections, and so forth comes at a high personal cost. Those who “fail” to do so are often hampered by systemic imbalances that are out of their control.

I believe the freedom to choose what we want as our end goal is one of the most important freedoms we have. Disavowing popularity and financial riches as the ultimate measures of goodness or happiness or whatever can enable us to feel gratitude for what we are able to experience. Whether our success is individual or communal, disengaging it from consumerism and competitiveness would likely serve many of us well.

Where I struggle is in making my end goals affirmative rather than avoidant. If I’m honest, I often gear my actions towards “feel the least amount of stress possible” rather than “fully live in each moment.” Every stressor then becomes a failure, rather than each experience of presence being a success. I awoke yesterday and wrote a poem to the snowy morning. This action was incredibly powerful as I contemplated what it would be like to fill my mind with the abundance of the times I can both be and do with joy rather than the times I have to dissociate and survive. What are your end goals? How do you define success and failure? What has a past failure taught you?

Future Dreams (Today's Daily Work of Art)

At the end of each year, I spend time reflecting on how my life unfolded, who I am as a person and where I’d like to develop in the next year. This year marks the third time I’ve engaged in the process and I love the fresh start it gives me. I keep my highest aspirations, my mission statement, abstract, so that I can allow the universe to bring me experiences to round out what I’ve written. I also write out specific, targeted goals for key areas such as finances, health and personal growth. The practice as a whole feels like an invitation to myself to be accountable in a way that views failures as setbacks rather than disasters and successes as opportunities for both pride and gratitude.

For 2020, my personal mission statement reads as follows:

I make sacred work of every moment and am here and now with all of myself. I cherish my inner world as I own my limitations and, in doing so, exhibit kindness and generosity of spirit. I embody powerful vulnerability as I gather myself whole.

I believe that all the planning and personal effort in the world does not guarantee our goals will be realized. There is an element of serendipity and luck to everything we do that also affects our chances of reaching the stars to which we aspire. I lay out what I want for the next year not solely as an enterprise in what I am going to work to achieve, but also as an invitation to Spirit to bring into my life that which I need to make manifest my hopes. What are your goals and your mission statement for 2020? To what extent do you think you will reach (or not reach) what you’ve set out on your own, and to what extent will you surrender your dreams to the universe and fate? Which miracles and beauty does the tableau of your future hold?

Time for Warmth (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s card chose me more than I chose it! I’ve been having severe neck and upper back pain, which intensifies when I lay down to the point where I am yelling in pain at slight movements. Giving that this issue seems to be persisting, I decided I needed to slow down and spend some time attempting to soothe my neck muscles.

I am someone who is overheated much more often than I am cold, so turning to warmth as a solution to discomfort isn’t my first instinct. I found, though, in using an electric heating pad on my upper back and neck muscles, that this helped the spasms to relax more than the various prescription medications I’ve been taking for the last few days. The most ridiculous part of my muscle dysfunction is that I think my drawing might be the cause of it as it is on the same side as my dominant hand and seems to get worse after an illustration session. Hopefully I can also add in some scalene stretches to mitigate any problems. What activities do you notice causing muscle tension? Which areas of your body are the most affected? Which home interventions work best to release any spasms and reduce your pain?

Visiting a Local Art Museum (Today's Simple Pleasure)

I’ve had a bit more downtime recently and have started on a series of day trips filled with coffee-shops, local eateries and art! I really enjoyed my travels today and learned a bit about my art preferences. As a result, I feel renewed inspiration to simply let myself create rather than to worry about the end product.

I started the day at a library inside which there was a small coffee nook. I purchased some tea and read a book sitting on a comfy chair in front of ceiling-high windows. With my PTSD symptoms being as extreme as they are right now, I decided to wear my Bluetooth earbuds so that I could listen to music and minimize my auditory stimuli. No one got in my space except for a small child who was trying to hide from their sibling, who soon trotted past pushing a stroller much taller than they were. This interaction made me smile and I formed a positive impression of the place as a whole.

I next went to the art museum at which, for the majority of the time, I was the only visitor. The admission cost was high compared to the size of the museum. I was at first disappointed as the regular collection held mostly modern art which was filled with awkward, pointy breasts. I know that is a weird focal point but I swear half the pieces contained this, even though they were by assorted artists. Almost every single piece focused on the human figure in a distorted form; I felt uncomfortable rather than inspired. I know the point of art is to cause an emotional reaction, but I’m in a place where feeling soothed rather than challenged is what I need.

I was delighted, however, when I entered a small gallery displaying the work of local artists. Almost all of it contained nature scenes and I had to resist the temptation to spend hundreds of dollars on a piece, as most of them were for sale. I found it so ironic that the local, lesser-known artists were the ones I enjoyed so much. There was an oil painting of water and sky that I think was my favorite.

I only noticed one piece in colored pencil in the entire place. It was in the local artist gallery section. It reminded me of a painting I’d seen before, with geometric shapes and colors. I enjoyed the symmetry, however, when I inspected it closely, it made me feel better about my own colored pencil work as the areas in primary colors weren’t even filled in so that the tooth of the paper was covered.

I felt more confident in my pull to create art after the trip. Several pieces throughout the building reinforced to me the notion that the aesthetic appeal of art is in the eye of the beholder, in that, simply by creating a piece, art is happening. I’m also contemplating for the first time the relationship between my feelings of attraction and repulsion, and how they might interplay with my artistic interests. I am someone who is disgusted and repulsed more easily than most people and who finds beauty in nature rather than in the human form. To create something that, deliberate or not, I view as grotesque, quite honestly has never occurred to me before. I want pleasure not pain from my art, but, after viewing the local collection, I’ve come to see that my goal may not be shared by everyone. What do you want from the art you encounter? What are your goals when you create? On which spectrums besides disgust-beauty might art operate?

Creature Comforts (Daily Works of Art)

Today’s card draw invited me to make art that would represent home. In contemplating this task, I was drawn to the idea of creating an atmosphere more than a visual representation. For me, the concept of home (not my childhood home but my ideal one) captures feelings of safety, ease and connection.

In attending to my senses, my sense of smell, touch and hearing were the ones that rose to the foreground (along with images of candles burning). Bread or cookies baking are cozy smells, but my physical health won’t benefit from having them circulating on a regular basis. I decided to purchase an oil warmer to gently fill my living space with calming and soothing scents. In regards to touch, I am contemplating textures such as a soft robe that I can add to my environment. In terms of sound, I want to find a cheap way to play relaxing music at all times (rather than having to use the same speaker I use for any media as I don’t own a television).

In sum, the concepts of ideal home and spa are apparently the same thing to me! I like the idea of thinking of art not simply as a visual experience, but also as something that incorporates all of my senses. I’ve been to a few parties lately and cannot believe how much my mood and comfort level shifts when the music starts blasting versus when there is only the hum of conversation. The atmosphere sets the scene and I often attribute my reactions solely to interpersonal dynamics I’m experiencing, instead of attending to how much the place and surroundings affect me. Hopefully, in noticing to the setting and viewing it as a way to represent a concept I crave deeply–home–I can then set the stage for fuller presence. What sensory experiences represent home (in terms of what you’ve like it to be) to you? What does home look like, smell like, feel like, taste like and/or sound like? What is one action you could take today to create it?

The Point of Inflection (Today's Daily Remembrance)

For today’s card, I focused on what occurs at the intersection of inhalation and exhalation of a breath. It seems to me there is a world of possibility between the moment we soak in our surroundings through our senses, and the moment we create and express the perceptions those senses have left on us. A holy pause, filled with both eagerness and sorrow, is ours.

I’ve had moments in my life where I wanted to pause time, where the laughter, music and camaraderie was so pleasant I wanted to cling to it forever. Many more breathes have been halting and shallow, wishing I could speed things up so that I would never have to experience the darkness, the pain and the disconnection I felt then and there. Every breath moves on, though, to the next, until there is no next. We only have the rhythm of our lungs and our heart to sustain us.

As I’ve learned to slow and more fully appreciate the sensory experiences the world has to offer, it has opened new spaces inside me for imagination, creativity and deeper observation. I tended to get lost in my ruminations–the same three rumbles of thunder clashing again and again, perceiving every sensation as a threat–or to rush so quickly from one breath to another that I scarce know how my lungs filled. It is only through deliberate practice that I come into the fullness of my capacity to breath; it’s not my nature but it might be our collective nature into which I’ve tapped. I’ve found in this inner universe much more grace and compassion than I anticipated, as well as a sense that time isn’t the essence of our lives but merely a companion to our journey. What is your relationship with the in-breath and the out-breath? What meets you in the inflection point in between each?

Winter Skincare (Today's Daily Presence)

For today’s Daily Presence, I’m focusing on caring for my skin. Going on T often corresponds to more breakouts, so I changed my routine last summer and have found my skin is also responding (so far!) better to the cool temperatures than it has in the past as a result. Moisturizing is my main skin self-care secret!

Facial care routine

I start each day washing my face with a benzoyl peroxide face cleaner. Then, as soon in sequence as I can, I blot using a toner. I finish with a light moisturizer with SPF protection. I repeat this process after a hard workout.

In the evenings (when I shower), I use a moisturizing soap in the shower. I repeat the benzoyl peroxide cleaner, and then alternate between a charcoal face wash and one with hyaluronic acid. Finally, every other day, I include Differin gel as the final part of my facial care. All the products I use are available over the counter at places like Target, and cost ten dollars or less individually. The fact that they are budget-friendly is important to me because, although I care about my skin, it isn’t something into which I’m willing to pour tons of money.

I don’t wear any makeup now, so any blemishes and skin imperfections are a lot more noticeable than they used to be. I can feel self-conscious if a pimple makes its home on my face, but I am grateful my daily process at least keeps my face from being extremely oily. In addition, although I’ve written this before, I feel the need to restate that I cannot believe how much more able to “breathe” my skin is now that it isn’t covered in what seems close to paint in retrospect.

Body Skincare routine

The routine for the rest of my body is much simpler. As I write this, I find myself wondering why I give my face so much more attention! I use the same moisturizing soap to wash my body, and a body butter cream on my hands, feet and any other dry spots every night. I also use a standard moisturizing lotion throughout the day, primary on my hands.

I’ve dealt with both eczema and psoriasis before, and winter has been a prime time for flares. I still have problem spots on my knees and the backs of my hands at times, but staying ahead of any drying has helped to reduce my issues. What does your skincare routine look like? Does it feel like it soothes or irritates your skin? What’s your secret ingredient to feeling your best in terms of your skin?

Night Sky Musings (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I’ve fallen in love with the sky. Late fall and winter have often been bleak seasons for me, given that all the vegetation is dying off. Now that I’ve started to notice the clouds, sunlight and array of colors present above, I no longer feel that this time of year is austere and lifeless. My only frustration has been my inability to convey in artwork the beauty I’m witnessing in nature.

The card I drew today focused on representing the dark, so I chose to attempt to illustrate the night sky using my set of colored pencils. This was even less successful than some of the day scenes on which I’ve been working. The black, magenta and blues I used seemed too bland and, strangely, lacking in light compared to what the night holds.

I need to spend a lot more time in contemplation of the sky as well as to take a lot of photographs of what I’m trying to capture in order to more fully capture its magnificence. The moon must have a place too! Have you tried to illustrate or create an artistic image of the night sky? What have you found helpful in doing so?