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?

Welcoming Abundance (Today's Simple Pleasure)

I drew two cards today, one relating to casting a spell and the other connecting to allowing myself to hope. I decided to set “abundance” as my intention. I’ve lived my entire life with a mind to scarcity, pain, loss and lack, so considering riches, pleasure and prosperity does not come easily to me.

Where is there plenty?

Observing the areas of my life in which my supply outpaces my consumption should, theoretically, allow me to experience gratitude. Perhaps the action to underlay my intention should be to capture the moments of thankfulness I experience in a way that allows me to hold onto them more fully. They tend to feel very ephemeral, a morsel whose flavor has faded before I’ve finishing chewing it. I might add an additional “Writing Everyday” category specifically dedicated to recording the good experiences in my life.

What brings me pleasure?

My answer certainly feels base and silly, but, truthfully, food is probably my main reinforcer in life. It is unambiguous in its ability to improve my mood and to provide enjoyment. I like to cook, to ea and to watch shows of others cooking and eating.

The pleasure I anticipate in social interactions rarely comports with what I end up experiencing. Instead, spending time in nature genuinely lifts my spirits and elevates my mood. Spending time with my dog is also enjoyable.

wrestling with contentment

Even though I know what I like, I would not describe these experiences as leading to contentment. I do not know what it is like to rest in a place of contentment feels like as I’ve never stayed there for any length of time. Contentment, to me, is the intertwining of gratitude and pleasure, the sense that there is enough right now and that whatever it is, it will last.

If I’m not content with my life, the two paths that lay in front of me, the two paths I find meet me at every difficult moment, are to change my experience or to change my perception. I have been leaning more and more into attempting to change my perception as my attempts to change my experiences seem very much to lead in concentric circles, where I find myself in another layer of disappointment and failure.

Perhaps a third option, one that I hesitate to settle for and am not sure I can do, is to accept that I am unlikely to feel content with my life. This does not line up with the idea of welcoming abundance, unless abundance is the space left by the lack of things I thought I needed to be happy. What does it mean to say, when I get to the end of my life, that I never found contentment but that I appreciated abundance when it came to me? That my life knew more pain, discomfort and lack than it did resources and plenty, but that I made do as best I could with what I had?

There are very brief moments, seconds really, where I see myself through another’s eyes and I know, in wordless thought, that I am a good person who is doing their best. My childhood trauma not only set me up to find scarcity in excess, but also to see myself as selfish and ungrateful, someone incapable of opening to the holy and the grace of life because of the despicable nature of my soul. This isn’t who exists when all the layers of who I am dissipate. I am in abundance and of abundance. I may not find contentment if I seek it through pleasure, but I can be content in who I am. From that place of knowing I’m enough, I have more than enough at my disposal to be enough in ways in which I need to be.

Are you content in your life? In who you are as a person? What brings you joy? What in your life fills you with gratitude?

Birdsong in Winter (Today's Simple Pleasure)

My day began by realizing I’d slept in until it was quite sunny outside. This made me happy as I felt I’d finally gotten a good night’s rest. As my dog and I walked outside in the rising sun, I heard birdsong cascading up and down the tree branches. There were at least two songbirds in chorus with one another. I felt my heart soaring and my inner well of strength filling; as I wrote recently, there is more beauty than pain in the world. For every dark moment, a candle burns, casting light beyond its wick into its surroundings.

My experiences in life have left me a vocal witness to suffering whenever I encounter it. I cannot look away and pretend all is well. But, in the same moment, I can find the flower peaking through the snow. I don’t need hope that things will get better. Rather, I need acknowledgement that, in the midst of despair, there is a space of honoring and being-with and a space of joy. When life completely devastates me, the trauma-voice in my head has one mantra “make it stop.” I don’t have the ability to end every negative encounter, but I do have the capacity to stand up for myself as I validate my own perceptions and to find the places where light streams through and the birds burst into song.

Invalidation or Acknowledgment? (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited me to consider vulnerability and sharing in confidence with others. What it led me to consider is how I can discern, both inwardly and outwardly, whether my pain and needs are being taken seriously or not. I know how to spot invalidation, experiencing and acting from a place of validation is more of a challenge.

Signs of A Validating Relationship

RESPECT

Respect includes boundaries. No one can solve all of our problems or bear all of our burdens. When someone respects me, they care enough to ask how they can be there for me, and to be realistic if there is something I need that they are unable to provide. The message “I agree you need this. I can’t provide it right now, but let’s talk about how you might get what you need” is my clearest approach to respectfully declining something I can’t take on personally.

Respect also includes holding what people share in confidence. This has been a struggle for me for reasons I’ve never fully understood. I think holding someone’s secret feels like lying to me and I have been known to gossip at times. Perhaps being forced to prove my “loyalty” by hiding the fact that I was being sexually abuse as a child has made me averse to knowing someone’s business but having to pretend to others that I don’t. I’m not a hypocrite in that I don’t expect others to hold most things I share with them in total confidence. If I have an area of providing a validating environment on which I most need to work on myself, this would likely be it.

Responsiveness

People express empathy in different ways, but there has to be some degree of caring shown in order to feel validated. People who ignore me by not responding at all when I’m venting show me that my concerns are unimportant to them. Likewise, those who listen to my needs and then immediately focus defensively on discounting my concerns and/or on asserting their own conflicting demands demonstrate to me that they only want to take, rather than to engage in a mutually-beneficial relationship. Responsiveness includes acknowledging my perception of the experience, apologizing if harm has been done and discussing ways to improve the situation with a non-defensive, open mind.

Recollection

In terms of feeling cared for, having someone remember a sensitivity or remind me that they care about a particular burden I’m carrying feels extremely validating. On the other hand, having to remind someone again and again that something upsets me leads me to believe they don’t actually care deep down. Sometimes, through dialogue, I’ve learned that they simply struggle with memory in general. Other times, repeated failures in this area have proven true as an indicator of their lack of concern for my general well-being.

Which relationship behaviors are necessary for you to feel heard and seen? What red flags show you someone might not be a trustworthy person who cares about you? What do you do in relationship to validate others?

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?

Grounding by Lifting Weights (Today's Simple Pleasure)

I wrote yesterday about feeling dissociative and disconnected. As I composed my post, I thought to myself that physical exercise would probably be an effective method of grounding myself, even if the effect was only temporary. Today, as I engaged in my workout routine, I paid special attention to how my sense of my body was impacted by being physically active.

I love using Fitness Blender (not an affiliate link) for my daily workouts. The founders have made their videos are free and both of them have a positive outlook on health and exercise. My ability to lift weights has been diminished since becoming ill a few weeks ago, so today’s routine was particularly fulfilling as I was finally able to lift near my capacity instead of having to use half the weight I normally would.

After completing the workout, I feel more present in my arms, but cannot sense much in terms of my lower body. My legs aren’t physically numb, but I don’t feel connected to them or like I am inhabiting them fully if that makes any sense (if you haven’t struggled with dissociation, it might not). I still feel an eerie sense of calm, but having my heart rate up is counteracting it slightly.

Going for a run would seem to be the type of full-body exercise that might allow me to come more present, but the abundance of ice outside isn’t going to make that a safe experiment. I think I will add a series of stretches for each part of my body to see if that brings more depth and richness to my sense of being grounded. If you’ve dealt with trauma and feeling disconnected from your body, what effect does exercise have on your ability to become grounded? Are there types of physical activity that are more effective than others? Are there any kinds you’ve learned to avoid or that worsen your dissociation?

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?

Forwards and Backwards (In the Cards)

Today’s card focused on two themes that I would like to explore: 1) the fears that are difficult for me to face and 2) the interplay of restoration and a fresh start. In seeking health and happiness, I think it can be useful to know what might hold me back from taking risks to obtain it. It is also useful to consider what in my life needs to be torn down and what might be salvageable.

I would say that I fear the unknown, but in reality I think my strongest fear is of what I’ve known. In being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the context of my family, I’ve known the possible depths of both direct harm and betrayal from a very early age. Perhaps the best way to put it is I fear being helpless again; losing my autonomy and having people who wish me ill control my means of subsistence. Mine was a friendless upbringing that I would do almost anything to avoid revisiting.

In fearing the known more than the unknown, I believe that I’ve resisted fashioning my life in direct opposition to that which I knew growing up, even though some of the outcomes of my choices would seem to contradict this. I’ve tried to make who I am and what I do a reflection of my core values, strengths and skills. I want to stand for something and not only against something, but trust me when I tell you I know my enemies.

One of my most passionate intellectual pursuits is questioning the frame–stepping outside of dichotomies to deconstruct the boundaries of inquiry and to critically evaluate the biases that lead to limited potential. In applying this line of thought to the issue of renewal versus change, perhaps there is renewal and rejuvenation through change and change through a retooling of what already exists. In reality, I’m more on the “burn it all down and start again” rather than the “save whatever you can” end of the spectrum of how one approaches problem areas, but I love the idea of reclaiming pieces of my origins and of generating new growth through the vestiges of what I’ve lost. Going back to go forward and moving ahead to find the past. I have no idea what that looks like as a lived experience, but it sounds more enticing than a linear journey.

To the extent that fear influences your life, is your fear based on wishing to avoid what you’ve already had to endure or is it centered on staying away from new dangers? Which appeals to you more–recharging the past or starting anew? How may these dual pursuits influence each other in your life?

Time Enough (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited reflection of how the pace of my life is going. I decided to focus on how I hold my sense of presence and time in situations where others are present. I believe that my experiences here will guide me in finding places where I connect with a felt sense of safety.

I went out to a restaurant with a group of friends last night and noticed a moment pass where I would normally feel like time was “up,” where I’d become impatient and want to leave. After my reflection on having PTSD, I believe this surge of anxiety occurs when, as a result of either internal or external stimuli, I come to view the experience as containing threats from which I want to flee. At dinner, in the moment this would have happened, my internal system instead read “you are safe” and I was enveloped with a wonderful sensation of calm and a near-hallucination of a clock shutting off. What time it was and how much time there was left in the encounter weren’t my most pressing concerns.

In almost every other social setting, I feel as though I am in a race where the goal is to survive until time runs out. Maybe I’m trapped on a level of the simulation or my programming is broken! In all seriousness, the intensity of needing to rush through and have whatever is happening end is overwhelming. I look forward to events much more than I enjoy attending or remembering them.

I do not believe I am able to engage in mindfulness or present-moment awareness in the presence of others for any length of time. As soon as at least one other person is in the same room as me, I lose my connection to my body and my sense of time becomes at least slightly distorted. Every day when I leave my job, I find myself waiting for myself as I leave the building, crawling back into my skin and inhabiting my breath and my rhythm for the first time in hours. Who I am around others is often only a shadow-shell of my true self.

My experience of time is less affected in outdoor spaces, where the elements help me reconnect with my body and remind me of shifts outside of my own reactions to stimuli. If waiting rooms were parks and grocery stores outdoor venues, I would perhaps respond with less rage. Small, confined rooms such as medical offices are especially taxing. I recall a few moments where I felt highly connected to friends; most of them occurred in green spaces with people far and few between.

This reflection has enabled me to note a direct connection between where I am and how intact my perception of time remains. People are not the only variable; fresh air and a luxurious amount of room in which to rest or walk about also play major roles. What factors affect how you perceive time? To what extent is your connection to your body impacted by the presence of other people? In which spaces do you feel safest, where a sense of more than enough time and place are pervasive?

Creating a Safe Place (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw focuses directly on inner work, requesting insight into how communication among parts of self can be fostered as well as reflection as to what’s been learned and what’s still unknown. What I’ve decided to spend some time describing and designing is a vision of my internal dwelling. I’m currently listening to bands like Skald which I’m sure is influencing my imagery.

When I’ve dipped my toes into Internal Family Systems (IFS) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) theories and therapies, I’ve gotten stopped immediately because I cannot internalize an externally-derived “safe place.” I will immediately start having flashbacks when led through this type of visualization. I think it has to with the extent of my trauma history and the fact that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder but I’m not certain as to what the cause is. I’ve therefore given up on this practice until lately, where my attempts at drawing and artwork have encouraged me to consider whether I can create my own mapping of a place of security and safety.

To start, I know I need water as that is the element to which I am most fully drawn. High stone cliffs with crashing waves, separating me from possible threats feel appropriate. Atop the land, then, which isn’t an island but is connected to a place resplendent with both mountains and valleys, lies the place I make my inner home. It’s a humble country village, with the sound of sheep and the hustle-and-bustle of daily life lived close to the land carrying through the corridors. Smells of freshly-baked bread and locally-grown fruit permeate the air.

Each part of me has its own dwelling which reflects their needs and skill sets. Some parts are scientists, using the latest technology to deduce the best ways to proceed in any situation. Some are defenders, constantly scanning for threats from high towers and in dark alleys. Others are engaged in healing, helping wounded parts recover from their injuries. The littlest ones are the ones who hold the trauma; they have soft beds and delicious foods and gardens and trees to explore as they grow. There are teenagers who have also been through trauma. They are the source of my creativity and are provided with a studio and art supplies to make manifest their inner gifts. They also slip into the woods and forests that surround the village to draw inspiration from the animals and plants that live there. In addition, there are the nurturers, the kind parental figures that sit with those who have been traumatized and provide comfort and space to process their tortures.

This inner world would be incomplete without villains. I have parts of who represent those who have abused, neglected and betrayed me. Those who wish death upon all of us to stop the pain. Those who want to hurt us as we’ve been hurt, believing it will somehow undo the past. Parts who criticize without mercy as a way of keeping us safe from external critics. Those who desire revenge and who hate others with the same level of hatred which I’ve experienced.

I don’t think, underneath it all, that I am a bad or evil person, despite all these in-dwellers who would seem monstrous or dangerous. They are my inner mercenaries, policing both my internal and external relationships and administering “justice” to their satisfaction. They have mostly come to an armistice with the other villagers and instead are deployed in response and reaction to those in the external world who wish us harm. The image that keeps popping into my head is that of an immune system; they treat others as invaders who must be repelled at all costs.

My inner world does not take kindly to strangers and does not welcome visitors to the village. Almost all who we’ve tried to allow in only want to interact with the healers, the scientists and the nurturers, depriving us of the healthiest parts of self for their own benefit without meeting us in kind.

My inner world is good at exiling people; we cast them outside the farthest reaches of the village and act as though they no longer exist in our presence if they harm one of us. This may feel like the “silent treatment” to those on the receiving end, but, given the type of hatred of which we are capable, it is the safest method of defense we have. There is very little forgiveness between us and those who spoil their visit because they do not admit their behavior or attempt to make amends. Instead, they protest the whole journey to the wasteland, expecting us to act like one of us wasn’t harmed or that it was our fault that it occurred. We prefer to keep any who come to see us now only at the outskirts, trading wares without revealing much else. This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that all parts are content to be entertained by each other only, so the dilemma is not yet resolved. This is the unknown.

I started this post attempting to discuss what a safe place might look like for me. It may seem that I’ve strayed from this goal but in fact an inner world without defenses is anything but safe from those who violate our boundaries. It is not possible to bond with everyone we meet or to form deep connections without a respect for each other’s inner experiences. Someone without access to or who is in denial of all parts of self is also unsafe as they will ignore their own “villagers” running rampant and causing havoc and will only focus on the defenses the other person is deploying in response. I own my shit and people keep using that as a way to avoid their share of the problem instead of taking advantage of that space to reflect on their own role in situations.

The imagery of my inner world that I’ve created is helpful to me in understanding why I can be very brave at times as well as extremely reticent and avoidant in others. To what extent do you have insight into the parts of self you possess that influence your thoughts, feelings and behaviors? How much communication exist among your parts? How do you hold space for parts with different agendas and views of the world?