It’s Not Normal and It’s Not New

I hate the phrase “the new normal.” Implied in it is an expectation of psychological adjustment, without any of the requisite grief and mourning that adjustment will require for many. For some, their life narrative may have a framing of “life before COVID” and “life after COVID;” for others, this may not be the most significant shift in their story. Although the event is universal, the impact is unevenly distributed. I think it reeks of privilege and a shallowness of one’s capacity to feel to assume everyone, including people who are being disproportionally affected, should instantly absorb earth-shattering change and move on having potentially redefined nearly every aspect of their life as though nothing happened.

As a trauma survivor, the framing of the “new normal” is all too familiar. We have mantras like “forgive and forget” in our society as a way to absolve the bystanders of a need for collective grief when any one of us is harmed. This moment and the moments to follow deserve a witness. They deserve a deep grief, if not for our personal pain, for our collective suffering. I think we vary in terms of how much of this we can individually bear, but to mock and label cowardly those who do so on behalf of us all reveals much about one’s character. I hope life grants you the space and support to feel what you feel and to adjust to what is unfolding in your way and your own time.

Living with Complex PTSD in a Pandemic

I don’t know if I’ve been having more self-doubts than I normally do or if I am simply more aware of the “negative” thoughts I have than I would be were life not impacted by the pandemic. In either case, in the past week, I’ve noticed myself questioning my interpersonal capacity and feeling glum about my limited social life more often than I typically would. I’m both alone and lonely, an unpleasant combination.

The pain and rage I feel from being invalidated or rejected by others is so exquisite that I have spent years cultivating a buffer of self-reliance and self-care through which I can shoulder as much of the emotional burden of being a human on my own as I possibly can. I have a paradoxical capacity to appear vulnerable and open while not actually feeling the emotions that are supposed to go with the intimacy I am able to create; this ends badly when I cut off relationships abruptly when my bullshit capacity is reached while the other person had no idea of the grave threat I viewed them as posing to me. I show up as warm and empathetic without an underlying loyalty or commitment to maintaining the trust I engender, which makes me view myself as manipulative. This has led me to scale back how far I go in engaging with others because I don’t want to hurt them. Their ability to rend my heart has diminished over time as I expect very little good from anyone.

I applied for and was granted ADA accommodations at my job related to having PTSD earlier this year. Something in that experience helped me come to terms with the fact that, although I always hold out hope for healing, I am probably going to be someone with life-long damage and deficiencies due to the childhood trauma I endured. I am disabled and no amount of “trying hard” is going to magically create relationships in which people get my disability and relate to me in a way that works with rather than against my needs. I could be and in fact have been met on a deep level by others, but it takes skill, patience and an unyielding dedication that the vast majority of people I’ve encountered are nowhere near capable of providing to me. People cause me more harm than healing and that isn’t all my fault or all my doing.

Writing out these truths and lessons helps me a little to make peace with the inner judgment and criticism I’ve been feeling. I’m worthy of grace and worthy of effort. I know I lack grace and effort in how I respond to others; I cannot abide relationships that trigger me but I can at least own the reasons why I may need to end them. I did that with a long-standing friendship that had become toxic last year and I feel much more at peace with its devolution than I otherwise would. “It’s not you, it’s me” is ugly, but sometimes ugliness is truth.

It’s been almost six weeks since I had any sort of “normal” in-person human interaction, aside from half-shouted conversations with neighbors at a distance, and I’m not collapsing underneath the isolation and the loneliness because it is not that different from my life before lockdown. I may be disabled by my trauma and my PTSD, but I will make as much of my life as I can. I suspect some people live in terror of my everyday–“what would it be if there was no one there for me”–and yet the adaptability and the persistence of life, of being as a human, of the will to be here, in this moment, fascinates and motivates me to endure.

Witnessing the Cold Waters of Grief and Loss (Today's Daily Remembrance)

I don’t “suffer” from the optimism bias that most non-depressed people enjoy. This means I don’t tend to look the bright side or attend to the positives in tragedy. I spend a good deal of time on this blog making space for my efforts to find that for which I’m grateful; for me, it has to be an intentional and deliberate process or it won’t happen. I firmly believe, though, that finding reasons for joy and laughter need to exist alongside, not in replacement, of the ability to feel sadness as it happens.

My grief at this moment is a witnessed grief more than a personal one; I am not in mourning for the ways in which I’ve been personally impacted by the pandemic, but more for the global losses that have happened and the havoc it is beginning to cause in the lives of people for whom I care. What I lack in “be hopeful” I replace with “be prepared;” I tend to lean too heavily into the idea that, as long as all contingencies are measured and mitigated, true tragedy can be averted.

I’m living in a moment, however, where this can-do attitude is failing as my national leaders prioritize the wealthiest among us over the rest. Horrible, unfathomable and potentially preventable things are starting to happen to good people on a scale I didn’t know could occur, coupled with with no one in leadership providing comfort and guidance. This is both the oldest story of my life and also the one that feels freshly terrifying; I knew this could happen to me (childhood trauma), but I didn’t know it could happen to everyone (save the moneyed).

All I know to do when loss occurs is to make space for it, to honor what is being missed and to mourn with those from whom treasures of love are being pilfered. Grief, in my mind’s eye, is a well of cold water, into which that which we deem precious can sink but from which no reflection gleams. I know that, in due time, some will find renewal there as they reconstruct their lives. Maybe bearing witness to grief is nothing more than keeping a fire going by the depths, allowing for the awareness that rage and fear and all the strong feelings that make us want to flee that place of loss are allowed here and matter here. What are you grieving today? What is fanning the flames of your emotions? What is slipping into the bleakness?

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.

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?