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?

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?