Altered consciousness

Dissociation is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. Dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalisation disorder and dissociative identity disorder.

A lot of people with cptsd/ptsd suffer from some form of dissociation. The definition above spells it out. It can be feeling like you’re not quite in your body all the way to your personality splitting into pieces and becoming seperate individuals. Most people experience this ‘out of body’ experience when they’re in an extremely stressful situation: anything from abuse, a car accident, active war time. However, a lot of people experience dissociation and it’s not a problem. An example is, you’re diving home in your car and you make it home but don’t remember actually driving there. This is a more benign form of dissociation.  You’re not particularly stressed but your body goes on autopilot while your brain takes a little vacation. That’s all fine and normal. Dissociation is also one of the best defenses we as human have of protecting ourselves from really bad stuff. The situation is too stressful so we go outside of ourselves or disconnect from what’s going on around us and don’t feel what’s going on. Children are especially adept at using dissociation to help them cope with stress because of how plastic their brains are.

There main issue that comes up when you’ve used dissociation as a coping skill for a long time is that your brain goes there more automatically and as an adult and when you’re adulting, that can be problematic (especially at work, trying to parent etc). I used to dissociate a lot when I was a kid during some of my worst abuse. I would float above myself and look down to see what was happening but could reassure myself it wasn’t happen to me. I didn’t feel any emotion then and could cope. I would also picture myself swimming in a stain that was on the ceiling where I was brought. There were also times that I took myself into myself and put myself in box inside where I could be safe. I would ‘look up’ and see what was happening but couldn’t feel it. I would also swing on my swingset at home for hours to lull myself into a calmer state where I didn’t feel the emotions and pain.

I continue to dissociate as an adult. When I feel stressed, after a flashback, or when I feel panic (normally at a family function or large social gathering) I step outside of myself, it’s almost like I’m sitting right behind myself. Most of the time people don’t notice because again, the body is on autopilot but it can be uncomfortable, almost like a joint is out of socket. It interferes with daily life because you’re not present and people will be talking to you and you have no idea what they’ve said. My job is 100% listening to people so dissociating is an issue. There are also times when I feel like the floor is falling away from me or I’ll get sucked out of a window (this happens especially at work). This is troublesome and can be tough to cope with. This is what has helped me:

1. Rubber band or hair tie on my wrist that I snap

2. Holding sometime cold like an ice cube. in my office, I bought a small freezer and have ice packs in there. When I start to feel like I’m going to get sucked out of a window or I’m drifting, I take a cold pack and put it right on my diaphram. The body has no choice but to come back to itself

3. Grounding (practice when you feel well so it’s more natural when you’re having an episode)

5: Notice 5 things that you see

4: touch 4 things

3: find 3 things that you hear

2: find 2 things that you smell

1. one thing you can take

4. Aromatherapy

4. Go outside for a walk (I struggle with this but it is helpful)

I also struggle with depersonalization

Depersonalization disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts (depersonalization). The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream

In this case, I have often felt like when I look in the mirror, I’m not seeing myself. I also have times when I don’t feel like a person, I think I’m plastic, or feel different from everyone around me. I feel like everything around me isn’t real and I’m living in a dream. This happens less often then dissociation but when it does, it’s very distressing. I feel very paranoid and that there is something deeply wrong with me. I avoid mirrors whenever possible and rely on my husband and therapist for reality checks that I am indeed a person living a real life. Depersonalization is a very odd feeling. Talk therapy is the main treatment and my therapist has worked very hard with me to help with this.

I did find this book to be really helpful too:

Overcoming Depersonalization Disorder: A Mindfulness and Acceptance Guide to Conquering Feelings of Numbness and Unreality

 

I’m not as familiar with DID (dissociative identity disorder) but know that it’s the outcome of extreme distress over a prolonged period of time.

 

 

They say that abandonment is a wound that never heals. I say only that an abandoned child never forgets (Mario Balotelli)

To say I have abandonment issues is putting it mildly. Since the beginning of my relationship with my husband I clung like a vine and felt incredible despair when I perceived he was leaving. Even though I’m an adult, I still have intense feelings of longing for my parents, of needing to belong to them and be close to them. I’m afraid of the need I have for my parents and will often shove it down and white knuckle through it. There are times though, especially in the middle of the night, that I will wake up in my home and have such a strong urge to drive to my childhood home and be with my parents that I have the keys in my hand before I change my mind. Normally after a bad flashback, I want them very badly. I feel uncertain about this need and longing for them. I’m not sure I feel safe enough to be that vulnerable with them and always keep a careful facade when I’m around them. It’s a pleasant enough relationship but I don’t think I could ever share what’s really going on with me. It makes me sad. I think back to when I was a child and my abuser made himself a very strong paternal figure. As a child I wanted to please him and turned more to him for reassurance. He would sometimes give it and sometimes push me away, refusing me. I felt abandoned and confused. I didn’t understand why he was doing that. What had I done wrong? I tried harder but it never worked. As an adult, I see how he isolated me emotionally from my family and made me feel disconnected from them. They seemed very far away from me then. I had this huge secret that I couldn’t tell and then a secret within a secret that I had to keep. He also set me up for a lifetime of abandonment issues. My relationship with my family has never recovered. My therapist tells me this is the worst form of psychological abuse: where the abuser is nice then not then nice again. It confuses the brain and entrenches the shame-blame cycle more firmly.

My husband is a wonderful man. He stays around me and takes care of me. He is my safety person. He comforts me in the middle of the night and keeps me safe during my flashbacks. He points out when I’m being paranoid and irrational. On the days (and there are many) that I can’t get out of bed, he takes care of the kids and the house and me. When I get stuck at work and literally can’t leave my office because I’m panicking, he comes and gets me. He is patient and never demands anything physical from me. He has to go to a conference in May and I am already freaking out. I know that I’ll be fine. My rational brain tells me that. But the emotional part, the part that quite frankly has been running the show for the past few years is screaming that we’re about to be left behind. I am proud of him. He’s going on this trip because he does such a good job at his job but that doesn’t soothe me. I’ll be without my comfort person, my safety person, for 7 days and will be alone with my symptoms and thoughts. When I try to tip toe towards thinking about it, I feel the panic and anxiety bubble up from my gut. I cry and cry because it feels like I’m powerless and alone and that’s how it felt when I was little. So yes, to say I have abandonment issues is an understatement. It’s something I don’t know how to fix and don’t see a solution to. Complex PTSD sucks.

My trauma is better than yours

And here we go again. In the race of who has the best trauma (I guess meaning the worst) I’m not sure there are any real winners. I was on my forum and a huge debate erupted about which type of abuse was worse (physical versus sexual versus psychological) and how long of a time it lasted for it to count as a long enough time to be considered complex PTSD. Since when did having cPTSD become a prize? It got so bad moderators had to end comment threads and some people were expelled from the group. Is this what we’ve come down to? I wish I had zero trauma and could remove myself from the debate all together. Or maybe be well enough so I can get out of my house and take a walk with my family. I’m frustrated with this line of thinking because it undermines the reality that trauma=bad shit happened and causes a reaction that ripples across a lifetime. It doesn’t matter what type or how long or who did it. I feel for everyone who has suffered. I feel for the person like me who wakes up in a cold sweat screaming from a nightmare or has such severe flashbacks that they are disconnected from reality.  I feel for the person who can’t leave their house or connect with their family or can’t work. That really sucks. Really really sucks but instead of fighting back and forth, I wish we’d get our shit together and stop judging each other and be supportive. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again, no one gets a prize for surviving trauma. What you get are a boatload of symptoms and very few people to help you out. Be a helping a person, there aren’t that many of us

My ACES Score is 4, what’s yours?

The ACES test was born from a landmark study in 1998 that tracked a lot of kids over several years and were given a point for each adversity they experiences. It includes abuse, domestic violence, mentally ill family member, etc. The higher your ACES the more likely you are to develop serious medical issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Here’s a link for the quiz and an explanation.

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

Also, check out The Deepest Well by Naomi Burke Harris who is without a doubt my new favorite advocate for children faced with adversity.

Survivor’s Guilt

I’m very pleased that this has been accepted as an article for the Mighty and to be published on the Medium.

TRIGGER WARNING, GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL ABUSE. DO NOT READ IF YOU’LL BE TRIGGERED.

I’m one of the many people who watched Leaving Neverland. The first part, I had to stop a few times because I was so overwhelmed. The second part, I cried through. I assumed there would be backlash, there always is when it comes to stories of sexual abuse. The shock, the demanding questions, the disbelief. In the age of #metoo, I knew that despite what the news reported, people still asked the same time worn questions. Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you keep going back to this person if they were abusing you? Why did you deny it happened? I’m not like the two men on that documentary. I am completely average and there is nothing special about me. My abuser was average too, there was nothing special about him. He sexually abused me for 4 years when I was a child and I understand why the survivors of Leaving Neverland said what they said and did what they did.

I was born into a middle-class family in the outskirts of a suburban area. We had a nice house, lots of property and it was a good school district on paper. I am the second of 4 children. My parents were available to us. There was no drinking, drug use, domestic violence or abuse in my house. My parents worked and carted us around to every extracurricular activity. My father was the coach most of the time because no other parent would step up. My mother worked evening and nights so she could be home during the day. From the outside, it was perfect. Except it wasn’t. My parents fought frequently about my dad’s family. My grandparents were dysfunctional and felt love could only be metered out in a specific amount. My dad didn’t fit in and they treated him and my mother badly. Being the second grandchild shouldn’t have been a problem except I was a girl and there was already a girl. From the beginning I was a disappointment, not a boy, better luck next time. My older sister was the favorite and my grandmother adored her. She decided since I looked so much like my mother, I was just like her and treated me just as badly. Before the age of 10, I was told I was fat, unlovable, and a burden. Not great things for a kid to hear.

I liked school and I was a good student but I was shy and quiet and wanted to do a good job because in my family it didn’t really matter what else was going on as long as you achieved well in academics, work, or whatever you were pursuing. When I was older, we had to say what color we thought we were in my religion class. I said beige and everyone laughed but no one disagreed. I was a good, invisible kid. The first time I interacted with my abuser, he brought a bunch of us to his classroom because it was rainy and we were going crazy with indoor recess. I liked the room, we banged on instruments and listened to music and it was a bigger room to mess around in. We all got ice cream after from the cafeteria cooler and he said ‘shhh it’s a secret’. And how delicious to have such a secret. To be part of something great that connected me to others. He kept bringing us but the group got smaller until it was just 3 of us. Each time we got a treat. Gum, candy, ice cream, chocolate milk. To have gum in school! It was forbidden. I would chew it on the bus on the way home and spit it on my front lawn. I was 7.

He started to touch me but it was subtle at first, just a brush on the backside, a hand on my back or in my hair. Nothing scary at all. He would brush my hair and tell me how beautiful I was, how special, and how much he loved me. Those words filled a hole in me I didn’t know was there. I wanted to hear more. I was selfish and did everything I could to be with him. He would have me lay on blue mats and I would stare at the wall. He touched me over my clothes, then under them, and then had me touch him. It felt uneasy. I wish I would describe it more but I can’t. What I can tell you is after all of that, he would hold me in his arms and tell me the same things about being beautiful and special. They were perfect moments of peace. There were also treats, trinkets of rings and bracelets, flowers and tiny dolls, lollipops and candy. Each one was like it was made of gold because it was for me, just me. Of course, it didn’t last.

Soon it moved onto oral sex and that was very unpleasant but I did it because I loved him, it made him happy, and knew he wouldn’t hurt me. Right? There were no second thoughts because kids don’t have them. They just have now and that’s it. I was praised a lot after this started but there were also the start of threats and coaching, we’ll get into trouble, we won’t be able to see each other, your parents will hate you and send you away, no one will believe you. Hammered over and over into my head alternating with I love you, you’re special, you’re the only one. I was panicked that I wouldn’t be able to see him and that I would be separated from my family. I wanted to be the only one. Not one of 4, not the loser of the grandkids, but the one. There were rules to follow and if I broke them or made a mistake, I was punished. Slapped on the side of the head, hair pulled, thighs pinched, legs punched. Nothing that left any marks. I made more mistakes as time went on and he would be distant, push me away and not say the lovely things he had. I would beg for forgiveness, I’ll do better, I’m sorry, please. I started to have stomach aches and couldn’t concentrate in school. I was 8 by this time and went to the nurse every day with a stomach ache. Her office was a safe place. She called my mother to ask if everything was ok at home and I was told not to go to the nurse unless I was bleeding. I never went to the nurse again.

He was always changing, I never knew what he’d be like but I wanted the old way back and every time I went, I would hope I would be good enough to have him love me again. Then for a while he was sweet and kind. The first time we had sex I was 8. He took me to an apartment building, I have no idea where. He had a special gown and had me take a bath. When it was happening I looked at the painting of fruit on the wall and heard the tree branches scratching at the window. I was in the painting, away from what was happening. After, I remember being in a bath again and it was full of blood. The bathroom was a 70’s blue and it turned the water purple. I cried with my hands over my mouth because I didn’t want to upset him. I remember after him brushing my hair and humming to me. He taught me how to use toilet paper to cover my underwear so it wouldn’t get ruined and what to do if it did. He said, you’re my beautiful special girl and gave me a bracelet. I still hear the scratching at the window in my nightmares.

Once it started, there was no going back and this is the second part of why kids don’t tell. We get too far into a hole and don’t have the skills to get out. We haven’t said anything up until this point so who would believe us? Plus, the same stuff is getting pounded into our heads love, special, only one, don’t tell, you’ll be alone and no one will love you. The sex continued in school, both during and after when I was supposed to go to afterschool activities, and in his car. It was painful. I never complained. If I bled, he punished me and called me a pig or a bad girl. He would push me away and tell me he didn’t want to be near me. I was devastated. I was ashamed of my body and my face. I thought I was ugly and wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I punched my legs. I had a dollhouse and my dolls acted out the sex I was having. There was a ‘bad room’ and a ‘bad bed’. I had a swing set and used to swing for hours. It lulled me out of my body. A body that no longer felt like it was my own. I know now I was dissociating because the stress was too much but back then, I just knew I could curl into myself and escape for a while. I swung so much over the next few years, I wore through 2 swings seats. I started to see a dark shape that followed me everywhere and gave me nightmares. I called him my darkman and at night I’d see his fingers creep across my rug to my bed. I had nightmares and wanted to sleep with my parents. The darkman still follows me today.

I’m 9. I never felt well and my stomach still hurt. I would get this thumping in the back of my head. I was always alert, waiting to hear him come down the hall. I would hear the clock tick tock in the classroom and it would be so loud, I thought my head would explode. The darkman would wrap around the clock and I could hear him laughing at me. Near the end of 4th grade, the sex slowed down and I thought things would go back to the way they were before. Why? Because kids aren’t smart and don’t have life experience. One day he came for me and brought me to a different place. It was a room in a basement. There was another man there and I was expected to have sex with him. I did not know this but figured it out when he started to take my clothes off. The teacher stayed and masturbated while this happened to me. I was confused and felt like I had betrayed him. I kept expecting him to jump up and help me. I didn’t want to do anything with anyone else. I remember a total of 12 men I was brought to meet and sometimes he stayed and masturbated and sometimes he left. All in the same room. Some wanted to have sex, some wanted to masturbate, some wanted me to dress up in things they brought, some wanted to take pictures. I was drugged on 2 occasions. There was one man who I encountered the most, a total of 6 times and he was without a doubt a psychopath and a sadist. He hurt me in ways that you could not comprehend.

The abuse stopped when I was 10. 4 years had gone by and I was a different person.

By this time, I was numb. I was so good at pretending and having a fake face, you could have asked me a 100 times and I would deny being abused and you would believe me. I had fits at school where I would cry, I never wanted to sit Criss cross apple sauce because I thought everyone would know I had had sex. I would need to go to the hallway until I calmed down. My 5th grade teacher said she needed to call my mom and I was terrified that they knew and she would send me away. Sometimes I would stare at my schoolwork and not be able to see what was on the paper. The kids started to stay away from me, I was weird and felt very alone. I had UTI’s and bad stomach pain. I still couldn’t sleep and the darkman was breathing down my neck. I still hit my legs. My dollhouse playing got more violent and I set one of the windows on fire. I cut the hair off my barbies and blacked out their eyes. I hated them and their bodies. I hid them at the back of my closet. I swung and listened to music for as long as I can. From the outside I was a normal, if not anxious kid. I did well in school. I was quiet. I was invisible.

This story is not unique or even interesting but it brings up the same question: why didn’t I tell. The reason is that when you ask why we don’t tell, we can’t. We been love bombed or threatened or are frightened. There are times when I did want to tell but didn’t know where to go or who to tell. It was too complicated for my little brain. Then, I was too far into it and felt like I was part of it. That I’d get blamed and get into trouble. Then there’s hope and hope is probably one of the most powerful things to a kids. I hoped again and again that we would go back to the way it was at the beginning. That if I was good enough and made him happy he would love me again. There’s another part, I didn’t want him to get into trouble. I loved him 100%, with all of my heart. He saw me when no one else did. He thought I was special and picked me over everyone else. I would never betray him. He always came and got me from the room. He always saved me and brought me closer to home. How can you not love someone who saves you? That love is more powerful than anything else.

So, people have questions and they have doubts about our stories. It true that I have no proof, just my word. Also, is my memory perfect? Nope, there are some things I remember pieces of, like slices of glass or just smells or lights. Survivors are just as hard on ourselves as others are. We ask ourselves: am I making it worse than it was? Why can’t I just be normal and get over this? Why did this happen? How long do I have to suffer? How much am I to blame? How long do I have to be punished? These questions haunt me when I’m trying to unsuccessfully sleep. There is no answer. There is no upside to us sharing our stories. No one gives you a metal for having survived trauma. Most of the time you’re shunned, told to be quiet, or not believed at all. I have terrible symptoms of PTSD, nightmares, insomnia, crippling panic attacks, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, stomach pains, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, avoiding the public, fear of strange men, irritability. Who would want to live this way? I still have to work and take care of my family. No one lives your life for you and no one wants to talk about my trauma except my amazing husband, a patient therapist and a best friend who understands when I flake out of her. These are my people and I’m lucky to have them. Trauma is a life sentence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, people have done amazing things because of adversity in childhood but it’s still a lifelong thing. It flares up when you least expect it and smacks you in the side. Why we don’t tell and why we stay with our abusers is complicated and not everyone will understand. That’s ok. Thank whatever higher power you believe in that you never had to go through it. We’re not all that lucky or have the luxury of being doubtful.