WTF Monday: “Good Therapy Has Got to Hurt”

Only a little while ago someone told me “good therapy has got to hurt”. She had been through therapy herself. Her statement seemed to imply that the level of pain might be a measurement for the quality and success of the therapy. And while I kind of get where she came from . . .

I don’t agree. In fact, I could not disagree more. I find that put that way the statement is actually dangerous.

It is true that good therapy can involve painful moments. In most certainly will, in one way or another, if struggling with painful things is the reason why you see a therapist in the first place. But that is not the same as saying it “has got” to hurt.

To my ears that statement promotes an attitude that encourages people to disregard the fact that they are hurting, in order to endure it for the sake of “good therapy”. That’s dangerous. Especially for people who are traumatized.

To my mind easy does it. Learning to be sensitive towards my emotional pain and to take it seriously. Learning how to gradually expand what I can take, sure, and facing difficult things, too, but not to the point that I go on, maybe even looking to hurt, feeling like it has to hurt in order to be effective. Or even feeling like it is okay for other people to deliberately induce pain in order to “help”.

I believe that pain, inner resistance and feeling defensive, that all those have a reason. That it is important to look for them in therapy and in recovery. That it is important to listen to what they have to say. And that it is important to find a balance between the challenges of therapy, the facing of things and the working through issues on one side, but also periods of rest and periods of recovering one’s strength. And that it is important to listen to what I feel ready to face.

But most of all, I believe that the whole ‘good therapy has got to hurt’ nonsense makes way for mistaken (or worse: sadistic) therapists or other do-gooders to push people more than is healthy for them. The “you have to face this / endure this / experience this, in order to get better” reasoning.

Sure, it might be true that facing, enduring or experiencing things will help me get better. But I find it more than a bit unhealthy when other people want to control the pace, when they push, when they try to be in charge of when or how that happens. I have met a lot of therapists or other well-meaning folks who tried to do that in the past. Who tried to manipulate me during therapy. Who tried to convince me of things I allegedly “had” to do or face, never minding my inner resistance to go there. But this attitude that ‘good therapy has got to hurt’ makes, in my opinion, way for a whole abusive mindset. The whole ‘don’t talk back, do what I say because it’s good for you’ reasoning. I am allergic to that. Seriously allergic.

Easy does it. I wish people would realize that in order to recover and heal, my wanting it and my feeling safe and strong enough and ready to face is key. I don’t want anything if I feel pushed or manipulated. Seriously, who would? Would you buy from a salesman who you feel is manipulating your thoughts and feelings, who is pressuring or pushing you and who is imposing his idea of what you should buy on you? Or would you rather buy from one who helped you understand the characteristics of what you are about to buy, gave you their opinion about the advantages and disadvantages, but then left the decision to you?

Easy does it. Especially in therapy. It doesn’t “have” to hurt. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it’s in between, but it should never be the point itself of therapy to cause pain. The level of pain is not what determines if the therapy is good. It’s just something that can come with it, but at the same time something that should never surpass a certain level and certainly is no value in itself. Whether therapy is good or not depends on how well it is tailored to the needs of the person who receives it. And on how respectful it is. And how well the therapist manages to take me, my feelings, and my thoughts seriously as an equal partner in my journey towards betterment, and who needs to CONSENT, before therapy goes anywhere. Period.

I really dislike quasi-abusive mindsets and stupid, pseudo-educated attitudes masked in ‘wanting to do someone good’. Shove the pain up your ass if it’s so wonderful, but don’t tell anyone they need to do the same! (Or, more sensibly, be my guest to review the necessity of shoving anything anywhere. Whichever pleases you more.)

Just wanted to get that off my chest.
*Steps off soapbox.*  😉

An Eating Disorder That is Not About Food

I sit down for breakfast. It’s a routine. It’s what I do when I enter the kitchen in the morning. Always.

„Cereal?“, mom asks.

She’s standing in front of the kitchen counter, her hand on the cupboard door. It’s only a pro forma question, my bowl is already sitting on the counter. It’s what I have on most mornings. But seeing my bowl, my throat tightens. I shrug. Shove the problem her way, make her decide, make it be her fault.

She doesn’t take it.

“Take your time. Let me know if you made up your mind.”

I glance at the bowl, look down at the tabletop and shrug again.

“Nothing. I’m not hungry. I’ll eat later.”

Mom takes her own breakfast over to the table and sits down. Strokes my shoulder. Smiles.

“Having a hard time eating?”

I nod.

“What’s up? Do you want to talk?”

I shake my head. Don’t want to talk. Don’t want to think. Just want to not eat. I know she’ll let me. For now. I have one free shot. And we start the day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lunchtime. Mom made a salad with chicken. I’m a tad hungry. Which makes me upset. I don’t want to be hungry. I don’t want to eat. I don’t deserve to eat. So instead of finishing setting the table like mom asked me to, I sit down with the table half set and start to cry. Glance at the fork and get mental images of stabbing my forearm with it. Of dragging the tines across the scars that are already there. For a moment it takes my mind off the salad.

It takes my mom about five seconds to notice.

I hate her for it. I hate that she comes over. Hate that she let’s the salad be salad and sits down with me. Hate that she cares. Why can’t she just let me be, only for once?! My life would be way less complicated if she didn’t muck around in it all the time. But at the same time I want her to be there. Had she not noticed, I would have made her.

When she reaches out, I shove her hand away. Twice. Three times. But she gets a hold of me anyway. Because I let her. Because it’s all part of the ritual. Like it is part of the ritual that she pulls me onto her lap and puts her arms around me.

I curl up. Make myself small. And cry more. Angry tears, because the whole world sucks, because it is difficult and unfair and has salad with chicken in it and because my stupid body betrays me by being hungry.

My anger eventually leads to sadness. Mom knows and waits me out. She talks when I’m done being angry and start being sad.

“What is going on, kiddo? What is giving you a hard time today?”

I don’t reply. Don’t know what to say. There is no single thing. Just a bunch of crap. I don’t deserve to eat. But she already knows that’s what I’m thinking. That’s always what I’m thinking when I don’t eat. She strokes my hair, kisses the side of my head and with her really gentle and warm mom-voice speaks into my ear.

“What age feels appropriate, baby?”

I have an easier time answering this one. The question is familiar. It feels safe. She is asking for how old I feel, emotionally. I close my eyes and after a brief internal evaluation raise four fingers. Mom takes my hand, kisses my fingers and nods.

“The world is a one scary and exhausting place when you are four and have to deal with all those big, tricky things, isn’t it?”

I nod.

“Does it feel like you can’t do it good enough?”

I nod again.
Mom strokes my wet cheek.

“I can imagine that that’s just how it feels. But you know what, baby? You are doing mighty fine for four years old. It’s simply a bit big a task for a little girl, dealing with all those things. That’s why I’m here to help you.”

A pressure within my chest, one that I hadn’t even noticed being there, eases. I feel like I can breathe a little better. Like maybe I’m not doing so bad, after all. I stop crying.

“You’ve been trying really hard, haven’t you?”

I become aware of how exhausted I feel and nod. Mom cuddles me and smiles.

“Yes, I can tell how hard you are trying. You are doing a really good job. You have not had a major breakdown in quite a while. You are holding yourself together admirably for a four-year-old, even when it’s hard. And if it gets too hard, you let me know. That’s just what you are supposed to be doing.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Greetings from the land of EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). I had salad with chicken in the end. I am going to have dinner. I am feeling better about myself again, remembering that even when I’m struggling, I’m doing good for where my emotional development is at.

I am also making the millionth mental note about allowing mom to talk about my not eating with me the first time around already. Or heck, even tell her. But it’s difficult, so I don’t know how many more repeats I’m going to need until I manage.

Ideas for Coping With the Holidays Despite Mental Health Issues

Making Christmas Fun

Since I’m already struggling with the looming calamity that’s called Christmas, my mom suggested I write down my ideas for making it a better experience than in previous years. So here we go, my ideas.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Idea 1: Let’s keep it simple.

I have an (adopted) grandmother who would love to make any new Christmas the biggest and most glamorous family Christmas that the history of Christmases has ever seen. Yup, the same grandmother who still calls me “that girl”. But the more fuss, the more I am afraid of messing up and spoiling it for everyone. So let’s keep it simple, please.

Idea 2: Let’s keep some familiar routines.

Our routines mean a lot to me. I like to know what happens when. I know many of our routines don’t go well with the holidays, but losing the routines is really hard for me, and if we could maybe keep some of them at least, it would probably help.

Idea 3: Let’s have breaks from the family / alone time with my attachment person.

Having everyone there is stressful. I fret that my mom will like everyone else better than me. That I won’t get what I need. I’d like to have breaks from that, breaks that I can spend alone with my mom, so I don’t get too overwhelmed.

Idea 4: Let me know that you know it’s hard for me.

Okay, I don’t really need to suggest that to my mom, as she’s already doing that, but I want to say that I appreciate it a lot. It really IS hard, even to prepare for Christmas, and it’s giving me all kinds of stress. Having my mom acknowledge that even when I’m functioning on a level way below what would be expected of someone my age, I could be doing much worse and am actually working hard to keep up even this low level of functioning.

Idea 5: Let’s gently watch out for nice moments together.

I tend to get preoccupied with everything that does not work out, goes not as planned, with what I’m not good enough at, and with negative feelings that arise. While I hate it when someone tries to shove all that’s good in my face and tells me to appreciate that instead, I think I could use some gentle prompts to find out what things I do like, what I am doing well, and what feels good about the whole Christmas deal.

Idea 6: Let me know I’m not alone, but have a go-to place for all that’s sad, too.

Again, that’s something I don’t really need to suggest to my mom, but as it’s important for me, I write it down anyway. I tend to keep my struggles and sadness to myself for too long, because I don’t want to spoil the holiday for anyone. Which works until I can’t cope anymore and stop caring about everyone else. So it’s really helpful that my mom is sensitive to how I feel and gives my sad and troubled feelings space, too.

Idea 7: Let me know that if I can’t take any more of it, that’s okay, too, and help me with a face-saving escape plan.

Just what it says, really. I’m very worried I’m going to look like a baby or like I’m totally incapable or retarded or something in front of everyone. That’s horrible. Knowing that if I absolutely can’t take it anymore, I can get away from it all in a way that feels safe and does not make me look terribly inept, would help enormously.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That’s what I came up with. Do you have ideas that help you cope with the holiday season?

How Commitment Made All the Difference

As I am reflecting on the progress I am now making, however slowly, I often look back at all the years that I spent in health care before. At all the years during which I went nowhere and the only thing I ever got was worse. So much that by the time I was chosen for family care I had been put on several psychiatric drugs, secretly self-medicated with benzodiazepines and alcohol, self-harmed almost daily and felt like my life was empty and basically over anyway.

I had been receiving therapy and mental health care for eight years by that point. I had lost track of how many therapists, case workers, social workers, counselors and doctors I had seen. Lost track of how many times I had failed. At everything. At life.

Looking back the turning point was my family care placement. Not because of the family care itself, I believe. It was a pilot study, and two others girls who I saw in group for a year hated their experience in the whole thing, one even dropped out. I believe the study has since been discontinued altogether. It doesn’t matter. It was not the thing itself that helped me.

So what was it that helped me? That I went off meds? That I went through a several-months-long benzo withdrawal and eventually came out okay at the other side? That I received therapy? Individual therapy? Group therapy? That my mom is a shrink who knows her stuff?

I suppose all those things contributed. Some more, like being clean now, that mom knows her stuff and that I finally found a good therapist. Some less, like group therapy or the previous therapists. But in themselves, I don’t think they are what made the crucial difference.

I believe that what made that difference for me was that my family committed to me. I don’t know what drove them to commit to a crazy person, but they are a good kind of crazy themselves, so maybe that’s why they did it. And what a difference it made.

What IS commitment, you might ask. It’s actually quite simple. It just means being dedicated to something (or someone). Like, truly dedicated.

I was not used to anyone ever committing to me. In the world as I knew it, bad people abused me or played games with me, good people tried to help me, but in the end good and bad people alike would move on. I provoked it, too. Abandonment issues and all that. I behaved in ways that were sure to annoy or hurt or alienate others. I played games with them when I could, played people off against one another when I could, or was just plain nasty. Anything that forced them to show their “true colors”, that they were going to abandon me, just like everyone had done before.

Contrary to everyone else before, the family that I got matched with was different. I behaved like I always did. I tried to push them away, tried to alienate them. I hated them and tried to force them into hating me. Into abandoning me. But all that I met was them sticking to me. Like super-glue. With sticky tendrils. The more I kicked, the more they stuck to me.

I hated it.

And at the same time I loved it.

I can still hear my mom’s voice in my head like it was yesterday, forever saying: “I can see it’s hard. I can tell you are not fond of me at the moment. I’m not fond of your behavior either. We are having a bad time. But we’re in it together and we’re going through it together.”

And they didn’t just say it. They meant it. I acted up so much they had to hospitalize me. But they stuck with me. I turned into 60 inches of unpleasantness. But they stuck with me. I ran away from them. But they claimed me back. And stuck with me.

Not in a self-sacrificing, guilt-inducing martyr way, but just in the hands-on ‘we-chose-this, and we’re sticking with through the hard parts, too’ way. And as time went by, I stopped testing their commitment so much and started to have some trust in our relationship. Me, who never trusted anyone.

That was the turning point for me. I started to feel like how I did actually mattered to someone. That they truly cared about having me in their life. That they are not giving up on me. That they put their faith in me and refuse to accept that I can’t do better. And that they care enough to patiently show me how to really DO better.

Mind you, I still have lots of moments where I hate them and doubt them and hate myself and doubt me and feel like they are going to want to get rid of me for sure. But so far each and every one of those moments has been one that eventually only reinforced that they will stick to me, for better or worse.

  • They place my emotional needs over their convenience.
  • They spend time with me when they could spend it on other things as well.
  • They listen to me.
  • They take me seriously.
  • They include me.
  • They don’t shove the responsibility for my behavior away from themselves, but teach me how to improve.
  • They are patient and catch me when I slip.
  • The stuff that I can’t yet do alone, they do for me.
  • They draw closer when the going gets rough.

That’s what commitment is. That’s what made all the difference. I started to commit to them to. And to myself. And my recovery.

My Childhood Home

My therapist thinks it is time I start to collect and organize my thoughts regarding my childhood a little better. She says it’s important for people to have a coherent life narrative, so they can make sense of their history and ultimately move on. She likened life to a book with many chapters where the story only makes sense and feels fulfilling when the chapters are in the right order, when all the important chapters are there and when they feel like each integrates into the rest to make up a proper narrative instead of a jumble of random pieces.

I struggle a lot with that. I have lots of forgotten memories and my life feels less like a proper story and more like a bulletin board with various snippets on it. Instead of a sequential order, everything is kind of there alongside each other. Which means that I tend to get disoriented in time, making the past feel like the present, for example. So I can see how working on a coherent life narrative is probably a good idea.

For starters my therapist suggested I focus on matter of fact things, as I remember them. So I suppose bringing the memories I have of my childhood home together to make one picture might be a good starting point.

I remember our home to be a small one story house squeezed between other houses that looked the same. It had a front and back yard and both were full of junk, stuff like a broken down car on blocks instead of tires, metal parts, dumped furniture and other large trash. Except to the front where the road was, the lot was fenced in by a tall wooden fence, much taller than I was. That’s the part that I remember well, what was outside.

Inside is trickier. I spent some time trying to put the pieces together and draw what I remember and this is what I came up with:

ChildhoodHome1

Where the red line is, that’s where the front door was in my memory. You stepped into the living room and it was divided into the part with the sofa and a part where a table was. Opposite the front door was a door that led to the master bedroom and my room and a bathroom.

What I remember was that the floor was light brown and somewhat speckled. I think it was a linoleum floor. In my memory there are no rugs. I don’t think there was one. My mother was obsessed with keeping things neat and clean and linoleum could be wiped down, so I suppose that was why it was there.

The sofa seated two and was green. Green corduroy, I believe, with a large white doily over the back. I remember because I used to stare at the corduroy to escape my body, in favor of getting lost in the pattern of fine lines. To this day I hate corduroy. I’m certain the doily was my mother’s doing.

The wallpaper around the entire house was blue and patterned. I believe it even was a little darker than in my picture, and I never liked it. I don’t like blue as a color.

And then there’s something that is curious and that I can’t quite understand. In my memory there were two tables. One was in the living room, right there where drew it in the picture. It had four reddish chairs with metal legs and what I believe was a grey Resopal tabletop. That table was where we ate. But then I remember a second dining table in the kitchen. That one was round and also had four chairs.

I don’t know why I remember two dining tables. Some memories make it seem like they existed at the same time, and I suppose they must have, because while I clearly remember there being a round dining table in the kitchen, I don’t remember ever sitting at it. I only remember eating at the other table. The only thing I remember my mother doing with that round table was wiping it down, actually, or sitting at it while she drank.

The kitchen was behind the brown beaded curtain. I remember it being small and off limits for me. I only entered it when I had to. If I didn’t have to, I would only ever pull the bead chains aside and peek in.

Against the wall behind the dining table that we actually used there leaned a narrow sideboard. I don’t remember what it was used for, only that there was another doily on top of it on which stood a little bowl with a lid. The bowl was where my stepfather put the money he gave my mother.

But what I remember more clearly than the sideboard is the picture that hung above it. It had geese on it and they were flying over reeds or cattail or something. The way I remember the picture it was mostly in grays. I didn’t like it. I think I was envious of the geese who could fly, but since they were frozen in mid-flight, they also annoyed me. I used to stare at the picture when we ate at night, because when my stepfather was home my place at the table was opposite the picture. Strangely, I only ever remember sitting there when he was home. When he was not I used to sit with my back to the sideboard. My mother’s place was always at the end of the table that faced the kitchen, and my stepfathers place was on the opposite end. That never changed. Only I seem to have switched places depending on whether my stepfather was home or not. I wonder what sense to make of that.

The way they had divided the table – my mother at the kitchen end and my stepfather at the other – was true of the way they divided the house, too. In my memory the kitchen was where my mom lived in the house and the sofa belonged to my stepfather.

Because of my mother, the house was always kept meticulously clean. As cluttered and messy as the front and back yard were, inside the house it was the opposity. Nothing was ever lying around. My mother allowed for no visible mess whatsoever. The only thing that always lay around was my stepfather’s pack of cigarettes. My mother smoked, too, but she kept hers in the kitchen, I don’t know where.

That is what I remember our house to have been like. The rest, the master bedroom, my room and the bathroom, I still have a much harder time remembering. I recall snippets, but somehow they don’t go together to make proper pictures yet. So for now this is all I can describe.

I must say that it feels weird and vaguely threatening to go there again, even when it is only in my memory. I can feel that there are lots of shadows lurking there, threatening shadows. I suppose they are memories of other things. Bad things. But for now I feel safe enough, so all is well. And who knows, maybe it is time I face the shadows, little by little. I want to try to.

What Having Boundaries is All About

What boundaries are NOT.

What boundaries are NOT.

Okay, so finally I have found a topic on which my thoughts don’t continuously scramble away like a bunch of scared chickens the moment I try to reach for them! Three cheers for that!!

The topic my thoughts seem to stay together for is that of boundaries. In my post Dealing with someone who has BPD – dos and don’ts as I see them, suggestion #8 was: have reliable boundaries.

I just realized that what I mean by “having reliable boundaries” is probably not self-explanatory. Especially as there seem to be many weird ideas around regarding what boundaries are or are not.

Quite often I have encountered people who understood setting up boundaries to be synonymous with “I make rules you have to stick to”. For the longest time that was what I understood boundaries to be, too. And for just as long I had trouble respecting them. For example the so-called boundaries other people put on me included:

  • Don’t self harm!
  • Eat properly at mealtimes!
  • Don’t verbally abuse people!
  • Don’t run away!

See a pattern there? They’re all rules that tell me what to do or not to do. That’s often what people consider having boundaries to be: Making up rules and enforcing them. But guess what?!

  • I self harmed a LOT.
  • I didn’t eat properly.
  • I was extremely verbally abusive.
  • I ran away.

All those so-called boundaries just begged for that. They beg for someone to say “well, make me, if you can!” and finding ways to sneak around them. Because they all have an implicit “or else” attached to them. Which makes the Borderline part of me feel incredibly insecure. Or else what? Or else you won’t like me anymore? Will kick me out? I just NEED to find that out and know for certain. So I crossed all those lines people drew in the dirt and called “boundaries”.

It was only after I moved in with my family and lots and lots of reflecting and talking that I finally understood that that was not at all what having boundaries was about. Those rules were just that: rules. Artificial rules set up to control my behavior. But that’s not a boundary. That’s a dare.

So what ARE boundaries then? In my family I learned that boundaries are something people *have*, not make up. I’ll give you an example of my mom’s true boundaries on the same subjects that the above rules covered. They are:

  • I will put you under supervision and investigate if you self harm without letting me know beforehand. If your destructiveness gets out of control, I will do what is necessary to keep you and everyone else safe. If that means that I need to physically restrain you until you can control yourself again, I will. If that means that I need to call in help, I will.
  • I don’t tolerate not eating. I will investigate if you don’t eat.
  • If you can’t help verbal abuse of yourself or others, I will want to find out what’s up.
  • I take the liberty of temporarily locking the doors if I can tell that you are emotionally upset and at risk of running and I will want to learn what’s up.

Notice something about those boundaries? They aren’t telling me what to do or not to do. I can not possibly break them. My mom’s boundaries just tell me what she will tolerate or not tolerate and how she will react to certain behaviors on my part. If I don’t like her boundaries, we can talk about it, and she can explain why she has them and why she enforces them. But I can not possibly break one.

I can openly say that I don’t like all of her boundaries all of the time. The eating boundary, for example. On some days I dread mealtimes because I know that if I won’t eat, she’ll want to talk. And beforehand it often doesn’t feel like talking would help, even when it usually does in the end. But even when I really hate her boundaries at that time, I can not do anything to break it, because they are not MY boundaries, but hers, and she is sticking to them.

So what are boundaries? They are statements about what you will or will not tolerate and how you are going to react to situations. Others have no choice but to accept them or live with what you will do if they don’t. They don’t tell others what to do, but tell others what YOU will do.

People who have healthy boundaries make me feel safe, because there’s no element of threat there. Just certainty and orientation that lets me know where I stand and what I will meet if I do x, y or z. Rules feel like others want to control me. Healthy boundaries feel like they care.

Happy Saturday everyone! 🙂

On Comfort Food, an Eating Disorder and Exercising Moderation when using Symbols

Comfort food

As I am writing this, my mom is getting ready to make me a bowl of Cream of Wheat. All day long the stupid Cream of Wheat has been on my mind and the longer the day went on the more I craved it. So much that I eventually started to cry because we didn’t have any at home, like the world was going to end because of that.

Cream of Wheat is a comfort food for me. It’s what I used to eat when I still lived in my childhood home. It’s one of the good memories. On lucky days my mother used to make it for me when I was little. Nobody else ate it and she made it only for me. Probably only because she had to keep me fed somehow and it was cheap and quick to make, so when we had it, that’s what she made, but the reason didn’t matter to me. It was special. It was the best thing in the world.

If I could, I’d still be eating it way more often than I do. It’s what love tastes like to me. Love and being cared for and being lucky. And looking back on my life, there were times when it was the only thing I would eat. (Hello, eating disorder.) The staff objected a lot. But there were entire months where I rather starved than have anything else. And I mean anything.

I don’t have it nearly as often nowadays. Am not allowed to, because of the fine line between using and abusing something. I am prone to tilting toward the latter.

Unsurprisingly, comfort food is less about the food than what it stands for. It’s a symbol. In my case it’s a symbol for being loved and cared for, for a lucky day and being special. So you might wonder “well, those are good things?! So what’s wrong about having it? Treating yourself to good things ain’t bad, right?! After all Cream of Wheat is hardly bad for you!”

And I suppose that’s true. I guess the problem it is that it remains a symbol.

Symbols are nifty things. The best thing about them is that we can make them our own. We can be in control over them. I believe that is what temps me so much about it. I have the power to make Cream of Wheat, if I want to. I can determine when it happens, how it happens and in what fashion it happens. It’s safe. It’s independent. It’s controllable. Those are darn tempting things for me. I happily settle for that if I can.

So much, in fact, that I tend to reduce to it. And that’s where the bad comes in. While it is a good symbol for sure, it is, at the end of the day, only a symbol. It’s only Cream of Wheat. It’s what it stands for that I crave. What it stands for are the real things: Love. Being cared for. Feeling special to someone. Feeling lucky. Those are relationship things. All of them. So in reality relationships are where to look for them. Because while a symbol is better than nothing, the real thing is were true satisfaction and fulfillment comes from.

It’s easy to forget that, because the real thing is also scary and unpredictable and more intense and holds the power to harm or go away. That drives me toward the symbol. But at the same time I understand why it’s important to resist the tug and turn toward the real thing instead.

I guess that is why my mom insists on making me the Cream of Wheat, instead of letting me make it for myself. To get the relationship back in. And why she insists on my not having it too often. Like, every day. So I don’t pseudo-satisfy my emotional needs. And why she insists on figuring out what’s stressing me today. So I can learn to solve that, instead of blanketing it with porridge. Reasonable, I suppose.

But first I’ll have Cream of Wheat now. After all moderation doesn’t mean to dispense with it altogether. 😉  Yum!!

Ideas for Dealing With Dissociative Symptoms – What Helps Me and What Doesn’t

Dissociation1

Dissociative Symptoms are something I am continually struggling with. For me they most frequently include

  • emotionally disengaging from situations – I am present and notice what’s going on, can talk or do something, but I have no emotional response other than “whatever” about anything. Or, if it’s more extreme, I feel not even “whatever”, but absolutely numb, like a robot just reacting mechanically when prompted in the way it’s been programmed to. When the disengagement is more extreme, I still kind of notice what’s going on, but my talking or other reactions slow down or stop altogether.
  • staring off into space – I am losing track of whatever I am doing and just stare. Sometimes it’s conscious and I know I’m doing it, but can’t look away from that invisible point or I don’t want to stop staring. Other times I’m not aware of doing it while I’m doing it, kind of like you are not usually aware of being asleep while you are asleep.
  • feeling disconnected from myself – I stop being convinced that my body really belongs to me, that I am really me, that this is my voice I am hearing, or that it is even me doing the speaking.
  • daydreaming – I am away in my mind, entertaining thoughts of whatever. It’s similar to the staring. Sometimes I am aware that I am daydreaming but can not or do not want to stop it, other times I am unaware that it’s happening.
  • partially disconnecting with the world around me – I am notorious for temporarily losing my senses, like genuinely not hearing someone when they talk to me, not seeing something I should be seeing, etc. It happens especially often when I get only one single sensory cue. For example I will be more likely to hear what my mom says if I can see her talking to me, too. But if she’s outside my field of vision and hearing is the only source of telling that something is even going on, I often don’t hear anything.
  • forgetting things right after they happened – I am equally notorious for this one. It happens all the time that my mom tells me I that I had just answered her, but I have no memory of having said anything or what we were even talking about. Or that I look down at my hands holding something and I have no idea I ever picked that up or why I did and what I wanted to do with it. Often I find myself in some place around the house and have no idea why I went there. For example mom sends me to get the mail and tell her okay, and then I suddenly find myself at the door and have no idea why I am at the door, if it was for a certain reason, or how I even got there and certainly no memory of having talked about getting the mail.
  • blank spells – I lose entire chunks of memory at once. I have blank spells for most of my childhood abuse, but also perfectly ordinary seeming things. For example I just discovered that I have next to no memory of the day I went hiking in the mountains with my family last summer. Nothing obviously bad happened, mom says I seemed to have enjoyed the trip, there are pictures of smiling me in hiking clothes on the mountain, but while I have a vague sense that yes, it could have happened, I lost the memory.

Dealing with those dissociative symptoms is an ongoing challenge. That’s why I thought I’d make a collection of my thoughts regarding what I find helpful and what doesn’t help me at all. Here goes. I’ll do the unhelpful ones first – they’re easier. 😉

 What I find UNHELPFUL in dealing with dissociation: DissociationN

  •  others trying to get me to “snap out of it” – I have had people touching me, shaking me, speaking loudly or even yelling at me and I found all of that extremely disturbing. Imagine someone letting a police siren blare right into your ear to rouse you from sleep. It stresses me, and feels like catastrophe is about to strike. So it’s a big bad fucking idea.
  • others becoming scared by it – I suppose it can look creepy, especially when I get an empty stare or my reactions slow down or stop altogether. I have had people get really nervous about it, unable to stand watching me be like this, and the more scared fuss they make, the more it feels safe to stay the heck away.
  • others getting mad and acting like I do it on purpose – I can’t count the times when people have been upset with me over not having heard something, forgetting things or not giving them the reaction they desire. I can’t count the times I have been told to “get my act together” and stop acting dumb/silly/whatever. It’s not helpful. I often have no control over it and getting mad at me for something I can’t control is stupid. How would you feel if someone got repeatedly mad at you because your hair is too short for their liking? I can understand that it’s annoying to deal with me dissociating, but getting mad at me for it, for something I can’t just change, is not going to help.
  • punishing me for dissociating – I have had people tell me “tough shit” or “forget it” when I had no memory of something that had happened, probably thinking that if they didn’t indulge in enlightening me or something I’d pay better attention next time. Not working. Again, it’s not something I do on purpose.
  • getting left alone with good advice – A lot of the time I was taught a technique (counting things, naming x number of things I could perceive with my various senses, giving my senses strong input…)  and then told to use it and that’s it. But it’s not that easy. Having a tool is good, but being left alone with operating it is a bit much.
  • making me stay in distressing situations – often I dissociate more severely in response to something stressful. I have had my share of people thinking I should “brave it”, thinking it would desensitize me and help me see that the situation is not threatening or something, but instead of doing that it only reinforces that staying dissociated is needed in order to stay safe.
  • beating myself up over dissociating – I used to get angry at myself or disappointed or discouraged over dissociating. Suffice it to say that that’s not helpful at all.

What I find HELPFUL in dealing with dissociation:DissociationY

  • present, calm and no-fuss reactions – dissociation might have become a habitual reaction and can happen without any obvious current outside stress, but it is a stress reaction nonetheless. The calmer and safer my environment, the easier it is to get out of it.
  • patience and understanding – I know it’s annoying when I dissociate in inconvenient moments, when others need to tell me the same things again because I didn’t hear it the first time(s) around, when I can’t remember something that just happened or when I become absent in situations where you’d rather I stay present. It’s annoying for me, too, and I am working on dissociating less frequently. It’s helpful when I meet patience and the understanding that this is a hard task.
  • being made aware in a respectful way – I am often not aware I am dissociating, and getting asked “honey, are you listening to me?” or “Are your feelings there?” can help. In the same way it helps if someone notifies me of dissociative behavior. A simple: “You are staring into space. Are you okay?” or “Can you look at me, so I can see if you are registering what we talk about?” can make a difference.
  • gentle orientation – when I am more severely out of touch with the world and try to come back, I often have trouble getting my facts straight. What reality do I go back to? In my case there’s often a certain insecurity about where I am, how old I am, who I am with etc. In those cases getting casually told and affirmed of what reality I am seeing and returning back to helps.
  • help with applying helpful strategies – I can do the counting or naming sensory input or giving myself strong sensory input, but I can’t always do it on my own. Gentle prompts help.safety – if some situation stressed me into dissociation, I need to get away from that situation. I need to feel physically safe and emotionally safe.
  • engaging activities – sometimes the most helpful thing my mom does is engaging me in something fun, something energetic or something that is likely to elicit a positive emotional response. Music works well. When I am having a longer period of time when I repeatedly slip away from the here and now, she’ll often put on music for us to dance to, or suggest a game of playing tag, or anything else that helps me be more involved with what’s actually going on.
  • reassurance that someone wants me back – this one is very simple, but really helpful for me. My mom keeps on telling me that she wants me there with her, all of me. That she wants to have me back. I struggle with feeling wanted, so this makes a big difference, even when I can’t immediately react to it in the situation.
  • learning to read the internal signs – nobody can help me do that one, because it’s only about me using the cues I get from the outside to take notice of what’s going on inside when I am starting to dissociate, so that I get better at telling that it’s happening.
  • wanting to remain present – this one is also something I can only do on my own, obviously, but it’s very helpful. Actively fighting dissociation when I notice it, actively wanting to remain present, actively wanting to remain in touch with what I feel and being motivated to keep on working towards remaining present is one of THE most helpful things for me.
  • actively creating safety – this is an important and very effective one for me. Noticing what’s going on and wanting to remain present are good and well, but I need to feel safe in the situation I want to remain present in as well. For me creating safety often means to seek out mom. Or it means to talk to her about something that is bothering me. Or it means to remove something that is bothering me. And of course looking for ways out of situations that are more than I can take.
  • becoming aware of and actively trying to hold on to feelings and to expand what I can take – this ties in a lot with safety. The safer I feel, the more I can consciously try to stay connected with what I am feeling and to tolerate the presence of the feeling.
  • keeping calm, being patient and tolerant of failure – this is the one I struggle most with. In trying I will obviously slip up and fail a lot and if I am not tolerant of that and of setbacks, I will not be getting anywhere. That one is so easy to write down and so hard to do. But I’m still trying, so I guess I’m still good.

Phew, long post, and that’s all for now. For all of you who are struggling with dissociation, I’ll be happy to hear what you find helpful or unhelpful for yourself!

🙂

A Day in My Life – what my regular days look like

I enjoy learning how other people spend their ordinary days, so I figured I’d describe how perfectly regular days of my own usually go.

6:45 a.m. – I get up. Mom usually wakes me, because I’d not mind sleeping longer. Unlike at night, I can sleep okay in the mornings. Mom still wakes me, because if I don’t get up early, I have a hard time going to sleep at night and after a while my sleep-wake cycle would shift and eventually turn around to only going to sleep in the early morning hours and sleeping until the afternoon. But that’s not healthy, so getting up at 6:45 it is. It’s usually a slow waking up over the course of ten minutes, because I’m grumpy in the morning and don’t like to get up and start the day.

7:00 a.m. – Every other day I shower and get dressed. Well, shock, I get dressed every day, actually. 😉 I get stressed if I don’t know where my mom is, also I feel vulnerable all naked in the shower, so my mom usually in the bathroom with me while I get ready.

7:20 a.m. – Mom and I sit down for breakfast. On the weekends dad has breakfast with us, but on weekdays he has already left for work by 7, so on most days it’s just my mom and me. Since eating can be such a struggle for me and neither of us has anywhere to be, breakfast can take a while. If all goes well it’s the two of us eating and making plans for the day. If it doesn’t go so well it’s me crying over a bowl of cereal or burying my face in my arms and ignoring the world. On those days breakfast is not so much about eating but more about troubleshooting while mom eats.

8:00 a.m. – we put the dishes in the dishwasher and go about whatever we have planned for the day. Often that means housework for mom. Just regular stuff like laundry or vacuuming. If it’s that, I either fetch my laptop or mp3-player to be nearby while I do my own stuff, or we talk about whatever or I help her. If I’m having a bad day, I tend to annoy her on purpose to share the misery.

10.00 a.m. – going shopping. I like going grocery shopping and shopping for household stuff, so we do it pretty much every day after deciding on what we’re having for lunch and supper. It’s weird that I enjoy going shopping for boring stuff so much, but it’s reassuring and feels safe. It’s most probably a result of having grown up in constant need of basic stuff like enough food and everyday items, due to most of the family money turning to booze and cigarettes. Seeing that money turns into food and other necessities now is reassuring. We usually take our time when we go shopping.

11.30 a.m. – we return home and mom fixes us something for lunch. Like from scratch. All of mom’s cooking is usually from scratch. Occasionally I crave something from a box like mac and cheese, but even that she’d rather make from scratch if I didn’t insist on the box. That was one of the hardest things to get used to, actually, mom’s insistence to spend so much time cooking and stuff tasting different than what comes from boxes. She reasons that if we put good quality, healthy food into our bodies, we’ll have good quality, healthy bodies too, and if we put unhealthy junk into our bodies, our bodies will turn into unhealthy junk bodies, and I suppose it makes sense, but for someone who grew up on convenience food it was quite a thing to get used to.

12:00 p.m. or whenever lunch is ready – we have lunch and plan the rest of the day. Right after lunch and cleaning away the dishes is usually quiet time where mom reads and I sit down to read others’ blogs and write for my own. Or I watch some TV. Depends.

1:45 p.m. – on days when I have therapy we go to therapy across town. I see my therapist, F, and mom is either with me during therapy or waits, depending on how I am that day. Afterwards we drive home again. On days where there isn’t therapy this is time for doing things outside the house, going places, even if it only means a walk in the woods behind the house.

3:45 p.m. – we return home and on most days we’ll have a snack.

4:00 p.m. – mom and I have playtime. Yes, we really call it that, but we could also call it quality time or whatever. It’s my favorite time of the day. We spend it doing things together. Anything really. Often we actually play, stuff like board games or cards or I may roam through my siblings’ old toys up on the attic and we’ll play with what I find, or we just play hide and seek in the house for a while, even tag or some rough and tumble game occasionally. Or we don’t really play, like when I’m not in the mood, but mom gives me a massage instead, or we cuddle and talk, or she reads to me, anything really. On days when I feel low I’m reluctant and don’t want to have playtime, but especially on those days playtime often turns the day around after a while. Dad usually returns home from work during our playtime and pops in to say hello before he goes to his study to finish work stuff that he didn’t do at the office.

5:30 p.m. – mom gets ready to cook supper. Dad either helps her or asks about how our day was and talks a little about his, if he can. He can’t usually say much, as he’s a lawyer and the whole client confidentially thing is in the way, but I’m not really interested in stuff about court and law and stuff anyway, so that’s just fine with me. I usually help a little with making supper, like by cutting up stuff or stirring.

7:00 p.m. – we sit down to have supper together, mom, dad and me. My least favorite meal of the day, as mom and dad usually talk about boring things, but yes, I know, their turn. It’s okay.

7:45 p.m. – we’re usually done with supper and cleaning everything away and start the evening. It’s “everyone does whatever” time and usually takes place in the living room. Mom and dad often talk. Sometimes we watch TV. Or everyone plays something together, like a board game. Or dad still has work to do and goes back to the study and it’s only mom and me, doing whatever, either by ourselves or together.

10:00 p.m. – I change into my pajamas and get ready for bed. Not because I already go to bed, but because once I’m ready we’ll do quiet time. I have trouble calming down at night, trouble with feeling relaxed enough to allow sleep to come, and it helps to end the day with something calm and reassuring. Cuddling, talking about the day, sometimes reading or listening to music. Eventually moving from the living room to the bed.

11:00 p.m. – the time after which I try to fall asleep.

 

That’s what my ordinary days look like. At least if they are days without drama. When there is drama of whatever sort, our usual activities get cancelled or interrupted for dealing with it. But without drama, that’s what goes on. It’s probably not very exciting for most people and many would probably be bored by following the same routine every day, but to me it’s really important to have that. I get really upset inside if the routine gets interrupted by something, or if changes need to be made. I like predictability and I like to know what my day will be like and that it has structure. For me that’s part of feeling safe. I’d even say it’s therapeutic.

Talking Abuse

As you might have guessed by yesterday’s poem (if you read it), since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about the abuse by my stepfather and my mother’s tolerance of it more often. Maybe it’s my birthday and the Christmas holidays drawing nearer, they always put me in a glum mood and put thoughts of my birth family into my mind.

Whenever there is a major holiday, memories of days long gone intrude, and also I can’t help wondering about my mother, what she might be doing. Like how did she spend Thanksgiving? Did she see anyone? Does she live with anyone these days? Or did she just get wasted by herself, the way she used to whenever it was only her and me and home. My stepfather died in jail . . . is she mourning him on holidays? And does she ever think of me?  Does she ever wonder about what I might be doing, the way I wonder about her? And when it’s my birthday, does she think of me? Or does she not even remember?

I don’t know why those thoughts would matter – after all I haven’t seen her or heard from her in what will be eleven years in January, and I have my family now – but I can’t help thinking them nonetheless. And from those thoughts it’s only a small step to memories of abuse. I have a hard time thinking about the abuse with my feelings switched on, but it kind of works in the form of poetry, so that’s what I did.

I talk about it with my mom, too. That’s semi-emotional. She doesn’t usually allow that I split my emotions all the way off, but knows I can’t take too much and that I am afraid of getting overwhelmed by the memories if I stay too connected while we talk. So it’s always a struggle to find that fine line of the degree of emotional involvement that I can still take. Sadness is a surprisingly okay emotion. So is feeling disgusted by myself and the consequential self-hate, although we work on putting that into perspective.

I’m not used to making a difference between a person and his or her actions, but I need to learn to do that, so that’s what we’re working on when we talk abuse, too. That I learn to feel disgusted by the things I had to do, instead of feeling like a disgusting person. I still need help to be able to do that, because my borderline ways don’t really like considering such things, but with help it’s okay. Like how my mom helping with keeping my feelings of self-hate from developing their own momentum by bringing back to my attention the difference between who I am and what I did. That makes talking abuse easier.

So does feeling safe. I do not usually feel physically safe when I talk abuse. It feels as if talking about it had the power to bring it back for real, back into my life now. It’s irrational, but I can’t just shake the feeling of impending threat off, like people who are going to abuse me are going to step out of the shadows once I talk about the abuse. So in order to be able to talk about the abuse at all, I need to be able to watch the doors and the room itself to see with my own eyes that there’s nobody there, and I need to feel physically safe. Being close to my mom usually makes me feel safe and like she would protect me, just in case the threat was real. I mean I know it’s not, but well . . . just in case.

So it looks as though altogether I am going in a good direction. Which is nice. Especially at a stressful time like the holiday season.

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