Luck, Unluckiness, and What’s Old is Now New Again.

Perhaps one of the hardest things about being unemployed and living with complex PTSD is how quickly the old patterns of thinking can re-enter my consciousness. It’s impeccable – and frightening. If it can be said that our thoughts are a precursor to our actions, then the negative thinking that I’ve reluctantly embraced is leading to some evidently low level, self-destructive behaviour.

It’s tough. Everyone wants to feel like they’re needed, like they’re useful. It’s no different for me, either. The trauma I want so desperately to be rid of seems lately to be robbing me of the belief that I have something worthwhile to contribute, more now that I am unemployed than before. And it’s stifling. I find myself going in to fantasy, getting to bed later, eating junk foods that are consumed at a cost to both my hip pocket and my health. I’m talking to friends less too, and feeling frightened at the prospect of leaving the house. I’m bunkering down for a storm, and I’m going in to survival mode. Notably, none of it is helping me to deal with my adult problems.

And if I do leave my house, I leave my body too. I dissociate. Maybe this is the hardest part about C-PTSD. The disconnection that accompanies any circumstance that is merely perceived as threatening or overwhelming. I catch myself becoming adamant that I can’t cope, that I won’t, and that I refuse to, too. Every situation becomes evidence for my hyper-vigilant, outspoken Inner Critic that I’m not faring so well. The “See? I told you that you couldn’t cope!” storyline plays on repeat. God, it’s irritating.

Such toxic thinking. The world of a trauma survivor is apt to get claustrophobic quickly without the necessary tools to manage this feeling of collapsing and shrinking in to oblivion. And even then, it ain’t easy. Intellectually, I understand that I am simply feeling overwhelmed, and that if I just bring myself back to the present moment and do the next best thing to take care of myself, I’ll probably be OK. The path to recovery is at times a nightmarish paradox: do the thing that feels most frightening and you’ll thrive; stay present at all costs, and it’ll pass. So this is what I’m doing, to the best of my ability.

Numbing out is a fantastic strategy when you’re small, helpless, and reliant on giants to provide your safety and your broader needs for touch, emotional nurturing and physical safety. But what happens when they’re not met? What happens when such caretakers are narcissistic? Or abusive? Emotionally volatile or manipulative, and physically violent? I won’t speak for all people who grew up in domestic violence family systems, but I know that for me, I became an exquisite ‘dissociater’ at the slightest hint of confrontation or perceived threat. I jumped ship, so to speak, and abandoned myself with record-breaking rapidity. The reality back then was too painful because, as it turned out, the giants entrusted with ensuring my basic survival needs were the very ones threatening them. Thus, numbing my senses seemed like an entirely sensible thing to do!

It’s tough, and a little bit tragic, too. Because I know that the degree to which I felt unsafe as a child directly correlates with the amount of energy I now unconsciously put in to numbing out to survive. That’s the tragedy: that I must have been thoroughly terrified, and consistently so, throughout my formative years. The tough part is that a very dominant part of me still sees these strategies as totally viable and effective ways for dealing with all types of threat, be they proximal or distant, physical or abstract. It makes being gentle on myself hard, and creates in me a sense of incongruence which is unnerving and uncomfortable. And while outwardly I’m looking for paid work, I know I’m already holding down the full-time job of re-wiring my hyper-aroused brain with self-soothing techniques. You might say I’m doin’ double-overtime, and the penalty rates ain’t payin’ dividends just yet.

Changing these patterns is a lifelong process that requires support, hard work, and a lot of good luck. Threats to where I live and the prospect of working yet another stressful, underpaying job that underutilises my intellect and my potential make it hard to feel safe, and hopeful. This is where I’m at right now: finding and creating zones of safety in which to heal. Even starting a job that draws on my strengths is stressful because it brings up traumatic feelings and self-defeating thinking patterns from eons ago which, if not managed well, lead to overwhelm all over again, to quitting, and to the despair of being right back where I started.

So you see, it’s a really tough gig. I see it as an exercise in being broken down and re-created each time I fall and have to pick myself up again.  A stable place to live, as well as a regular income from a job that affirms my personal philosophy and draws on my experience, is a by-product of recovery from trauma that protects me from relapses. Such things, though, are also pre-requisites for recovery. Herein lies the frustrating injustice of a person suffering under the sticky label of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. I’m fortunate enough to be able to articulate this, though as yet such eloquence hasn’t eased my burden or magically secured me a stable dwelling and a vocation that makes my heart sing.

There’s hope, though, because I’m a stubborn mother. In spite of growing up in a traumatic and unforgiving family system, in spite of the empty promises of a broken mental health system and in spite of the ill-offered advice from psychiatrists, with their over-emphasis on medicating feelings and ignoring the body’s wisdom, I’m still here, still being broken and still being reconstructed; the best is surely still to come!

Constipated Hanks and the Mini-Breakthrough

I’ve had a mild breakthrough in the last few days. Or maybe it’s a big breakthrough? I’ve been feeling the lows, don’t get me wrong. And the anxiety-induced highs that come with the acceptance of an uncertain future, too. But something in me has changed. I felt it shortly after an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) session with my psychologist. At the time I was watching Spielberg’s delightfully intriguing and naturally well-done Bridge of Spies – you know, the one where Tom Hanks looks constipated about 86% of the time? (I love you, Tom Hanks. Sorry for the dig).

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I came in to the movie late because I insisted on purchasing lunch beforehand. And so immediately prior to my mild awakening I sat in a darkened theatre room, munching on dim sims and a sausage roll simultaneously – much to the dismay of my fellow moviegoers. If they could have seen the apologetic look on my soy-and-tomato-sauce stained face, I’m sure they’d have been forgiving. Or disdainful. But alas, I digress.
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Something in me changed. I felt it. I couldn’t be sure what it was, but it was something. Something clicked over. Quick and subtle and barely perceivable, but it happened. Am I cured of my complex PTSD? Ha! The thought of a rookie in recovery. No, not cured. I know I’m not, because I continue to be triggered in to flashbacks, experiencing the same thoughts as before this mild awakening.
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But the feelings that accompany the distressing thoughts…they’ve changed. Or maybe it’s my evaluation of them. The feelings are still felt as an intense energy, a force. But they’re not life-threatening. “But they never were! Feelings can’t kill you! I hear you say with mild amusement. Well, no, feelings can’t kill you. But the traumatic circumstances that led to the intense feelings for the C-PTSD sufferer could have, perhaps. So the feelings were a memory of a more life-threatning chapter in a very old book.

But now, something has changed. I find myself waking up in the morning, my Fear Brain kicking wildly at the ghosts of trauma past. Though now, my rational, heaven-sent higher consciousness takes over shortly after, scanning the room calmly to remind me that I’m safe. “It’s Here and Now, and you’re free from the past,” it whispers to me as I fall back down to earth from the dizzying heights of anxiety.

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One of the many gifts of hard work in recovery, I suppose. My advice if you’re still struggling with mental illness? Keep going. Perhaps there’s no foreseeable cure, but it is a universal law that if you work hard, you’ll reap the rewards. Maybe not right away, but you will. Winston Churchill was right when he said, “If you’re going though hell, keep going.”

Onwards and upwards!

 

Hope is a four-letter word.

Hope, they say, is a four-letter word. Or maybe they don’t say that, I’m not sure. It is a fact, though. H-O-P-E . 1, 2, 3… Yep. I spoke to a mate yesterday and he applauded me for the hard work I have been pouring in to my own recovery over the last year.

“I hope it pays off,” I said with some trepidation. Visits with a trauma specialist (that ain’t cheap), daily yoga in the morning along with a quick read from my meditation book, catching up with and calling friends regularly to check in with my emotions, running my own mental health support group, exercise, maintaining a part-time job.

This stuff isn’t easy for people who live with complex PTSD. And it requires a great deal of faith, too. Faith that you’re putting in enough time and hard work to see results that you want to see. But there’s a fine line between faith and expectation. I gotta keep a close eye on my expectations; they’re not always rooted in reality.

Doing something just because I want a result, you know? Not an uncommon phenomenon. The abovementioned routines I engage in are worthwhile simply because they’re good for me in the moment. Regardless of circumstance, I need to keep doing them. My old life can be characterised by inaction and self-destructive habits. But not my new life of recovery.

It may take time to reap the long-term benefits of these routines – such as maintaining a sense of calm when starting a new job rather than being flooded by flashbacks that result in my compulsion to quit. Or pursuing a job that genuinely taps in to my passion and feeds my curiosity and creativity – and that pays butt-loads.

But I know that I need to love myself, with all my faults and all my ailments, now. Not some magical time in the future when things are all better – that’s my fantasy rearing its head – but now. So my hope for today is that I can be gentle with myself in spite of the approaching uncertainty in my life (because life will be always be uncertain).

Here’s to hope and positive action in recovery!

Relapse Exhaustion and the Waiting Game

I hadn’t felt like doing too much last weekend. I had an interview – my third with the same company – last Friday. It was a practical interview, focusing on my ability to write within a timeframe. To be honest, I felt very triggered doing it. Something about deadlines gets my heart racing.

Some bad memories associated with it, I suppose. There’s nothing like a good trigger to make you question how far in your recovery you’ve actually come. Being severely triggered is like a huge fucking hangover after a drinking session, but without the drinking.

Honestly. The weekend that followed, I woke up and I just wanted to go back to bed. But I couldn’t. My fear brain was switched to ‘on’ on Friday at the interview, and I’ve been working to switch it off ever since. Remember my first post about complex PTSD? About seeing a lion in the bathroom? That’s what I’m working with at the moment.

So when I rolled around in bed on Saturday in a state of inebriated anxiety, all I could feel was my heart pumping, pumping, pumping blood in to my stomach and surrounds. And all I could think about was the future. But not some idealized location or place of heightened achievement or success.

Just doom. It wasn’t pleasant. So how did I get through it, I hear you ask? Well, I just sat with it. Or, if you want to get all literal on my ass, I just lay with it. I just lay there in bed and let it wash over me. All that horrible anxiety and fear and impending doom, I just let it be there.

When I found myself going in to fantasy – thinking about the past, or the future – or worrying about my apartment lease or my job or the prospect of actually getting this writing job (which terrifies the shit out of me), I just came back to my body.

I felt it a lot in my stomach. In my throat, and in my chest and lower back, too. And it’s important that I know where I feel it, because that’s where my trauma hides. The feelings are associated with things not getting better. They have a timeless quality to them, something that feels as though I will be stuck in it, and with it, forever. Like a nightmare, you know? This is complex PTSD.

Like a nightmare. But, like most nightmares that occur in bed, this one passed too. Which I’m really grateful for. One day at a time. One step at a time. Things do get better. But slowly. For me, recovery really is about learning to associate negative feelings and overwhelming thoughts with a pervasive sense that things will be OK. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

It can be a slow, slow process. But such a worthwhile one. Stick in there if you suffer from C-PTSD!

Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

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“It’s OK, I guess.” – Official Book Review

I do lots of reading in my active recovery from complex post traumatic stress disorder. This morning, I noticed a book on my shelf that I hadn’t read in its entirety the first time round, titled The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, by Ted Zeff. The book is a guide for highly sensitive people (HSPs) whose nervous systems are easily flooded by external and internal stimulation, such that daily life can become unmanageable. As a sufferer of C-PTSD, I can totally relate.

For the longest time, I couldn’t comprehend why the thought of attending a nightclub, with its subwoofers and flashing lights and mixed drinks, seemed like an endurance trial rather than a fun night out. Or why a work colleague’s perfume – while probably aromatic to others – smelled overpowering and nauseating to me. Or why, when under the glare of fluorescent lights, I sweat like a 90 year-old European man in speedos sunbaking on St Kilda Beach. The ‘What’s wrong with me?’ tune starts to play, ya know? Surely I shouldn’t be like this.

"Sweat moisturises the skin. It's science, baby."
“Sweat moisturises the skin. It’s science, baby.”

The book itself is OK – not good, not bad. So-so. I thought that a lot of the suggestions provided were intuitive. If, for instance, you are sensitive to bright lights, avoid them, or wear sunglasses. Or if you’re sensitive to loud noises, wear headphones…Or avoid them. So the advice in the book goes.

To be fair, some of the advice is useful. But looking over the pages this morning, I remember why I wasn’t impressed the first time I picked up the book. I am glad, though, that such a book exists. It comes as a relief to me and those like me who’ve always struggled with loud noises and bright lights and strong feelings. Not wrong, or bad. Just different. It’s officially a thing, being a highly sensitive person. And that’s OK.

In our “Type-A”-driven society, with deadlines, multi-tasking, making money and meeting KPIs, it’s good to sit back and reflect that it’s OK for me not to be like ‘them’ – the sensation-seekers or, as the book affectionately dubs them, the “non-HSPs”.

Indeed, in my own recovery, sensation-seeking has correlated highly with numbing out or avoiding my pain rather than just sitting with it and processing what’s happening. It’s a bit of a fine balance, as you can imagine. On the one hand, numbing out is counter-productive to recovery from C-PTSD. On the other hand, being a highly sensitive person means oftentimes I just have to avoid the overpowering stimuli to remain sane.

Recovery thus is a nuanced process that takes patience and time and intuition. But maybe you already knew that, too? If you think something is amiss as you wonder the brightly lit city streets, or feel positively frazzled by the seemingly impossible deadline your boss has given you at work, perhaps Ted Zeff’s book is for you.

And perhaps you, too, are a highly sensitive soul just trying to find your way in the this crazy-complex maze of a world. And that’s OK – don’t fret, and take courage! You’re not alone. There’s literature out there to help you make sense of it. And probably support groups, too, filled with similarly-souled individuals eager to bitch about those inconsiderate souls who breathe too loudly, or who wear Brut cologne like it’s 1937. Others may not notice these things, but as highly sensitive people, we do. And that’s alright.

Complex PTSD: An Experiential Explanation

Yesterday, I had a panic attack. The day before that I had two. Today, I’ve been leaving my body a bit – dissociating. I’ve had to take special care to remain focused and centered. And that’s been a real task. I also need to call out that the last few days, I’ve thrown out my regular sleep patterns by getting to bed later than usual.

The negative undercurrent that oozes through and around my mind’s eye is probably apparent to others: I avoid social conversations, I isolate, and I crave carbs. Jesus, how I crave carbs. And sugar. Gimme gimme gimme! Give me something that will make me feel something other than fear and anxiety about the impending doom! So the story goes.

And my thoughts get darker. My imaginative mind, my addiction to fantasy has been thrashing wildly in an effort to get me to bite. I’ll be honest; this week I have nibbled on occasion. How could I not believe the stories my mind tells me about “The Future”? If I feel horrible now, so the logic goes, then how can it possibly be better in the future? Recovery, a part of me thinks, must involve no negative emotions whatsoever. Ha! For years, this logic has been fed in a dank little room in the corner of my mind.

I find myself shutting down when I get like this. I suppose “healthy” people just deal with the anxiety. They acknowledge it, and they moderate their feelings by exercising and talking to friends. They drink smoothies with green shit in it and, I imagine, they pronounce the word “quinoa” without betraying a sense of self-consciousness for sounding like a snob. They take action and they get over it by dealing with it.

“It’s pronounced kin-wah. Idiot.”

It’s a slightly more complicated story when you have complex PTSD (C-PTSD), but the logic of a “healthy” person under duress is the same as that of a person with C-PTSD: You perceive a threat (e.g., stress) and then take steps to reduce your exposure to the threat.

You see, once the C-PTSD brain is triggered, the anxiety felt in the body reminds the brain of what it felt like when it was originally traumatised. And if, when you were originally traumatised, you were powerless to effect change or fight back or escape the threat, your brain does the most logical thing it can do: It tells you to leave your body because shit’s about to go down, son. You dissociate because you don’t want to be present to what’s about to happen to you.

Many times after experiencing trauma earlier in my life, I can recall quiet but panicked moments where I thought: “It’s OK that that happened to me; it’s not my body anyway.” A psychology degree and the consumption of countless books on trauma later, I now know that this process of disowning my body is called dissociation. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to deal with circumstances that are too painful or overwhelming for the mind to process at the time.

Fast-forward 20 years later, however, and the brain is still remembering and now responding to emotional stress in the same way it did then. It doesn’t know how to distinguish between threats any more, and given the severity or the frequency (or both) of previous traumas, it does not want to or know how. Better safe than sorry, right?

The lovely irony about having emotional flashbacks and about unconsciously using dissociation to cope with them is that the brain is employing an adaptive survival mechanism in a situation that does not warrant its use anymore. As an adult, a person with C-PTSD has resources they can access which they simply could not have had access to as a child, when the traumatic experiences occurred.

But when the brain cannot distinguish between threats (e.g., emotional abuse versus, say, not having a job in February), and only knows how to use one or two coping mechanisms that it’s used it’s whole life, how is it supposed to know about and access more adaptive resources? It’s stuck in the moment of trauma from yesteryear.

“Oh, you’re worried about losing your job? Here’s some physical memories of trauma from 20 years ago to help you cope. You’re welcome.”

Example. A healthy, well-adjusted person such as yourself might walk in to the office at work to find that your boss is having a bad day. Your manager, in a fit of rage, yells at you and tells you to fix the report you sent in the previous day. But you didn’t send a report in yesterday and you certainly don’t know what error he’s talking about, because you consider yourself hot-shit when it comes to report writing. So you let it slide and write it off as Mr. Manager having a bad day. You go to your desk, eat your morning burrito, and start your day.

But the person with C-PTSD experiences alarm from the moment they see the manager’s angry face. They’ve walked in to the office and now they’re being yelled at, just like they were when they were a kid. And that’s exactly what they tell themselves too:“It’s happening again.” It’s time to shut down, the brain quietly whispers to the body.

The person leaves their body and maybe even does what they did when they were a kid: they take responsibility and become overly apologetic in a misguided effort to dissipate the threat directed at them. On an unconscious level, they’ve probably surrendered to the familiar feelings of shame and fear and humiliation, too, which are of course the feelings they felt when they were traumatised as a pup (when you are a child, your brain has not developed enough to know that if something bad has happened to you, it does not mean that you are bad. Family Systems Therapist John Bradshaw explains this concept of Toxic Shame brilliantly in his talk Healing the Shame that Binds You.)

It’s not hard to conceive that the person in this example, who experiences re-traumatization in a relatively common work scenario, might begin to view the workplace as threatening, and may in turn seek to avoid it altogether. No job = no more reminders about the trauma. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating quickly, you might have guessed. I suspect that many homeless people suffer this fate as a result of unprocessed complex trauma.

Many people who experience trauma are set up to re-experience it in their houseless environments.
Many people who experience trauma are set up to re-experience it in their houseless environments

So it’s not hard to see why it’s called complex PTSD. Many treatments for C-PTSD focus on getting the person to remain present when they are triggered and to deal with the stress in a more up-to-date, productive way. If the dis-ease and distress that’s experienced in flashbacks is one that sees the sufferer focusing overwhelmingly on events from the past, then the present, and an accurate and reasonable appraisal of it becomes a sort of Holy Grail to recovery.

In my own recovery I do all the things I can to stay present, especially at work. I do body scans, which involves focusing on the different parts of my body in the now. I listen to the low hum of keyboards tapping and the murmur of people talking on the phones in the now. I take time to mindfully touch and study the green leaves of the glorious Zanzibar Gem that sits in front of me on my desk, and I pay attention to the feeling of satiation as the water I drink travels down my throat.

I know my contract ends in February 2016. The uncertainty of it makes my stomach tighten. And the additional thought of having to start all over again agitates me too. A new job means new people, new processes to learn, and new stressors to manage. New threats, the traumatised part of me grumbles. My body remembers the trauma associated with being humiliated in learning environments. Parts of my brain have not yet cottoned on that the trauma I’m bracing for happened literally years ago.

So, Big Daniel finds this all very frustrating and heartbreaking and unfair sometimes. Little Daniel, who experienced the trauma, can’t help but ask: If it happened to me and I didn’t ask for it, why should I have to deal with it?

Early trauma teaches you about the inherent unfairness of life, and from an exceptionally young age, too. It also teaches you about the painful choices you must make if you wish to thrive. It really does put a new spin on the maxim “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Thanks, Tony Robbins.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

At its heart, recovery from trauma is about learning to manage what is. It’s not about lamenting what should or could or might be. And as much as a part of me wants to believe the worst about my future, I have to hold on to the present moment, where change can be effected and where resources can be energized.

I must stay positive (but not delusional), focused (but not stubborn or rigid) and above all else, remain gentle, patient and hopeful toward the part of me that remembers darker times. They are, of course, just memories now.

Peace…and Presence!