Tag Archive | coping skills

What a flashback Feels like and how to cope

What does a flashback feel like? What does it look like?

I had some earth shattering ones yesterday, so the feelings are quite raw and fresh. I am going to attempt to describe the experience. Then I am going to add some research and comments from my counseling session yesterday as well. I don’t know if this is how everyone experiences flashbacks, if this is typical or not, all I can say is this is true for me.

So what happened yesterday that was so triggering? I had an entire day full of doctor appointments, pre-op assessments to prepare for my surgery next week. I actually had very little anxiety beforehand. I was not looking forward to a day of xrays, blood tests, EKG, physical exam, and anesthesia consult, but I had no panic in me.

So we start driving to the hospital, which is a large campus made up of many large buildings. As we get nearer I look up my first appointment desk and see that the building is the one I used to go to as a kid, where all of my pediatric orthopedic visits were when I was 11 and started back bracing, and 12 and had surgery, and then for years after for physical therapy and rehab to get a paralyzed limb walking again. Hmmm.

Although I had been going to this hospital campus for my migraines and back issues, I had not been in this particular building since I was a teenager. Is this enough foreshadowing for you?

So I walked in the building alone, Hubby dropped me off at the front door so I didn’t have to walk so far.

(He dropped me off just like my dad used to do. That thought didn’t actually cross my mind at that point, not consciously anyway. A-hole used to drop me off because he had a job where he was on call on a CB radio and would stay in the car, at work, while I went in for my doctor visits alone. At age 11, leaving me to deal with having severe scoliosis and whatever treatment the doctor said all alone. He always acted like it was the biggest inconvenience to have to even drive me there. He’d complain about the disruption to his day, how he’d be behind at work, how much the doctor was costing him. I always felt guilty and ashamed for having scoliosis, like it was somehow my fault and I failed him)

I made it into the lobby and started looking for the elevators, but somehow I already knew where to go, part of me remembered. I just started walking and got in the elevator. A nice man asked which floor, I smiled and said 2 please, but my lips felt funny when I smiled. Like they were too thick. And I wasn’t sure I actually said anything, but I saw him press 2 and we went up, so I figured the words must have come out of me. But it didn’t sound like me. It sounded like a stranger behind me or something, not me talking.

I got out on the second floor and the view there was like a bolt of lightning. I was going to radiology, the same radiology I had been to a ZILLION times for back xrays to check the progress of my spine curves. It looked the same, exactly the same. It opened up into the loft overlooking the lobby below, I could see the doors where I just came in. I was struggling to breathe, like someone was choking me from the inside out. Or like my stomach itself was choking me by coming up through my throat. I got dizzy, reached for the rail just in time and avoided falling. I’m not sure how long I stayed there. My mind went blank.

(This was a dissociative flashback, I  learned later)

I came back and I was crouched behind the “wait here for next available . . .” sign, shaking and confused. My arms were crossed tight around myself, head down, I was leaning against the railing now, knees bent a little, but not quite squatting or sitting, more like I was HIDING there. Behind the sign.

The clerk called me up, and I snapped to attention, my awareness returning. I shook my head and walked to the desk. I couldn’t think what I was supposed to say to her. She said “can I help you?” and I still wasn’t sure who or WHEN I was. I was looking at my hands and my cane and I was very confused. I saw the desk number and radiology on the sign and said “Is this the right desk?” She wasn’t sure, since she didn’t know what desk I needed, but was very nice to me and asked me my name, which I luckily was beginning to remember. She confirmed my appointment, checked me in, and asked me to have a seat. I did, and started doing grounding exercises.

I have a great app on my phone, called “What’s Up?” that has all sorts of breathing and grounding exercises in it. I opened that up and started doing some of the lists – Name 5 types of flowers (tulip, rose, daffodil, lily, peony), name 5 fruits (apple, banana, mango, papaya, kiwi)…

Hubby comes in then. He does the grounding with me, which is so much better than being alone. Next list is name 5 capital cities (we both crack up…umm, we should probably know some, neither of us could think of anything so we just named BIG cities instead) The laughing felt great. Just what I needed. The swirly head feeling was stopping.

I had the xrays with no major difficulty and proceeded to our next appointment which was back downstairs. We walked back over the loft, into the elevator, got out on the first floor and I froze again. This time I didn’t just feel dizzy and out of sorts. This time my feet disappeared. This time I felt sad and afraid. This time I re-experienced myself walking alone down the stairs next to the elevator, a grand staircase with full view of the lobby and loft. I both saw myself doing this like a movie I was watching, but also felt it like it was happening in real time. It overlapped my reality. Like a dream come to life. I was suddenly 12, carrying a huge package of my own xrays to this elevator, so that my surgeon could see my curves had gotten worse again this month, that the back brace was not slowing the progress of my scoliosis. I was 12, listening to a team of doctors talk about me in the hallway before showing me my films on the lightboard. Listening as they say, Oh NO! Look here, and here, we’ll have to get more aggressive or her lungs could soon be compromised. And then they smile as if I couldn’t hear them outside my door, and they give me news to relay to my dad, the A-hole sitting out in his car, who can’t be bothered to come in with me.

I don’t recall feeling fear, or sadness, or alone. I couldn’t I wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t able to. If I felt those things…I would not have been able to go into my doctor visits. I would have been consumed and unable to do what needed done. So in my memories, I don’t recall the feelings, because I was numb.

But in my flashbacks – now that I’m no longer numb – the feelings are attached. And INTENSE!!!

I thought I was going to die yesterday. The power of the sadness, and the pure terror pumping through me was bigger than anything I’ve felt yet.

I felt the fear and sadness of a 12 year old starting with 2 60 degree curves in her spine getting progressively worse each month, getting told her own back will crush her lungs and heart if they can’t stop it, that the bracing is not working, and that surgery is required and soon. I felt the fear of that little girl doing that alone while her parents were too busy, self absorbed, or too weak to support her. No one held her hand or hugged her. No one sat with her. No one told her it would be ok. No one even looked at her. In fact she was made to feel like a bother, a nuisance for having this dreadful disease, a shameful bother bringing down the entire family with its inconvenience and cost.

I nearly passed out. I couldn’t breathe. I forgot how to breathe and just stopped for a while. I couldn’t feel my feet or hands. My vision was both blurry and focused, like I could see only directly in front of me, but it was with super clarity like a microscope. Is that tunnel vision? And then I burst into tears. Gasping for air, and trying to cry, trying to walk, unable to talk, watching these movies but experiencing them in high-def with surround sound and surreal senses. I couldn’t see the real surroundings with these movies overlapping my vision. I wasn’t sure which people were real, which were memories. I wasn’t sure which me I was – was I 12 or 39? I kept fading in and out between the two ages.

Hubby took my wrist then, kept saying “It’s ok, I’m here with with you, let’s find a chair, I’m right here…”He guided me and I kept having the urge to run! but I was unable, without feet or vision or air in my lungs. His voice I knew, and trusted, and knew it was not a memory, his voice did not belong to me being 12. I followed his voice and let him take to a chair in a quiet hallway. He kind of pushed me into the chair, and told me “push your feet into the ground, feel the ground” He kept holding my hand and wrist and saying he was there with me, that I wasn’t alone. I’m not sure how long it took, but the storm calmed a bit, and I could see where I was again, but still couldn’t breathe, and was still crying uncontrollably. I was trying to do breathing exercises, square breathing is my favorite for calming, but I was unable to count for myself. I asked Hubby to count for me so I could focus. He had never done it before, so I had to teach him so he could then coach me.

In 4, hold 4, out 4, hold 4 – I said in between gasps. Geez I felt like I was in labor trying to breathe in between contractions. This was so hard to THINK!

He started and at first he was way to slow, in……1…….2……3…..4……. and since I was still gasping and hyperventilating I couldn’t come close to his slow pace yet. He sped it up. And said ‘in’ is 1. OH!

he tried again. In..2..3..4..hold..2..3..4..

Yes that’s it. I could feel the quivering in my lungs relaxing a little. His voice sounded so good. The images in my brain were fading and the wall in front of me was getting more distinct.

We sat there counting and breathing for several minutes, not sure how long. Until I could take a deep breath with the quiver and gasp, until I could feel my hands and feet again, until I knew I was 39 and not 12. At one point a nice gentleman came over to us and asked if he could read us some bible verses to help calm me, since I was obviously distraught. We declined, but I thought it was nice that someone was willing to reach out to us.

I stood up and looked over at the lobby, the stairs, the elevator…a little sadness returned, but it is something I can handle now. It is something I needed to know. I unlocked something major yesterday. I got a taste of what I felt growing up, but wasn’t able to feel, what I repressed and locked away so I could survive each day and keep going. It wasn’t safe to feel it back then and I had no one to help me. I do now. I’m safe now.

I made it over to the next check-in desk, a few minutes late for my next appointment, but the clerk there was so cheerful as she looked up my name, and then all of a sudden she started giggling – and shrinking! Her chair was broken and the hydraulic thingy kept making her sink below the desk all day she said, she said someone took her regular chair. Her silly, mundane, human issue of someone taking her chair and swapping it for the crappy one was suddenly hilarious to the both of us as she reached up from her low position and hopped a little to try to see the computer monitor. We both burst out laughing.

It was awesome.

Many people are good and kind. I don’t have to be afraid to talk and interact with everyone. I don’t have to hide my problems, people like to be helpful, and all people have their own problems.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

So the couples counselor was nearly dancing for joy yesterday when we shared this with him. He said this was tremendous progress for us both, shows a level of trust in each other, a willingness to share and learn. And he said that by Hubby caring for me DURING this flashback, it actually negates some of the fear and sadness. He said joy and care are antidotes to fear, pain, and sadness so if I felt loved and cared for instead of ashamed and alone during this flashback, then I may have rewritten some of these memories. Now when I think of them, Hubby and his love and care will also be combined with it, instead of me being eternally alone. That’s why we are supposed to shed the light on the shame gremlins and blast them away with the care of another person – in the moment.

I didn’t realize how powerful that was until he explained it to me. I now have a new connection, a new neuron path that connects loving feelings of safety and care with Hubby to my scoliosis and hospital visits.

Wow.

Almost seems too easy, or impossible. Then I thought about the dream/nightmare imagery, how I’ve been able to think of new endings to some of my recurrent dreams with visualization and imagery. This is a similar process, only it works in reverse to rewrite history and lessen the power or recurrent flashbacks instead of nightmares.

I found a book by Joyanna Silberg, The Child Survivor: Healing Developmental Trauma and Dissocation.  I found an excerpt (page 201 of Silberg’s book shown below) where she discusses the time machine technique. But basically the technique involves imagining the scenario of the flashback but instead of just remembering it, you add something to it, make a change. My counselor said it can be something minor, like make your face green, doesn’t have to be as drastic a change as this. In this book, the author has children imagine they have superpowers and change what happened to them, or imagine saying something they wish they really had said. I see the power and value of this method to get unstuck, to break free of the memory rut. If you change the memory, you have broken that worn path, it no longer exists. You can’t change history, it won’t change what happened to you, but you can change how you think about it, and maybe stop reliving it. Really, once was enough.

silberg time machine

So last night I started imagining that instead of going to my doctor visits alone, my best friend went with me and we played cards in the waiting room. One trip I imagined I brought my dog with me and we played frisbee in the huge open lobby, I watched her running up the grand staircase. I tried to imagine that one time the doctor said I was all better, that my curves were getting better in stead of worse…but I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I can erase and rewrite the bad. But I can add in some good. I can add in some hugs and hand holding, and chocolate milkshakes. I can add headphones and imagine I was hearing great music instead of dad’s horrible words. Just imagine his mouth moving and not hear it – replace with umm, let’s see, age 12…I think I was into Madonna, Prince, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Tiffany, INXS, Guns N Roses, Phil Collins, Whitesnake and the entire soundtrack of Dirty Dancing nonstop from the year before. Both my cassette tape and my video tape were getting worn out. Patrick Swayze…Sigh.

Shut up Flashbacks. Nobody puts Baby in the corner!   🙂

Patrick Swayze will now accompany me in all of my flashbacks. Can’t hurt. Really can’t hurt. May not help a thing, I’ll let you all know how it goes. Next time I think of walking on that grand stair case at the hospital maybe it can look more like this.

Challenging beliefs, cpt example, social anxiety

Saturday was a doozy of a day. One of those days that takes me days to recover from and process it all. I used to recover by disassociating, stuffing the bad feelings down as deeply as possible, distracting myself and moving on ahead as if nothing happened. Like whatever, its fine, it doesn’t matter.

After attending my group therapies, 3 dbt followed by 3 months of cpt, I have new skills to use when these doozy days arise. First I use breathing and mindfulness to stay grounded and present to avoid disassociating. I tune into the bad feelings instead of run away from them. Well mostly. I’m not quite an expert at this yet. Some are still overwhelming and all I can do is bring myself back to the moment later. Next I fill out my challenging beliefs worksheets. If I’m out somewhere, I write a note in my phone and work on it later. Or like today, the events were so big I need no reminder, I know I need to do a worksheet. So I thought I’d do it here and share my thought process.

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Saturday morning started with an argument with Hubby, quite painful and ugly. That will need a separate post and worksheet and I’m not ready to delve into that yet. But it sets the stage for huge amounts of tension between us. It was his only day off this week and he was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of tasks he had to complete. I thought I would get the kids out of his hair and take some tasks off his list.

I decided I could handle taking them to the library and to a playground, it was a beautiful uncharacteristically warm and sunny day. I thought I could also go to the pharmacy and pick up my meds refill. I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to shower. I didn’t want to leave home. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t want to see anyone. I slowly prepared myself, as I do, calmly getting ready, bracing myself, doing breathing and grounding, not thinking too far ahead to get panic, but far enough ahead to do pre-coping skills. I had not showered in a few days again, this is always hard for me in this depression to get the energy and to simply remember to do it. So I was headed for the shower when Hubby asked me if I could pick up some stamps at the post office.

Apparently my face said no before I did, because he reacted so quickly. He pushed his chair back abruptly and slammed his hand in his lap watching me. My throat was closing and my heart was racing as I felt the panic. I had to breath and count before answering, and telling him I don’t want to. He got angrier. He said something like, Fine, Whatever, ya know do what you want to then, I just thought you could help out, but everything is always on your terms, and I don’t understand. Nevermind I’ll get myself after work sometime. Thanks a lot.

My heart sunk. I felt so misunderstood. I didn’t want to hurt and disappoint him. I wanted to be normal and run normal errands and be helpful. I haven’t been to the post office many years. It is a place I avoid. I’ve never admitted this before because then I would have a problem. I don’t want to have social anxiety. I hate places where you have to stand in line and then tell someone behind a counter what you want. Especially when I don’t know the rules, like where the line forms, what the stamps are called, how much they are, will they need ID, will they ask me for anything else, how long will I have to wait in line, will the other people in line start talking to me, I won’t have a grocery cart in between me and the other people…my mind races with these questions and the anxiety takes over before I have a chance to counter it.

I cried in the shower. I do this often. No one knows, and it is such a great release. I also figured out that I could send my daughter in for the stamps with some cash. She is old enough and would actually enjoy it, feeling like an adult. I did attempt this, but turns out the post office was closed when we got there, it was closed when he asked me to go, so the whole thing, all that stress for nothing.

I could do a worksheet on that event, but that’s not the most distressing, so not the example I’m choosing. It does build up to the other one though, so it was needed for backstory.

The library was similar, I send my daughter in with my youngest to help him pick up new books and return the old. I’m walking so slowly these days, they actually offered to save me the pain, and to save themselves the time of waiting on me. win-win. my kids get me.

The pharmacy was uneventful. I have no anxiety in there. I know the rules. I know where to stand, I give them my cards, I tell my birthday, I sign the form, I pay. No chitchat. In and out. Easy.

Now the next part is complicated. Next was a playground. If Hubby was working I would be taking all my kids to a playground together. But since he was home I thought I would give him the option to join us. He likes to play tennis with the girl sometimes. But with our earlier blow ups, and him seeming so busy he would not commit when I left and he asked if I would check in with him after my errands and before the playground. So I did. I sent a kid in to check if he wanted to come. I should have gone in myself because the message got all confused and I ended up waiting forever. The problem here is that the youngest wanted to go this big cool playground and that park did not have tennis courts, so if he was going to play tennis then we had to go separately and I had no reason to be waiting, he could go when he was ready with her.

So he comes out and tries to get in the van and I try to tell him this, and gets upset thinking I don’t want him to come with us. Sigh. I’m just trying to balance needs and make everyone happy and get out in the sunshine. Why is it so damn difficult? He stomps off to his car ending our conversation, I was going to discuss options. He motions for me to go, so I do, and I make to the stop sign and one of my boys decides he wants to play tennis too. OK, fine, hop out and go with dad. So now it is just me and youngest boy off to the cool playground.

Cool playground is crazy busy. I’m happy to see this so kiddo will have someone to play with now. We start walking towards it, and I see that all of the benches inside are full of parents. Here comes the panic again, damnit. I spot a bench on the outside where I can still watch him but sit alone. I send him inside and sit down. Less than a minute passes and kiddo returns in tears. He says he can’t go in there…He doesn’t know anyone.

Oh for the love of mud!! I just want to go home!! Seriously?? Little dude is afraid to be by himself in there without his big brother and sister. Of course he is. This is the first time he has ever been asked to go in without them! But I can’t comfort him. I am angry. I am angry because I can’t help him. I SHOULD be able to go in there with him and run around with him, push on the swing, chase him a bit, help him feel at ease until he meets a new buddy and forgets about me. But the pain in my back means I can’t climb that structure or push him on a swing. And the anxiety means I can’t even go in there anyway, not with the swarms of people today.

Its not fair. I felt like a horrible mum. I failed him. I was able to do this for the other kiddos, but this youngest guy has gotten a defective mum. I couldn’t even hug him. I put him back in the van – by himself so I didn’t hear him cry. I closed the door and stepped outside and sat on the bench next to the van. I couldn’t take it. It was unbearable to be this helpless and defective. It was all my fault. I caused him this pain. I caused all the problems today. All the confusion. All the extra work for Hubby. I was a miserable excuse for a human and I didn’t know what to do to fix it.

I called Hubby. I tried to explain. He was very confused and thought kiddo was being bad, and having some sort of tantrum. I told him he was afraid, and Hubby said I was projecting my own feelings onto kiddo, and that I should tell him he has to go in or I have to take him home. I knew that was wrong. I recognize fear, and it was natural and developmentally correct for his age. Its me that has it wrong for my age. Emotionally my age is the same as this child – I see it so clearly now on days like this. How much I needed my mom to hold my hand and help me.

I couldn’t do it myself that day, but I wasn’t about to let the day end like that for him. I explained to him that it was ok to be afraid but that my back hurt too much to go in with him today. I told him that after my surgery, we would work on him feeling safe there without his siblings, but not today. So I drove him to the other park, where his siblings were, and let him play there a little while. I explained he would not have much time to play now, once I drove there, and he understood, no more tears, and none when we left, even though he only had about 15 minutes of play time.

My sweet little boy is always so happy and friendly,  I had no idea he had any social fear, and that his strength came from the security of his siblings.

So back to the worksheet now that you know the story.

A. My son (and I) are afraid to go in the busy playground
B. It’s pointless to try, bad things will always happen
I will never be understood by others
I should be able to do more
I am defective, broken in too many ways
I am a freak, I’m not like those other people
C. anger-100
helpless – 100
ashamed – 100
sad – 80
confused – 80
guilt – 90
D. Most of column D is usually a duh for me, of course my thoughts were extreme, exaggerated, unbalanced, based feelings not facts, habits, have much more evidence against than for, but these are my automatic thoughts and reactions that need to be challenged and rewired
E. Again when I look in E, I can see the problems easily. I am aware and understand them. I know how many problems I have at this point. I jump to conclusions often prethinking outcomes and conversations that have not yet happened.I exaggerate effects of my actions making them life or death, like I may have ruined kiddos life at that moment by not going into a playground.I don’t think I ever oversimplify, I tend to overcomplicate as I analyze. I’m often mind reading, assuming I know someones thoughts based on body language, like that I already know I’m so different from EVERY parent in there even though I have not spoken to any of them. I’m often guilty of emotional reasoning too, meaning that since I felt helpless I thought I actually was for a moment. Or feeling ashamed does not mean I have anything to be ashamed about – it is a remnant of my past and the ptsd.
F. This is the most difficult and most powerful part of this worksheet. you take your unbalanced thought, what you say to yourself in B, and rephrase it so that you believe it and its negative power is reduced. My first thought ” It’s pointless to try, bad things will always happen” could maybe be “Sometimes when I try my best, it doesn’t turn out as I hoped, but we can all get through it”. The idea is not to be over the top PollyAnna but to use realistic, coping phrasing.
G. Now revisit those first thoughts, are they still so powerful and believable? No, I suppose it does not seem pointless to try. I did not curl up in a ball and give up and abandon my kid. I may not have handled it as gracefully as I would have liked. I may have other problems preventing me from being the mom I want to be right now. But I’m still his mom, and I still found a solution that worked. When I let go of perfection, I’m able to move forward and feel less defective, less helpless. He is ok, he is safe. we have time to work on his fears together now that I know about it. Hubby said he would take him to play without siblings some time. It was good we identified an issue. He may not have to suffer like me, we have time to help him.
H. anger – 60
helpless – 20
shame – 100
sad – 100
confused – 0
guilt – 90
hopeful – 50

So this worksheet can help sort it all out, reduce the power of the confusing, overwhelming, negative emotions, and introduce some empowering ones like hope by reducing helplessness. I’ve noticed my guilt and shame tend not to go down. Need to work on that in therapy with something else. I also feel sad today, it seems to come after the anger passes.

I did this one without my counselor, so it may be missing something, she usually adds really important insight that I don’t have. Next time I’ll share one that I completed with her help.

Horrible Holidays – part 2 – How to cope

An amazing therapy session today. I feel empowered to handle some of the holiday stress now. She found my ruby slippers – ‘you’ve had the power all along dear’. Except when I click my slippers, I will be transported to a mental happy home.

So I explained all of my issues regarding holidays. We decided to tackle the gatherings at MIL’s house first, and scheduled 3 more sessions to work on the issues of my own family of origin’s parties.

So I told her I don’t enjoy these long days of family hoopla. She asked what I’ve already tried.

Well I said, I have 3 choices here.

  1. Go and plaster on my smile and pretend all is well
  2. Go and be authentic and stir up trouble as I speak my mind
  3. Don’t go at all

She says I have a 4th choice. Something I never considered.

 

4. Go and be authentic to myself

 

COPING SKILL 1 – IMAGINE

At first I didn’t understand. She says I am to use my amazing inner world to supplement my outer one. Like I do in business meetings ALL OF THE TIME. I was still confused. I said what about being mindful? She said yes I want you to be mindful, be aware of your stress level, and when it approaches the red zone, maybe even when it is orange or yellow, I am to mentally back out of the situation and imagination a different ending.

I’m thinking Ally McBeal style.

So when anyone starts saying something negative, attacking, selfish, snobby, etc – I will picture them as hippies dancing through a field of flowers and delivering fresh baked goodies to the homeless. Or their big egos inflating their heads like balloons. Or them holding the coveted glowing iphone as angels sing and circle.

I don’t wish to force my values on anyone, and I don’t enjoy judging these people that I should accept as family. I have already tried the path of greatest resistance – I have already spoken up multiple times and they know my stance on these issues as well as I know theirs. So if they insist on speaking about politics, education, or how great the latest iphone is, I will not consider it my duty to scold them, and will instead IMAGINE the conversation taking a different route.

She said just make sure I don’t use it as an escape – it should only be a minute as needed to lighten my own mental mood. I do this when speaking to my boss, but had never considered doing this for my inlaws. I asked my therapist “Is this really healthy?” “Isn’t the same as pretending?” She said no. I will be true to my inner self and wisely choose which battles need fighting. Having the same argument is draining for me, and no net gain will ever be had. I’d be better off arguing my points to the rocks outside, at least then I’d have some fresh air to go along with the futility.

 

COPING SKILL 2 – Breathing Breaks

She said no one has to know I doing deep breathing and counting and feeling my belly rise and fall. I don’t even need to leave the room – which can actually cause more stress as people ‘search’ for me and ask if I’m ok when they find me sitting alone in the dark. A whole house full of extroverts – I’m alien to them. Sitting around the dinner table with one hand in my lap, it will be easy to focus on my breathing and keep my heart rate down and stress levels at bay without causing unnecessary alarm or drawing unwanted attention to myself.

 

COPING SKILL 3 – DIVERSIONS

She said to bring something to do. Busy people are usually left alone. She suggested my camera. If they see me out snapping pics they are less likely to worry or intrude on me. I actually did this last time, practicing my macro skills and playing with lighting – I took 50 shots of her blooming Christmas cactus, some very artsy, and some very standard. And then I share my favorites with them, so my antisocial break turns into a positive social later. win-win. She also suggested I take my sketch pad and some pencils, or some games or crafts to play with the kids.

 

COPING SKILL 4 – BOUNDARIES

I have already set the boundary that we will not spend the night at MIL’s on these occasions. I am trying to also limit how long we spend there – does it need to be 8-10 hours? If so, I need to be afforded extra quiet time before and after the visit to prepare and recover. Some of this is simply giving myself permission for this, not any changes that need to happen other than my own inner critic allowing me to be tired and being gentle with myself.

 

COPING SKILL 5 – CHANGE IT UP

If yz always seem to happen after x – try starting with Q! If MIL always complains about having to make all of the food, but refuses to let anyone in her kitchen to help – tell her ahead of time we’d really like to bring some special dishes this year. Make them in our own kitchen, with whatever bowl or spoon we choose, and bring it along to lighten her load. If certain conversation always lead to arguments, throw out new topics and see what happens – Say did you know anglerfish has bioluminescent bacteria residing in side of them to make the glowy bobber? I’m pretty sure no one will have a strong or caustic opinion about that. Always in trouble for showing up late? Go for breakfast this year. Tradition is one thing – but a rut is a rut.

 

So to sum this up – she does not feel there is any danger or harm in exhausting myself at MIL’s house as long as I take care of myself too. She thinks that it would be harmful to avoid it, both for my own peace of mind and guilt, feeling of belonging – as well as for my kids. She said if nothing else, go and be a part of this wild group a few times a year to model how to do it for my kids. Grumble grumble yes I thought she would say that. pout. FINE.

Actually I am looking forward to trying out my new skills and seeing if I can carve out an introverted niche in the extroverted wild kingdom. Use my powers for good! Let this family get to know me, and love me. Understand I am actually loved and missed if not there. Understand that strong personalities zap my energy, but not my soul. No dangers here, turn off the red alert.

I’ll try.

Mindfulness and depression, part 1

So I have apparently come back up out of a mild depressive episode. Having suffered recurrent bouts of depression most of my life – how did this one sneak up on me and disguise itself?

I think the key word here is ‘mild’. I did not plummet to the depths of despair and suicidal thoughts as I usually do, and so it was quite unfamiliar to me. I didn’t feel terrible, like the slime at the bottom of the bog that will never have hope of seeing sunlight.

Instead, I felt oddly blank. I felt I was spinning my wheels. I had some searching for meaning, like asking “What is the point”? I was overeating. I stopped exercising and felt more body pain. I hyperfocused on tasks to make each day speed by. I had terrible migraines – the kind where you have to check that your skull had not yet actually split open because this level of pain without any physical signs should not be possible.

I started hating my new therapist, feeling annoyed by her futile attempts to help me, and had grandiose thoughts that she was using textbook techniques to help someone that has never been in any textbook. I like to be ‘special’ when depressed because it means I have a reason to feel hopeless – no one understands me – I’ve been hurt too badly – none of these books will help – I am wasting my time

New therapist recommended a book to me, “The Mindful Way Through Depression, Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness” by Willams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn.

My initial reaction? How dare she!! How can she be so thick as to think I am depressed? How could she think this simple book could have any value for me? Doesn’t she understand my complex PTSD, my chronic pain, my disability, so many years of abuse, emotional torture, that I’m special? I was angry with her. Like my children when I suggest they wear a sweater. I recognized my reaction came from my emotional inner child, not a 38 yr old. And I thought hmmm, but didn’t go any further than that for 2 whole weeks. I was feeling stubborn and not going to let her win. Even though I recognized that was irrational, I wasn’t ready to let go yet. My foot was down and my arms were crossed. I may have even stuck out my tongue, that will show her.

She copied a chapter of the book and gave me homework to read it. Well, even though my inner child is dreadfully stubborn, she is also a perfectionist in need of praise and would never slough off on homework, and so I read it – begrudgingly – with my arms crossed and lips pouting. Seriously. Yes I did that. And I hated every word. I poked fun at the examples, at how simple they were, and found a trigger word ‘dwelling’ in there and had to stop reading. I have this reaction often when reading something meant for anyone to read, it feels watered down to me when compared to medical journals. And then I chided myself for being so snobby, just because I understand scientific journals doesn’t mean this is stupid and poorly written. Surely the PhD touting authors were not idiots. Could it be my current state of mind? Aren’t I always telling everyone to be open-minded? My inner child hates to admit when I’m right.

Oh great, here we go. My inner parent showed up to scold my inner child. “You might like the brussel sprouts if you just give it a fair chance . . .”, “It is really good for you if you can learn to like it . . .”

Fine! I’ll read it but you can’t make me like it.

I read it again a few days later, and it didn’t seem stupid. It seemed like experience I have had with my own inner doubts, fears, and spiral into darkness. Hmmm

Here it is a full 5 weeks after my therapist made the recommendation, and I finally went to the library to get the entire book. I read it all yesterday instead of having a Netflix marathon. Actually I did both simultaneously, because well, my inner child does not give up that easily and would only do it if the TV was on.

Most of this book was not news to me, rather it was an affirmation of coping skills I have been using for many years now. Actually I think I may be the most ‘mindful’ girl on the planet for a variety of reasons I’ll get into later. But some things did stand out to me – loud and clear.

First off – being mindful is really being bodyful. Aware of physical sensations that accompany a mood. You are not being mindful if you have a goal for your mood. Examples – you begin a yoga session with the goal of relaxation. You go to a movie with the goal of laughing. You go out to perform on stage with the goal of feeling joy. Emotions can’t be a part of the goal – they need to just happen. Oh dear.

I have been an emotion junkie. I have felt joy, ecstasy, jubilance, loved, only recently in the past few years, and I have been seeking to recreate those feelings and avoid the negative ones. Understandable I guess, after so many years of only negatives, but this is not the balance I thought I was establishing. I can’t command my emotions, I need to experience them as they come and go.

This hit me hard. My dance performances were not as fun this year because I was expecting it to recreate the level of joy I felt the first time –  instead of appreciating the feelings I had at the moment no matter what they were. I had fun – but it did not seem like ‘enough fun’ this time. I blamed myself and I blamed my friends for doing something differently this time – maybe they were tired or not so into it, so the atmosphere had been changed? My emotions were also flattened due to this depressive episode, and the cycle had started. I expected too much, tried to control it and craft my emotions, and found them disappointing or lacking, started wondering what is wrong with me, assigning blame, asking what is the point, and all kinds of other useless monologues in my head.

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or
less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have
problems with our friends or family, we blame the other
person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will
grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive
effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason
and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no
reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you
understand, and you show that you understand, you can
love, and the situation will change”
Thích Nhất Hạnh

I’m still controlling my emotions. But here’s the thing. When so many of them are irrational, or born of triggers and flashbacks that I’m SUPPOSED to control, how do I let go and experience the true ones? I have all these checks in place now to analyze the self-talk, check for cognitive distortions, and revise my feelings to prevent panic attacks or depression being borne of the flashbacks. I’m afraid that these stop-checks are preventing me from fully experiencing the good times – I am always on guard and asking “Is this how I SHOULD feel”, Is this real, am I truly annoyed or am I recalling a time when I felt annoyed in the past, am I truly sad or does this remind me of . . .

So I feel like me again, fairly rational (as rational as emotional humans can be anyway) and no longer stuck in between pouty inner child and scolding inner parent. But I must admit I’m feeling a bit lost and unsure of how to proceed. If the very coping skills I have been taught to stop the panic and depression are preventing any extremes of emotion, then I have to rethink this. How do I let my body run the show, and accept each emotion as it temporarily resides as a guest in my being? No guest wants to be smothered with attention, so no wonder the joy has been hiding from me, fearful it will be tackled and shackled. In fact all of the emotions ran away, refusing to be controlled.

Emotions need to be honored guests, valued, appreciated and allowed to be kept wild and free. Forcing happiness to stick around is like plucking a wildflower – it will soon wilt and wither.

Part 2 I will explain the body component of what I learned from this book, or if not learned, what I am churning about in my confused and exhausted noodle.