Friday, October 14, 2011

Look Ma, No Hands!

"Look Ma, no hands" is my way of saying, "I finally get it."  A bit abstract perhaps, but so is healing from trauma.  Let me explain.

As I have been working to heal from the trauma inflicted on me as a child, there has been considerable pain...(no kidding, right?).  At first I wondered why it was necessary to remember and feel all this pain any way.  I mean why not leave it all forgotten and stored in memory?  I would have liked to do just that...but my body remembered.  This "remembrance" manifested itself as anxiety and somatic pains.  I can't prove it empirically, but I think it was the cause of my autoimmune problems as well.  For these reasons, I decided that I had to feel these memories and body demanded it. 

Lately I started to become frustrated with myself because these memories still hurt.  I thought that feeling this pain and processing it would work in much the same way as grieving a death of a loved one.  You never stop loving the person who is gone, but in time the pain becomes more tolerable.  Yet this trauma pain did not seem to be getting more tolerable.  (I think I am getting stronger and better able to deal with it, but the pain has not lessened in intensity, actually it has gotten worse.) 

Haven't I grieved enough?  Why can't I move on already?  I asked myself in frustration. 

Being an amateur scientist, I had to conclude that if the results were not what I was expecting, then perhaps my theory/hypothesis was wrong.  (That is harder to accept in real life than in the lab, as you probably know...)  So I accepted that this would not be similar to the grieving process.  However, I had no new theory or hypothesis to replace the discarded one.  That is until I talked to my therapist. 

My therapist understood exactly what I was trying to say.  Fortunately, I was not the first to ask this question, so he had an answer.  He said think about a time in the past that was painful (not related to the abuse).  I did.  Then he said, "Do you remember how painful that was?"  I was confused by this, and told him so, "Of course, I do.  BUT that is the point.  I remember how it felt but I don't feel the pain any more.  With the trauma memories, I feel the pain like it just happened today."  He explained that experiences (both good and bad) are usually felt, experienced and then the memory is stored.  Sometimes traumatic memories don't get processed and stored properly.  Until the memories are felt and processed, they will continue to feel fresh and new.  That is why we do the work we do in therapy.

I think I paraphrased that badly; I hope it was clear enough.  Here's the crazy thing...I had read about that before!  When he explained it, I had one of those 'aha' moments.  I had learned this principle academically, but hadn't digested it emotionally. 

SIDEBAR:  If you want to know more...I read about this The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi  also there is a great article about how trauma effects memory here at the Sidran Institute: What are traumatic memories  I found this quote particularly interesting...

"There are several factors that influence whether a traumatic experience is remembered or dissociated. The nature and frequency of the traumatic events and the age of the victim seem to be the most important. Single-event traumas (assault, rape, witnessing a murder, etc.) are more likely to be remembered, but repetitive traumas (repeated domestic violence or incest, political torture, prolonged front-line combat, etc.) often result in memory disturbance. The extremely stressful experiences caused by natural or accidental disasters (earthquakes, plane crashes, violent weather, etc.) are more likely to be remembered than traumatic events deliberately caused by humans (i.e. incest, torture, war crimes). People who are adults when they experience traumatic events are less likely to dissociate conscious memories of the events than children who experience trauma. Research shows that the younger the child is at a time of the trauma, the less likely the event will be remembered.

"Case studies show that traumatic events in which there is pressure toward secrecy are more likely to induce forgetting as a dissociative defense. For example, a woman who is brutally attacked by a stranger but who receives sympathy, family support, and many opportunities to tell her story, may suffer from PTSD, but is unlikely to develop amnesia for the event. However, a young girl who endures repeated incest with her father and has been sworn to secrecy will more likely have memory impairment for the abuse."

NOW I get it, and hopefully you do too.  Look Ma, No Hands!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Very Own Prince Charming

Can I be honest?  Ha! Can I be anything else?  I suppose not.  Here it is…
I worry about writing “too many depressing things” on my blog and so I stretch to find positive things to say, while at the same time not  sugar-coating the pain in my life either.  It is the mental equivalent of tight-rope walking, and I can’t say for sure if there is a net down there.  Today I have something positive to share, a bright shining diamond if you will, but in order to appreciate it, I need to also share the contrast…if you will bear with me there is a happy ending here.
I have been struggling with feelings of abandonment. Remember the dream I told you about in “Emotional Sinkholes”?  I feel like that dream…left alone in the dark, abandoned.  These intense feelings of abandonment rise up at odd times, like a crack in the sidewalk to trip me up as a stroll along through life.  They usually cause me to fall, and yes, cry.  Tonight was one of those times; complete with cleansing tears, and some very serious wondering if this (abandonment) is how all relationships end.  (It embarrasses me to be so emotional and irrational at times, but emotion is rarely rational…and I did promise to be honest).
Fortunately not all rationality had left me and I began to think about people in my life that have been faithful and constant.  Their faces (some of yours) coming before me were a huge comfort.  There was one in particular that seemed to melt away the icy cold pain.  My husband.
How can I explain him?  There is so much I could say, but I’ll try to keep it brief. He is the most patient, and yet the most tenacious person I know.  Our families would say stubborn, but I always tell them (with a laugh) that when that stubbornness is helping them, they will see the value in it.  Those words that I have said for years, have never felt truer than they do right now.  As I was pondering (in my emotionally irrational state) if all relationships end in abandonment, I remembered my Prince Charming and his mind-boggling tenacity, his tender love, his patience…and I knew, I KNEW that no matter what happens he will be there for me.  What a comfort!
Would you like to hear the story of how such a love began? 
I was living in Bethel, Alaska.  It was March, the coldest, darkest month of the year.  At that time of the year in that part of Alaska, the sun is only out for a couple hours a day.  I was working overnight shift (not by choice), and thus hadn’t seen the sun for a while.  That and it was bitter cold.  There had been a week of -80 degree wind chill.  I had had it.  So I decided to take a few days off and visit Portland, Oregon.  (There was not enough time or money to go to Hawaii.)
I took a small plane from Bethel to Anchorage. (Did you know there are no roads between the two?  You have to fly.)  When I got to Anchorage, I was surprised to see a friend from Bethel.  In the “what are you doing here?” conversation that followed I found out that she had been in Anchorage visiting her sister and was now, like me, on her way to Portland.  She was going to visit family.  We talked to the flight attendants and made arrangements to sit together on the flight.  During the flight she said, “I hate for you to spend your time in Portland all alone.  Why don’t I call my single son and see if he will be your tour guide?”
I said sure.
---If I might interject here---it is not that I didn’t know the huge failure rate of blind dates!  But even though the men out-number the women in Alaska 7 to 1, only one of those single men was in Bethel.  This was no time to be picky---
We had talked about this “single son” on many occasions.  She said things like, “I have a son that would just love a girl like you that is willing to rough-it in Bethel.” 
“Does it count if I hate it here?” I asked.
Another time she confided that she didn’t think he would ever get married because he had this long list of what he wanted in a future wife.  Of course, I had to enquire what was on the list (curiosity more than politeness driving me).  As she told me items from the list, I laughed and said, “that’s me” over and over.  Please don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t ‘desperate’.  I didn’t care for Bethel, but I was otherwise happy with my life.  I was making good money and I had plans for the future.
He was equally aware of the “blind date taboos”, but agreed to meet me anyway.  He came to my hotel riding a motorcycle (his only transportation at the time).  Between that and his leather jacket, I felt sure he was some kind of “Fonzie wannabe”. . .and yes, I was a little concerned.  (Looking back, I understand that having a motorcycle was a matter of being frugal and saving gas, and the leather jacket was safety equipment.)
The rest of the date was like magic.  I don’t mean magic in a “love at first sight” kind of way.  It was better actually.  He felt like an old friend, someone I had known forever and could relax and be myself with.  Really what more could you ask for on a first date?
Too soon it was time for me to return to Bethel.  He suggested we exchange addresses, but then warned that he is a terrible letter writer.  He is!  Long-distance relationships are difficult, especially fledgling relationships like ours…so I did the only thing I could…I moved to Portland.
He teases me about this to this day; he loves to tell people how I “chased him”.  But you, dear reader, understand that I was not happy in Bethel and looking to leave anyway.  I loved Portland which is why I chose to take my time off there…so moving there was completely logical.  You believe me don’t you?
Well…even if you think I was simply love struck and completely foolish (I swear that wasn’t it!), the results speak for themselves…more than 15 yrs later we are still living the dream of…
Happily Ever After