The Informative Meltdown aka My Life As A Trauma Mama

Last night I slept hugging a pillow and my stuffed dog.

It was a rough week last week. I agree with the thoughts that “last week is over!” and “this is a new week!” and all that cheerful shit people try to encourage with. I agree with it, but I know it is far less than the whole story.

The whole story? It includes the week of my fifth birthday. It includes the day I gave birth with not nearly enough pain medication.

It includes me sitting on the edge of the bed after being belittled and badgered for an hour and a half and told I was not all the things I thought I was, like supportive, loving, giving….and wishing for death, time and time again. It includes the days I started realizing I didn’t need to live that way.

All those weeks and days and seconds are included in the whole.

Last week sucked big time, and the pain of it was informed by all the weeks that came before, even the moments when I stood frozen in fear with my hands over my face to hide my tears in 5th grade. I don’t even remember why anymore, but I can still feel it in my chest when I think of it. I feel the tightness, my breath coming shallow, my clenched jaw, my inability to cope.

INABILITY.

This is a place of Triggery Badness in me. It’s an oozing wound. And for people who would use other people for their own gain, it’s a raw piece of flesh to poke a stick in and stir.

I woke up crying today. Don’t remember that happening before, but it makes sense–that old unhealed, bleeding part of me was poked and stirred last week.

What my Triggery Badness told me last week was this: People who would gladly hurt others for reasons I can’t understand, people who need to control others and exploit the pain you’ve been trying to shed through all those weeks of all those years that came before, they are out there and they will find you. They will sniff you out–sharks smelling blood. THEY WILL COME.

All the Triggery Badness of last week, where it caused me to swear (more than usual) where it caused me to cry (more than I expected) where it made me wonder if I have really grown at all, healed at all…

SAVED ME.

It saved me. Someone else found me. Someone who I thought had been becoming a friend. Someone who had words of encouragement and praise. There were other things about them that I was uncomfortable with, red flags, green flags, purple flags–all the flags, really. And I did my usual thing–I said to myself, “don’t be judgmental! Maybe they are just that different from you so you’re uncomfortable. That doesn’t make them invalid.”

Then they struck. First a light strike–just a shark nose bumping my leg, just a comment to say that In my Best Interest, should I say that? Do that? Thinking Of You! So I considered their words. I did what was suggested because it made sense. They’re just protecting me, right?

Bigger bump. Their response that put me in a lesser position to them, that said I Am More Than You. I Have Superior Experience. I Will Guide You. Harder shark nose bump, awakening the trigger, starting its vibration.

Next strike, bigger strike, taking a chunk of my leg. Me bleeding out as they chided, You Are Doing This Wrong. I Know More. Listen To Me! You Are Great But Incapable, I Will Lead You!

Triggery Badness released in full horns and bells and whistles. ALARM! DANGER! DANGER!

And I realized what my Triggery Badness was trying to tell me, why it was screaming for my attention: This person needs to be Better-Than, which means they need me to be Less-Than. This person needs to be the one Who Knows, which means they need me to be the one who knows less, the one who needs guidance. This person knows your weakness, your fear that you are Incapable, Unable, Unfit. They smell the blood of that exact wound, that precise tender place–and are willing to exploit it. You Are Prey. (Watch this video–I saw it after I wrote this post and it explains my whole life!)

This person knows your weakness, your fear that you are Incapable, Unable, Unfit. They smell the blood of that exact wound, Click To Tweet

After trauma, one’s nervous system is wound too tightly. Its strings are taut. Its alarms are set to go off at the whisper of one’s breath. It takes time to retrain and rewire our brains after trauma. This is not something that happens overnight. This takes work and practice and more work. It will include the week of my next birthday in 2019. The week of Christmas in ten years.

It’s ongoing.

Don’t judge me for the path my healing takes. I’m working my ass off to heal those triggers, to rewire my brain and let the wounds close and form healthy skin once again.

Don’t judge me for crying. For clutching a stuffed dog and a pillow at age 65. For cancelling plans. For being anti-social. For whining sometimes. For being too silly, too loud, too quiet. Too sarcastic.

Don’t tell me “it’s a new week!” which translates to “Just get over it!” in my healing brain. I’m trying to sort out the good from the bad. I’m trying to be in charge of my own safety, my own mental health. I’m trying to not go back to a place where I believed I Am Incapable. I’ve been there, done that, I’ve peed on the T-shirt and burned it.

Have patience with me, with others who struggle. You can’t possibly know all the weeks I’ve experienced. You don’t know the weeks that will come. You don’t know what informs my actions. I will do my best to do the same for you.

For whatever reason we have trauma, trust us that it’s real, that we wouldn’t have it if we could help it. That we are likely working on it right this second to not run screaming from social interaction that can set off all that cascade of signals that we Are Not Safe.

We heal in community. Be a part of that healing community.

Be kind to you, be kind to me, be kind to others.

And be safe.

Full Disclosure: I’m a Christian and I haven’t forgiven everyone who’s hurt me.

Photo by Pablo Varela on Unsplash

Are you horrified?

Picture this: I’m 9. I have my dolls in front of me, Margot, the dark haired one in my right hand, Cisette, the blond, in my left. I’m kneeling on the braided rug in the living room, my two dolls having a conversation. I’m deep in my imagination and deciding what they should wear to go to their friend Jill’s party.

My father comes quietly up behind me. I don’t realize he’s kneeling on the floor until he sticks his hands up my blouse and rubs my nipples. His daughter’s nipples. Who’s 9. My shoulders hunch and I turn around and say “No” and move away from him. He gets up, never saying a word, and leaves. I feel sick. I carry this secret in shame until I meet the man I will marry. In all our fervent sharing of our 22 year old histories, I share this. He acts understanding. I feel some relief, and a tiny bit of shame falls off like dead petals from a rose.

Several years later, I’m a young married mom of my husband’s daughter, whom I love more than I thought I could love anyone. I’m a marginal cook, a worse bathroom cleaner, but I’m trying to learn. The husband I once shared my deepest, darkest, most shame-filled secret with sneaks up behind me. He reaches around me, touches my nipples through my t-shirt. I turn, the rush of shame covers me and confuses my brain. He does an “I’m so funny!” face and backs away. “You know I don’t like that!” I say. “Oh, you know I’m just teasing,” he says, and laughs. I feel confused: am I overreacting if he says he’s “just teasing”? Is it okay that my body is now flooding with the shame of that 9 year old girl I once was whose father who was supposed to love her and protect her but has instead invaded her sense of safety? Over the years I shove down the emotions that say “No! It’s not okay!” and try to learn to brush off the sensation that pumps adrenalin fear through me. I am supposed to trust my husband, right? I must misunderstand him, I must be wrong.

Even now as I write this, my shoulders hunch protectively, and I brush my hands across my breasts to wipe away the creepy sensation the memory evokes.

I am now safe. I learned I was in charge of my own safety, and that it’s okay to say “I don’t like that. Don’t do it.” And that if those who are supposed to love you keep doing it time after time no matter what you say, it’s okay to leave that situation. And five years ago I did that. I ran when I was afraid enough of his bullying and intimidation to put my  safety into the hands of someone who was finally listening–me.

These wounds remain as long as they're continually poked at with a stick by someone who is supposed to love you. Or by any ol' asshole. Click To Tweet

These wounds remain like third degree burns as long as they’re continually poked at with a stick by someone who is supposed to love you “like Christ loves the church.” Or by any ol’ asshole. I allowed that–I allowed my oozing, bleeding wounds to be stirred so they couldn’t heal. For serious decades. And that was my bad.

I must forgive, you say?

Please feel free to whisper that into the ear of the small child playing dolls in her living room, thinking she’s safe inside her home. Forgive him so he doesn’t take up space in your head, you say? Tell that to the young mom who has to experience the “I am unsafe” fight/flight/freeze adrenalin every time she’s touched again that way–go ahead, whisper that in her ear while she’s learning that even in her marriage her words, her feelings, her thoughts don’t matter. After all, he’s “just teasing.” Please, go ahead, recite a bible verse to her while every cell in her body is terrified as if she’s being chased by a bear. Go ahead.

Forgiveness? I keep that in my head–it will come. I won’t forgive as if it’s okay that either one of those men did that. I will forgive because I need my heart to stop pounding with the memories. I will forgive because it hurts to hold my breath that hard.

I will forgive so those men can no longer hurt me by the memories. But it’s a process. Know that.

I am changed forever in my trust of men, of anyone who claims to love me, because of those two. The adrenalin rushes, my thoughts scramble. How do I trust those words?

I’m working toward a sense of freedom in forgiveness. I’ve been slowly thawing and healing. But the thawing comes with great pain–as your toes burn when warming from being in freezing cold for too long, my heart, my gut, my chest, every part of me feels the burn as I slowly warm. I cry. I cuss. I get angry. I grieve.

I want to forgive, and I will. But I’m not there yet. And just because I know I want to doesn’t mean I can turn a page and Presto! be free.

* Immense thanks to the many people of Twitter who have become a healing place. Who can relate to the pain, to the burn of the thawing. To the cascade of memories as I thaw, to the cascade of realizations, the anger I feel toward myself and others. I want to especially thank Jennifer Michelle Greenberg @JennMGreenberg for a conversation we had today. She gets it. She’s been there, and she’s writing a book about it. She’s a safe place in what is a very scary world for the frightened child in me. 

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Are you a survivor? #MeToo #ChurchToo #IHaventToldAnyoneToo? Give yourself a hug and a break. Tell your story to someone. Start the healing, and then continue it. Are you someone who wants to preach to those in process? Don’t. Ask how they are, let them cry, and listen. Be a safe place. Be part of the healing, not part of the shame.

Are you someone who wants to preach to those in process? Don't. Ask how they are, let them cry and listen. Be a safe place. Be part of the healing, not part of the shame. Click To Tweet

In Pursuit of Just Sorry Enough

I would imagine that if you've been alive long enough to learn to read this, you've had someone in your life who believes they are never at fault Click To Tweet

I would imagine that if you’ve been alive long enough to learn to read this, you’ve had someone in your life who believes they are never at fault. My mother lived and breathed this one. Here’s a fun example of a phone conversation with her:

“Why would your sister say those things?” my mother asked. 

“Um, what things?”

“About her childhood,” she says, referring to my sister talking to our mother about not stopping our father from molesting her after she’d been told about it.

“Ah! Because… they happened?”

“Why would she say those things?”

“Umm, mom, I just called to tell you Merry Christmas…everyone will be coming over soon, so if you want to talk about this we can do it another day…”

“But why would she insist on saying those things?”

“Sooo, MerryChristmasLoveYouGottaGoooo…”  Click.

She never got as far as sorry-not-sorry. My family was much better at simply Changing History. If we say it never happened and try hard enough to convince people it never happened despite evidence to the contrary, then it never happened. Simple enough.

I’ve known others who would, when exhibiting a certain behavior, accuse me of having that  behavior. Again, not even sorry-not-sorry. Simply, not their fault.

And whatever IS sorry-not-sorry?

Dictionary.com defines it this way:

What does sorry not sorry mean?

Sorry not sorry is a sarcastic way of acknowledging that someone might not like whatever you’re saying or doing … but you don’t really care.

AH! So in this case, at least the person knows they have no intention of being sorry. No shifting of blame, no changing of history. Straight up “I know in polite social circumstances what I’m about to say would be followed by an apology, but, oh well!”

I struggle to not use this one, being the snarky smart-arse I am. I have a delicate relationship with sarcasm since my therapist told me that it literally means “tearing of the flesh.” That makes it sound so…painful.

And then you have the chronically sorry. I know a lot of people who believe they are personally responsible for all the world’s ills, including earthquakes and global warming. This is the one I struggle with as a Reforming People-Pleaser.

AHealthierMichigan.org says:

Stop Saying Sorry! Signs You’re an Over-Apologizer

Why do they do that?

People who over-apologize are often anxious and worry about offending everyone around them. They tend to have poor self-esteem and lack the confidence to let their words and actions speak for themselves. They also may view their relationships as fragile, to the point that one misstep would mean the end of them.

Sometimes this comes from being constantly criticized by a person in our lives until we develop it as an emotional tic. “Sorry!” becomes our go-to because, after all, how dare we take up space on their planet?

This, from the same article, spoke to me:

How can over-apologizers break the habit?

Talking to a psychiatrist or therapist can often help you figure out the underlying reasons why you do it. A professional can also help you recognize that most people forgive and move on and that relationships are usually resilient. Many over-apologizers could also benefit from doing things to improve their self-esteem (whether it’s reading self-help books, meditating, talking to a therapist or trying self-affirmations). The ultimate goal is to find an appropriate balance between addressing your own needs and feelings and being considerate of the people around you.

The next time you feel like an unneeded apology is coming on, try to change your tone to reflect gratitude over remorse. For example, if you have to change plans with a friend because of a busy week, avoid saying “So sorry—I’m the worst, I know!” and instead try “Thank you for understanding” or “I appreciate your flexibility.” Soon enough, taking a more positive, appreciative approach will be your automatic reaction.

THIS! I can try this. So, since I’ve been whiny for a week with a toothache, I can say to my friends, “Thank you for listening to me whine!” instead of “sorry for being so whiny!” (Honestly, I’m not sure they’ll feel a lot better with the thank you….) I’m still trying to understand how to use this when I accidentally back into someone at the grocery store…which I usually do. My tendency to say “I’m sorry” seems to fit here, since “Thank you for the smile you gave me instead of that awful judgy scowl your friend did” seems a bit snarky, and perhaps borders on the Sorry-Not-Sorry side. It’s a process, right?

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Where do you fall on the Sorry Scale? If you over-apologize, why do you think you do?  (If I’ve offended you by asking, I’m so sorry….)

Thank you for sharing the planet with me. You do contribute. Really. Even if someone has made you feel otherwise.

Dancing with disappointment.

Some days are just plain more disappointing than others, right? I’m sure you can relate. My hair is curly, and some days I wake up and it’s doing some crazy dance up off the back of my head, and no amount of water will tame it. And I need to be somewhere in an hour.

Some disappointments are annoying, like nutso hair, or a zit on your nose. Some go much deeper and take longer to figure out, stuff I’ve wondered like, why didn’t the person who was supposed to love me more than anybody seem to like me?

My mother did some interesting things over time. She was this girl:

There was a little girl

There was a little girl,
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
            When she was good,
            She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

When life was good and moving to her beat, she was happy and sunny and fun. When life was bad and not behaving as she wanted it to, she was not fit to be near. I felt loved, I felt hated. I met her approval, I was a failure. She seemed to like me and approve of me in the second part of her life when she was in love with my uncle-stepfather (story for another time) but once he got hurt at work and couldn’t support them as easily, well, we were all gonna suffer.

Because she hadn’t done enough while alive, she made sure to be The Gift That Keeps On Giving (sort of like an STD) and have her lawyer send me boxes after her death, returning things I’d given her, giving me things she wanted me to have, all with commentary on sticky notes, signed and dated. And the commentary? Not things like “Your grandmother gave me this and I know you always liked it so I wanted you to have it, love Mom.” No, more like, “I thought there might be hope for you once upon a time, but now I’m not so sure.” (Initialed and dated, sometimes years earlier.) It takes a special amount of planning to ensure that your child will not only grieve your death but feel guilty and worthless while doing so. If nothing else, Marge was a planner.

Those Lies In my Bones were dug deep–deep and early. They’ve stayed long but are becoming more shallow as they heal. It’s taken eons of therapy and an acceptance of my own worth as a created being on this planet to get where I am, but I still struggle and fall.  It has taken good friends to believe in me and a lot of tears to get as far as I am today. And a fair amount of falling, and a bunch of getting back up.

I’ve apologized for a million things to my children, to the point they tell me to stop, but I want to be a parent who can take responsibility for my lacks, for the ways I’ve let my kids down. I’m not gonna beat myself up about my decisions-gone-wrong, but I’m at least going to mention them when I realize them. How much healing would it have been for my soul if my mother had even said “Hey, I know we didn’t always agree, but I loved you every single day!” But narcissistic, damaged people don’t seem to have that capacity, and those of us who grew up that way are left to figure out our worth the best we can.

So on days when you’re dancing with disappointment and having trouble finding your way forward, remember:

You have worth simply for being on this earth. 

You can make a small difference on the planet any day of the week by smiling at a stranger or recycling your candy wrapper. Even if you can’t get out of bed, you have worth. It matters to somebody somewhere that you are here. At the least, it matters to the Creator who made you.

Fight the negative words of others, surround yourself with those who feed healing into your soul. Get a mental health professional to talk to. Fight for your own healing. You’re worth it. I’m worth it.

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: What is one small thing you can do today to honor your own worth and take care of yourself? What is one small thing you can do to honor someone else’s worth? It may be as simple as holding a door for someone whose hands are full or taking five minutes to breathe deeply.

Everything I needed to learn about boundaries I learned from my garden.

Okay. Let’s imagine.

You have a lovely garden, full of climbing roses and lilacs and other colorful flowers that make you happy.

Your neighbor across the side fence has crabgrass and volunteer tomatoes from seeds dropped by birds in flight and walnut trees springing forth from nuts buried by neighborhood squirrels. And oxalis. There’s always oxalis. (It’s pretty till it takes over your whole garden.)

This neighbor pays no attention–for them, what happens in the front yard stays in the front yard. Their mess of weeds is quickly working its way between the slats of the wood fence. However, the foxtails are now cozying up with the geraniums halfway across your yard, so you decide to try to make the neighbor see the error of their ways and see the much more logical and let’s face it, RIGHT, way of yours.

You practice in the mirror. “Hey, neighbor!” you say to your reflection in a cheery tone, “here are some cookies I just baked. I wondered if we could chat a minute about our front gardens,” you say, holding up an imaginary tray, smiling pleasantly.

You find yourself quite convincing, so you try it face to face. They take the tray of cookies but stare at you like you’re speaking Space Man when you perkily mention they should take care of the weeds on their side of the fence and keep them out of your garden.

You think, I must not have said it right. What better words could I use? Or maybe they’ll listen if I make them pie instead of cookies.

You keep trying–pie after cake after fresh squeezed orange juice. Still the neighbor takes the gifts but ignores the weeds. Their weed seeds are falling on your fertile ground, but your words are falling on cold, lifeless gravel.

So where am I going with all this floral flatulence?

Last week I shared some of the ways I’m learning to retrain my brain and do life differently. Then I promised to blow your mind with an amazing tool I’m finally beginning to understand. (Okay, so there was no promise of mind-blowing. There was, however, the promise of a tool. I was trying to get you so excited that you will come back every week to see if perhaps your mind will be blown this time.)

BOUNDARIES. All this garden-speak is about learning that you can control what’s in your own garden, but you can’t control what’s in your neighbor’s.

Most of my life I worked under the misguided idea that I just hadn’t found the right way to get that neighbor to clean up their side of the fence. Turns out, they can even plant weeds in their yard on purpose, who knew? Because, after all, it’s their yard, not mine.

Our individual job in this world of analogies gone wild? To simply mind the fence and all that is on our side of it. Stop taking them cookies. To stop using our words when that other person isn’t even listening. It’s not only a waste of your breath, it’s a waste of your cookies.

The other person’s weeds can represent many things: negativity, blame, shame. Guilt. Patronizing opinions. Manipulation to get you to bring them those cookies, even though they’re totally messing with your lantana.

If we are to take care of our own responsibilities–the space on our side of the fence–we may need to build a better fence so the foxtails can’t get through. We may need to find a method to stop the weeds from growing if they do make it under the fence. Point is, we need to use our precious energy to cultivate the beauty in our own garden. We need to recognize that all the sweet talking and baked goods in the world will not make someone listen who doesn’t want to listen.

This is a difficult lesson for those of us who think that if we can only find the right words, the right mixture of flour, butter and cinnamon, the other person will suddenly see our side. This is called Wishful Thinking.

A wise woman once told me, “The only person’s behavior we can change is our own, all other is merely wishful thinking.”

For me it turned out that all the Nice I tried to take on a decorative plate to my mother *Wishing* she would see I was worth loving didn’t make any difference long term. At the end of her life she still heaped negative and hurtful words on me via sticky notes on the backs of her possessions sent after her death by her lawyer. Those were her choices, those were her decisions. My job was to not let the hemlock of her words and actions poison me. My job was to decide who I wanted to be in the face of that pain.

It took my mother’s death to realize I couldn’t have pleased her if she didn’t want to be pleased. I don’t regret anything I did for her, but I do regret the wasted energy of all my Wishing. Boundaries, they’re our friends!

The Bring Your Own Beverage Conversation: Does any of this ring true to you? Have you wasted time and energy believing that if you just tried hard enough someone would change how they treated you? Does the garden analogy make sense to you or did I just have a darned good time naming flowers? 

And remember, be kind to yourself.

 

 

On blankies and the need for touch

I’ve become podcast crazed since a recent talk with a friend. I have a love of learning about what drives us as people to do the things we do and believe what we believe, and just finished listening to an episode of Hidden Brain entitled Creature Comforts. Besides learning the amazing and redemptive fact that, yes, there are other viable adults out there who still love their childhood blankets–and I now come out as one who would cuddle my favorite childhood blanket from my grandma if I didn’t think it might fall apart–I also learned about a guy named Harry Harlow.

Harry Harlow was an American psychologist who proved psychologists wrong who believed that the less touch a child received the better. Apparently the teaching of the time was that parental touching and comforting of infants and children would “ruin their moral fiber.”

What??

My 50s era parents seemed to operate under the same belief that affection was unnecessary. I’d like to believe they were merely a decade or so behind the times, though the more likely scenario is that my siblings and I had a mother who didn’t appear to find us interesting once we learned to talk, and a father who was affectionate in what I’ll just refer to as Inappropriate Ways. (Ahem.)

The safe port in the storm of crazy that was my childhood was my maternal grandma, who made the lovely satiny yellow blanket for my fifth birthday. When I touch it the endorphins roll in and my heart says  AHHH. It represents Safety. It represents Comfort.

Back to Harlow. Some of his experiments were ugly and created enemies. One example was when he showed the effects of isolation on baby monkeys, with only their rudimentary needs being met without affectionate interactions. I too was angry for those innocent monkeys when I heard this–especially when I realized I have long battled with the loss of hope and feeling of despair this horrible experiment built into them.

My early childhood experiences helped chisel the Lie into my bones that I’m of little consequence. After all, if I wasn’t worth the attention and affection from the mother who should have loved me, how much worth could I have? Why would I deserve to be treated with affection and respect by anyone?

I have a better idea at this point in my life of the struggles my mother had with her own moods and emotions and anger, that those things weren’t really about me. Oh, I’m still angry at times that Safety wasn’t written into my bones rather than Never-Safe. That Comforted wasn’t built in rather than Alone. But I’m working to let go of what wasn’t provided and learn to provide those things for myself.

Touch is a huge need for me, affectionate touch. I’m a hugger. I gladly receive hugs and I love to give hugs. In fact, it’s a bit of a joke with my adult children, how much I like to lean into them and hold on.

What will I do for myself today? I will remind myself that even if important others didn’t build into me Safety or Comfort I can allow those Lies to be erased from my bones. For me personally, I have a loving God who is always there for me, and I’m learning to be there for myself too. And as I practice being present and aware in my own life I can build my own Safety and Comfort.

The BringYourOwnBeverage conversation: My beverage today is water and lots of it because it’s WARM!

Did you have someone let you down in the early days by withholding affectionate touch and along with that a sense of safety? How are you learning to be your own safe place?