Life, Therapy

What trauma feels like (for me, for now)

(This is about trauma and talks about death, with mentions of self harm and suicidality.)

I’ve had lots of upsetting things happen recently — my mom lost all the hearing in one of her ears suddenly, my uncle was dying and then died, my grandmother was in the hospital and then died — those are the main ones, but my great uncle also died, my aunt’s neighbor died, my family has been very chaotic… taken all together, within a month, it’s traumatic.

I’m used to PTSD and the anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks as a result of that. But with PTSD, it’s post-trauma. I can use opposite action to face fears because I know (at least, rationally) that I am safe now. I can ground myself in the moment with phrases like “this reminds me of something scary, and, in this moment, I am safe.” I can point out the ways that this situation is different from the traumatic one.

Now it’s different. I’m not living in PTSD anymore; I’m living in trauma. It is happening now.

Trauma is something that overwhelms your ability to cope, something that threatens your life or that of someone you love. These events have definitely overwhelmed me: I feel like everything is “too much” very often; I’ve developed new self harm behaviors; I fantasize about dying to escape it all; accomplishing little things, or even getting out of bed and getting meals, are hard. And the lives of people I know and love were threatened and taken.

I know that my subconscious agrees that I’m overwhelmed because my PTSD (from a car accident) has disappeared. I’ve heard that having flashbacks means that your body and brain are ready to process through the trauma that you couldn’t process at the time. Well, clearly my body isn’t well enough to process old trauma anymore. I’ve had one night of traumatic nightmares and intrusive thoughts relating to the accident in the past few weeks. Just one! I suppose I should thank my body for this, for not giving me even more distress that I’m not capable of handling.

On the other hand, I have had nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and lots of strong anxiety, sadness, and other emotions about the current issues.

And when I have startle reactions, like when the phone rings, or someone knocks on my door, or I hear indistinct raised voices, or my mom texts me, those reactions are actually the response that is needed in that situation. It’s not a post-trauma startle reaction. It’s not out of place. It’s serving an essential purpose. It’s getting me awake from my slumber so that I can drive my mom to the hospital. It’s preparing myself for the news that my grandmother died.

This trauma is happening now. It’s awful. Here are some other things I’m experiencing that help show what this trauma feels like.

  • Constantly high anxiety
  • Checking the facts and finding that the intense emotion is justified: people are in danger.
  • Screaming when startled
  • Splitting headache
  • Not knowing what will happen
  • Feeling like my world is collapsing around me
  • Trying to maintain any sense of constancy in my life
  • Things so chaotic that I don’t know when I’ll next eat
  • Expecting my life to be turned upside down and inside out multiple times in the near future
  • Having to always be ready to drop everything for my family at a moment’s notice
  • Waking up to my mom calling me saying she’s in the emergency room
  • And not being fazed by it because it’s become so commonplace — constant danger is the norm
  • Dissociating so much that I can’t read more than a couple of sentences
  • Dissociating the moment I consciously try to stop avoiding emotions
  • Dissociating in order to survive — because if I don’t, my emotions are unbearable, and I get very suicidal, or can’t eat, or can’t get out of bed — so, dissociating is keeping me alive
  • Needing to use my crisis survival skills toolkit many times every day
  • Almost always wanting to die
  • Crying when I didn’t call my mom because I think that if I don’t call her, someone will die — and then having my grandmother die the next day and confirming my worry
  • Not knowing where I am
  • Not being able to participate in a normal, casual conversation because everything reminds me of the awful things going on, and I don’t want to talk about them
  • All of my thoughts leading back to the trauma
  • Saying “HELP” inside my head or writing it on paper or my skin frequently
  • Wanting very badly to be able to escape and not being able to

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Life, Positives

I forgot we live in a universe

Today has been a rough day for a number of reasons that I don’t want to dwell on right now.

I wanted to hurt myself, but I decided I would look at my pros and cons list (pros and cons of hurting myself vs. using skills and not hurting myself) before I did anything in order to be sure that I was making the right decision.

I didn’t know where I put my hard copy of my pros and cons list, so I went hunting through the photos on my phone in my “Lists” album, where I keep pictures of a lot of my go-to self care / skills info. Instead of finding it, I came across a picture of strategies I had a while ago for “reorienting yourself,” or grounding yourself.

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my list

I was feeling dissociated, so I tried some of these. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I tried to really see everything around me. I counted how many limbs I have. I realized that I am not in imminent danger, and neither is anyone in my family. I reviewed what I did earlier in the day.

And, I zoomed out in space. I imagined myself where I am, in my room, and then I zoomed out… to our house… our town… neighboring towns… our state… this part of the country… North America… the globe… little earth… the moon… our solar system… our galaxy……

It was at this point that I wondered if the Milky Way is part of a cluster of galaxies. Are there other galaxies near by us? Do galaxies even cluster together??

So I followed my train of thought because it was positive and a good distraction, and it made me feel curious and interested (emotions I haven’t felt much recently).

I googled “is the milky way part of a cluster.” It turns out it is! It’s part of the Virgo Supercluster.

Hmmmm, cool!

Then I remembered that there was some youtube channel I couldn’t remember the name of that had a bunch of good astronomy videos I had liked. I wanted to find the channel, so I got my computer and dug through google drive to find the website that I had made for my high school astronomy class, thinking my website would help me find the youtube channel.

I looked through the website and was reminded of the cool things I learned in astronomy that year. I had pictures of the moon and of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons that we took right outside our high school one evening. I had essays I wrote about the more philosophical parts of astronomy. They were good to read.

I eventually found the part of my website where I linked to the youtube channel I was trying to find. Yay! I went to the channel, SciShow Space, and watched some videos.

One was about how the universe could be shaped like a torus (a donut). I had never really thought about the shape/topology of the universe before. I assumed it was spherical and infinite, I suppose. At the end of the video, the person talking said that if the universe were a torus, that you’d maybe be able to look out into the sky and see our galaxy, the Milky Way, but much younger — the way it was many years ago. You’d be able to wave to yourself.

Mindboggling. The universe is so weird.

A supernova could explode in our direction at any time and obliterate not just us, but our planet, our sun, and our solar system. There are things out there that operate on such different scales than our lives normally revolve around.

I can’t believe I forgot we live in a universe. There is so much more that exists than just me and my family, than everywhere I’ve been in my life, than our entire planet… there is so much more.

So, yeah, wow, that sticky note was actually incredibly helpful. Zooming out in space was just what I needed to do. And looking through the “Lists” album on my phone was the thing that led me to that, so that was helpful, too.

It was also good because it rekindled interests I forgot I had. There were many years growing up where I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I used to think about the universe a lot.

It also made me think more about geometry, math, science. I love geometry so much. I think I’ve briefly mentioned on here that I’m in engineering school. I’ve loved math and science for as long as I can remember. Since I’ve been on winter break, I haven’t gotten to spend much time on those interests. I was actually really craving math homework recently.

Wow. It was really good to be reminded of all that — the things I love to do, the universe we live in, the awe and wonder and imagination.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.
This is what we see when we look at the darkest part of the sky — not dark at all, but filled with galaxies, billions of light years away. Source: “Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014” from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website


Did you forget that we live in a universe??

Have you ever been reminded out of the blue of (good) things you had forgotten?

Life, Uncategorized

My uncle died

I don’t really want to write anything about this, but I think I’ll feel better just saying something and putting it out in the world. I’m still working on accepting that this is real, so writing this helps make it more “official.”

My uncle died about a week ago.

If anyone who I’m close to is reading this, they’ll now know that it’s me writing this blog… if they didn’t already know… I hope that no one I know finds this blog. If you do, please don’t read any more and let me know that you’ve found this…

Anyway, that aside…

I’ve been really sad. Which is understandable.

He was my uncle from my aunt’s second marriage after her divorce. He was only in our family for a few years. But he was SO loved…. he was the best uncle, such a great stepdad to my cousins, and he brought my aunt so much joy and love…

Part of my sadness isn’t just at the loss of my uncle, but sadness for my aunt and my cousins. I’m close with my aunt and my cousins, and I really feel for them.

My aunt and uncle only got married a few years ago, but they’ve known each other almost their whole lives. In my aunt’s junior high (middle school) yearbook, my uncle wrote that he loved her. They were really good friends in school. My uncle had had a crush on her ever since then. His marriage to my aunt was his first marriage. His friends told him to give up on trying to find true love and to lower his standards… then my aunt got divorced, they reconnected, and he married what he considered to be the perfect woman.

I’m sad at the loss of their beautiful, inspiring, loving relationship. I’m sad that they didn’t get to spend more time together. They only had a few years of marriage.

I’m sad that I didn’t get to know him any better. He was such a good guy. He died of a brain tumor, and towards the end, it was hard for him to understand what people were saying because the tumor affected that part of his brain. But, while the things he did say were often random and out of place, they were almost always incredibly positive and loving. He said SO many times in his last week or so, “If you ever need anything, you just let me know. I’m here for you.” “You know I’ve always liked you, right? You’ve always been good to me. I love you, you know that?”

He told my aunt, “You’re gorgeous. I’m the luckiest guy.”

It’s heartbreaking….

——————————-on a slightly different note——————————–

A lot of the things meant to be comforting at the funeral, in songs I’ve been listening to online, and in things people have said have to do with Christianity and God. I’ve had a rocky relationship with Christianity, and at this time, I’m not exactly religious. I don’t believe that my uncle is in heaven, I don’t believe he’s in a better place, and I don’t believe I’ll see him again someday in heaven. When people say these things in an attempt to comfort me or themselves or to find some meaning in the horrible situation, it just makes me feel worse, because I don’t think they’re true. I believe my uncle is GONE and I will NEVER see him again, and that makes me really sad.

So, here are my own ways of “making meaning” out of this loss, without religion.

  • I’m sad because I’ve lost someone significant
  • “Grief is the price we pay for love”
  • He’s not in pain anymore
  • I’m glad we all got to have some time together instead of none at all
  • He and my aunt did finally marry each other
  • We had lots of good times together
  • He lived a full life, especially the last few years
  • We have memories
  • We have pictures
  • We all got to say goodbye to him, and he got to say how he wanted to be remembered and say goodbye to us
  • He died surrounded by family

Of course, these things don’t make it all better. I’m not trying to make it all better. I’m still really sad.

Goodbye, Uncle [____]. I said goodbye every time I left your house and hugged you goodbye. I said goodbye on your last day when I left you there unconscious but alive. I said goodbye a few hours later when you were still warm but with no breath or heartbeat, when the funeral home men came to carry you out. I said goodbye at the funeral home to your body all dressed up and covered in flowers. I said goodbye when I put a rose on your coffin at the gravesite. I’ve said goodbye a lot, but I’m still saying it… I can’t believe it’s goodbye forever.

I miss you. We all miss you. We love you, you knew that. And we know you loved us. Your memories will always be with us… I love you…

Life, Therapy, Uncategorized

Self harm or self care?

(Please note: This is about self harm and suicidal urges, self-destructive thoughts, and specific ways I try to harm myself (including with food).)

I’ve been struggling recently with basic self care. Anything that I know is good for me or that will help me is hard for me to do.

I used to self harm myself in one specific way. I told my DBT therapist over the summer about it, and I’ve been tracking it on my diary card and using skills like distraction, “riding the wave,” etc. to not engage in the behavior. And, I’ve been successful! I haven’t done that behavior in over three months. Yay!

But… the urges to hurt myself or kill myself haven’t gone away. I have the urges as much as I did when I was still using the behavior. Sometimes I’m successful in using distraction or some sort of positive coping mechanism to manage and resist the urge. However, if the urge is very strong, or I’ve been feeling it constantly for several hours and nothing seems to be helping, or I’m too hopeless to believe skills will work… then I bargain with myself.

I say, “Okay, fine, I won’t kill myself. But, as a compromise, I won’t eat dinner. I know that eating dinner is something that will help me and make me feel better, and that is exactly why I won’t do it.”

I’ll say to my emotion mind, “I know you have the urge to hurt yourself. You can’t do that because it’ll mean you have to stop trauma work. But you still feel intense shame and anger at yourself and want to harm yourself. So, here’s something. I know you feel tired and want to go to sleep. How about you just don’t go to sleep?” And then I stay up until 2 am and don’t get enough sleep and feel more angry and guilty the next day and even more tired.

I’m still harming myself, just in less obvious ways. Not eating enough. Not sleeping enough. Not brushing my teeth. Avoiding friends because I know they’ll make me feel better. Avoiding using skills because I know they’ll make me feel better. Not submitting applications because I’m mad at myself and don’t think I deserve it. Eating chocolate late at night because I know it’ll keep me awake, and I want to prevent myself from taking care of myself and sleeping.

It’s almost easier to self harm in these ways because it’s a smaller decision to make. It often doesn’t require action, just intentional inaction.

Writing this out is helping me realize that self harm is still an issue for me, even if it doesn’t leave visible scars. I’m losing weight, even if it’s not noticeable. I’m hungry all the time. I sometimes have an erratic sleep schedule. My teeth hurt often. My eyesight is getting worse because I refuse to look up from my phone or computer when I start to get a headache. I feel as though I need to feel the pain of the headache because I deserve it.

So, it’s not good. There are negative consequences to doing these things. My “cured” self harm has really just been transformed into different behaviors because I was replacing the behavior, not acting opposite to it.

To be fair to myself, I do sometimes just distract and not do anything harmful. I sometimes reach out to friends or my therapist. I sometimes eat meals because I know it’ll make me feel better. There are just some times that I don’t…

I think the solution is opposite action. Instead of acting on the urge to harm myself, I want to acknowledge that it’s an urge, use the self talk that my therapist and I came up with, and act opposite to the urge.

The self talk is along the lines of,

  • “This is emotion mind talking. It’s strong, but it’s emotion mind.
  • Using skills has helped in the past.
  • Sometimes skills take a while to work.
  • Skills “working” is relative.
  • Distress tolerance is supposed to help get you through the moment, not make you feel better. If you feel better, that’s an added bonus.
  • When you are feeling better, you like feeling better.
  • In the times that you’re not feeling like this, you would want to take care of yourself and help yourself feel better.”

Opposite action to the urge to hurt myself and to the emotions of shame and guilt is to be kind to myself. Some options are: putting lotion on my skin instead of hurting my skin, eating food, hanging out with friends, wearing pretty clothes, watching or reading something funny, etc.

Opposite action to self harm is self care. It’s hard to do because it’s the very thing that the self harm urges are telling me not to do. That’s where the self talk comes in. I have to believe it’ll work and have enough perspective to remember that there’s more than this moment and that self care or skills have helped in the past.

If I’m not thinking clearly enough to do the above, then distraction, calling my therapist, or other skills (if I’m willing to use them) are helpful.

In conclusion… self harm is still a problem for me, and I, Wise Mind Me, want to use the techniques listed above to take care of myself as opposite action to the emotions and urges I sometimes feel. I do deserve to feel better.