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, 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.

Therapy, Uncategorized

Making therapy sessions better

Sometimes I leave therapy feeling worse than how I felt before it. But sometimes, therapy is really helpful, and I leave feeling heard, validated, hopeful, and knowing what to do when things get bad again.

So, I’ve been trying to think of what makes some therapy sessions better than others.

I think a big part of it is making sure I actually say the things I want to in session. If I don’t, I leave feeling disappointed in myself, frustrated with my therapist, and invalidated. This can spiral and I can start to feel hopeless and think “no one can help me,” “no one likes me,” “I’ll never get better.” Those are all-or-nothing thoughts and aren’t true.

I’m not entirely sure what the solution to this is, because sometimes I don’t know that I really wanted to say something until after I’ve left and realized I haven’t said it. It sometimes just takes me a while to get my thoughts in order.

It also takes me a while to remember stuff. My therapist will ask what was going on on x day before y, and I have no clue. I think this is partially because I dissociate, which interferes with memory somehow (I don’t know the specifics), and partially because I avoid thinking about bad stuff because it upsets me. Dissociation is essentially avoidance, so these are kind of the same thing at their core.

I guess a solution to this could be for both me and my therapist to be patient with myself during session and wait for my thoughts to come and for me to be able to say them.

I could also spend time before session thinking about what I want to talk about. Sometimes I write things I want to talk about on sticky notes and bring them to therapy. That is helpful, but I have to make sure that I do actually say the things I have written down. To do that, I have to overcome any shame or embarrassment and not feel too afraid of saying them (if they’re about upsetting things or trauma reminders).

Sometimes it’s helpful when I say, “I wanted to say something, but now I don’t,” and my therapist helps me through what’s getting in the way of me saying it, whether those emotions are justified or not, whether I need to do some grounding before talking about something hard, etc. So I guess in general it’s good to be open in therapy as much as you can.

It’s also good when I journal before going to therapy because then I know what’s actually going on and have already given it some thought. Writing things down generally helps me. Plus, if I’m avoiding saying something, I could just hand it to my therapist to read instead of trying and failing to say it out loud, or I could email it.

I’m working on it. 🙂

Therapy, Uncategorized

My relationship with death

(In case it isn’t obvious already, this is about death, and it’s dark.)

We’re in a close relationship, death and I, but it’s a rocky one.

I saw you, death, for the first time when I was in 5th grade. I had heard about you before. I had heard what you had done to my grandpa, to my friend’s dog, to many others. But I hadn’t been present to see you in the same room.

In 5th grade, I saw you come and take my grandmother away. I saw her heart rate fall, fall, fall, until it got to levels at which she was surely unconscious, and we took the monitor off her finger.

I understood that it was her time. I loved her, but it was a peaceful way to go.

Then, the summer between 9th and 10th grade, you noticed me. Before, we were just strangers in the same room. Now you introduced yourself to me. You showed me my life. I saw it flash before my eyes. It was a good life, one I was proud of. You told me it was enough. You told me to come with you. You showed me peace and beauty, the calm in the eye of the storm. You took my breath away. I said okay. I didn’t have a choice, but I said okay anyway.

But you decided not to take me then. I don’t know why. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was God, if he exists, thinking I deserved to live longer, that there was some plan for me. Maybe it was physics, just the way things moved in that moment, and my luck of being where I was. Maybe it was that I was wearing a seatbelt. Maybe it was that I wasn’t too tall. I’ll never know why.

You turned away from me and looked at my dad. He was too tall for the car. The physics did not work in his favor. I saw and heard horrible things. For maybe five minutes, I thought you had taken him. I imagined the rest of my life without him. I regretted not loving him more. I hated you, death. You caused pain, misery, and sadness.

And yet you didn’t take him away from me, either. It was an amazing gift, one that I struggle to be thankful for today, but it really was.

Time passed. You stayed in my mind. The image of peace stayed in my mind. The horrors stayed in my mind. For better or worse, you and I were linked together.

Later, when things were too much to bear, you knocked on my door. I invited you in. At some point, we must have started dating. I thought about you often. I fantasized about you, “Death + Me” written in a heart. I wanted to be with you, but at the same time you repulsed me. I hadn’t forgotten the accident. I hadn’t forgiven you for that. But the peace was so tempting.

I kept our relationship hidden. I didn’t tell friends, family, teachers, even my therapist, what you meant to me.

We’d break up. I’d swear we were never getting back together. I’d write lists of why I wanted to stay living. I’d plan things to look forward to. I’d make checklists to follow during the times when you tempted me, so that I wouldn’t give in.

I’d go without seeing you for a while. I would try to forget. But somehow you still called to me, especially in my dark moments, especially in flashbacks, especially when I was alone.

At some point I started becoming more open about our relationship. I wrote about it in my journal. I alluded to it with my friends. I confessed to my therapist when she asked me point blank. A few months later, my therapist and I told my parents about my relationship with you. They didn’t really understand. But they loved me and wanted to support me. They wanted to help me move beyond you. At the time, I wanted to be done with you, too.

You were my guilty pleasure, death, a secret kept hidden, but also a monster haunting me. You keep proposing. You keep wanting to run away together and get married. I keep saying no. But I’ve gotten so close to saying yes.

You always ask in my weakest moments. When I’m feeling better, I hate how close I came to giving in to you.

Death, I know you will take me eventually. Subconsciously, I expect that it will be soon, but I think that’s just because the horrors you left me with make me expect to die. You’ve never left me completely. You still feel close.

In the times I’m feeling well, I don’t want to be with you. You offer peace, but it’s mixed with pain for others. You offer peace, but it’s too soon. I have plans. I have dreams. I have relationships besides the one with you. I can find peace in ways other than what you offer.

I wish I could break up with you permanently. I wish that when you finally do come, it will be many, many years from now, after a full, satisfying, joyful, loving life. I hope when you do come, I’ll be sad to leave.

For now, I am working on healing from my relationship with you.

Therapy, Uncategorized

Memories of being in the hospital

This morning in bed I read through a blog about being in a mental hospital. It reminded me somewhat of being in the day treatment program at the mental hospital this summer, but it actually reminded me more of a traumatic time in a hospital, being treated for physical reasons…

I am aware that writing about this could trigger me and give me flashbacks or dissociation, and I’m also aware that I haven’t been this open on this blog before, or in person, for that matter… I normally avoid talking about trauma things, even in therapy. Although that will hopefully change soon. But I think these thoughts all the time, and I want to put them in the world, and I’m finally feeling like maybe I’m able to do that without getting super triggered…

(And also, be aware of yourself while reading this and mindful of if it’s the best thing for you at the moment. It’s not very graphic, but it is about injuries, hospitals, being away from home, doctors, a dangerous city, etc.)

Okay, so I’m going to try to write this, and I will do it mindfully and stop and take a break when I notice myself getting worse, and I will do grounding skills. 🙂

Okay, here goes!!

So, it reminded me of being in the hospital and getting kicked out before I was ready to leave. I was in a bad state… with a broken bone knocked two inches out of place (i.e. no chance of it healing properly on its own), with a concussion that doctors refused to acknowledge or treat, barely able to walk…

In a country where I didn’t speak the language, in a part of town where you could get shot if you walked around right outside the hospital – my family members were staying at a bed and breakfast two blocks away from the hospital, and people advised us to take a taxi there because it was too dangerous to walk.

As I write this, I notice that I am getting a bit of a headache, feeling nauseous, and my thinking is getting a bit foggy. I’m gonna take a quick break…

I’m back! I ran up and down the hall and jumped around. I also got some more water to drink. It is TWENTY EIGHTEEN, I am at home, I am in college, I am on fall break, I am studying engineering, I have new friends, my watch is blue, I am thinking about a distressing memory, but it is not happening now. Memories are painful but not the present reality. It is safe to write about. Whew. Deep breath. Okay.

Yeah. So I did not feel ready to leave the hospital. I also didn’t have my belongings. I was in a foreign country. I was a bajillion miles from home. For a good amount of time, I didn’t have shoes, and had to walk around the hospital barefoot until I pleaded enough that someone gave me giant navy crocs.

One day, they had me move to a new bed in a different wing of the hospital because someone needed the bed I was in. This happened suddenly, in the middle of the day. My family was not around, and I had no way of contacting them. I owned a cell phone at the time, but it was at home across the ocean. I hadn’t brought it on the trip because I didn’t use it much at the time (I was kinda young), and I knew it wouldn’t work anyway because I didn’t have an international data plan. But anyway, I had no way of telling my family where I was. I thought they would just show up to my old room, looking for me, and not know where I had gone or have any way of knowing. I ended up telling a relative of someone I shared the room with exactly where I was going. I think that helped. I don’t actually remember how it turned out, but my mom definitely found me eventually.

I know that this is kinda disjointed. Apparently that is how trauma memories are: not in order, random snippets. These aren’t even the super traumatic parts. Sighhhhh

There’s a lot more I could write about being in the hospital, but I think this is enough for now, so I’ll say one more thing to end on a good note.

In the room I was in, there was an older woman being treated for some sort of heart problem. Her family was with her. Her granddaughter was in her 20s and studying to be a doctor, I think. The granddaughter was really sweet. When I was super nauseous, she went to the drugstore in the hospital and bought me cinnamon gum to chew. Apparently chewing gum and experiencing strong smells or tastes helps with nausea. I didn’t actually chew the gum at the time, but I have chewed gum more recently to help with nausea.

One time, she took me on a walk. She let me lean on her arm for support (because I wasn’t walking well and was also very dizzy and nauseous). We walked through this peaceful spiritual garden thing in the hospital. It was only about 20 minutes, but it was my first time walking since I’d gotten to the hospital, and my first time away from my bed in a while. It was so nice. I felt so taken care of. She was so kind to me.

Therapy, Uncategorized

Wanting to be my friends’ therapist

Recently I’ve been struggling with an urge to act like a therapist towards my friends who are emotionally unwell. I am not a therapist.

And I am certainly not their therapist. But, I can relate to many of the issues they struggle with. I know (some of) the issues well and know ways that I have overcome them or ways that other friends have overcome them. I am also a friend. I enjoy spending time with, appreciate, care about, and want the best for my friends. So I want to help them, and feel like I am able to help them, but…

A therapy relationship is different from a friendship. People aren’t always ready to be pushed or analyzed—they’re just saying random things, and even if the things they say are concerning, people just want to go about their day and not be bothered, corrected, or dragged into painful memories. I wouldn’t want to push that on someone, and I don’t want to act like I’m superior to anyone.

I also don’t want to constantly push advice on people, even if I think it could really help them and it comes from a place of good intent. I very rarely say, “you should…” because I know from personal experience and from hearing many people’s experiences that “should”s can be annoying and unhelpful and make people feel worse. But I do say things like, “When I’m feeling x, I find that y really helps me z” and “What if you did x?” I don’t think saying these things is harmful if I don’t say them that frequently (I think they’re probably helpful and appreciated), but if I’m saying them a lot, I wonder if it starts to get annoying.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess one of the main ways I interfere is to try to change my friends’ negative beliefs. I have one friend that consistently says things about how she’s lazy, she has no friends, she’s a bad influence on other people, people don’t want her around, she’s failing, etc. I feel really sad when I hear her say these things because I firmly believe they’re not true and that that’s just her depression talking. It makes me really sad that she truly sees herself this way.  I sometimes try to argue back and say that I disagree, and we can agree to disagree, or I try to remind her that I am her friend, x is her friend, and she was really worried about that last test but ended up doing well so maybe this one won’t be as bad as she expects, and Halloween is coming up so that’s something to look forward to, etc. I don’t know if I’m actually being helpful though. I suppose I could ask… asking would be a good thing to do but would require courage and finding the right time and wording it correctly.

I just want to fix all my friends’ problems.

Another part of my problem is that I’m not entirely sure how to have a close friendship without it being a therapeutic relationship. My relationship with my therapist that I’ve had for a few years was my first real place I shared a lot of things I had kept inside me for years. I feel like when I make close friendships now, they’re modeled on that relationship – I ask questions and listen similarly to how my therapist would. (Not the same way, though; I’m my own person) And the people I feel closest to are the people I talk about my mental health with.

Most of my closest friends also have mental health issues.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with writing this. I’m also not sure what to do about this in general. I’m not even sure if it’s a problem or not.

I guess the part that’s a problem for me is that I feel more distant from my friends when I’m acting more therapist-y because I feel like I’m less “on their level,” even though I am.

I also want to be friends in a way that doesn’t have to do with mental health. I guess I do this sometimes when we watch movies or go to events or cook together or talk about what makes soup soup (it was a hilarious discussion).

It’s also a problem for me because I stress about my friends not doing well, and I worry about whether I’m acting wrong and what I can do better.

And, this could also be a problem for my friends if I’m making them feel worse.

So… something to think more about later 🙂

Therapy, Uncategorized

Packing for trips

I made a joke in a group chat with my friends recently…

Me when I’m packing: I should bring at least three books in case I’m not in the mood to read the other two, might as well bring this flashlight, nail polish is always good to have

Me when I arrive: looks like I forgot underwear, socks, pajamas, and my toothbrush

😂 this is literally what happened ughhh

It’s funny, and I was laughing, but it also annoys me how I’m like this. I have such a strong urge to bring everything I could possibly need with me. I think it’s part of my PTSD/OCD.

PTSD because it’s part of the trauma belief that traveling is dangerous, and I could get into a serious accident, and you never know what will happen so you have to be as prepared as possible at all times because who knows when you’re going to need everything you could possibly need.

OCD because I have the obsession (intrusive thought, worry, fear) that I will be in danger on this trip and maybe not come back home, and I appease that obsession with the compulsion of bringing lots and lots of stuff with me. At least, this is OCD as I understand it. I haven’t been “officially” diagnosed with OCD, but a therapist once implied that I probably had it but that she didn’t want to bother to separate out what is PTSD and what is OCD because the treatment for both is the same: exposure.

Anyway. I do feel like I have OCD, and I feel like I have all these rules I have to follow, just in case. It’s less scary and more frustrating at this point because I have to put up with myself. I have to appease my emotion mind within, or else I won’t feel safe. This happens with germs, too. I’m not particularly afraid of getting sick, but I just have rules, like anything that falls on the ground is dirty and must be sanitized or washed with soap and water before I touch it, and anything that touches anything dirty is now dirty.

I think I’ve gotten better at not always following these rules though, through, you guessed it, more exposures. The rules aren’t as strict anymore. But it’s just annoying. It’s like something extra I’m carrying around and paying attention to, an extra monster inside of me I have to care for and appease. I should maybe bring this up in therapy, but I feel like we’re addressing the more important issues (suicidal and self harm urges, trauma) now, and this is a lower priority. Plus, my old therapist was right: if I do the trauma work, these OCD-like thoughts and behaviors will probably diminish.

For now, I suppose I can radically accept (DBT skill) that this is the way I am now. I bring lots of stuff with me on trips. That is the way it is at this time. AND (there’s that DBT dialectic), it doesn’t mean it can’t change in the future. I can do more exposures. I can take small steps. I can be patient and slowly make progress.

Anyone else have issues like this?

(This was an interesting article about the link between PTSD and OCD.)