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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Positives, Therapy, Uncategorized

I’m doing better

For the first time in a while, I am feeling solidly okay.

  • Sirens aren’t a trigger for me anymore. I go to school in the city, and this was a huge problem for me last year. I would get caught in flashback-y/dissociative states for a few hours as a result of hearing the unremitting sirens just outside my window.
  • Brains aren’t a trigger for me anymore. We look at lots of pictures of brains in my psychology class, and I am not alarmed and do not associate them with traumatic memories anymore (at least not unless I consciously prompt myself to think of the connection, like now).
  • I’ve been having fewer nightmares. I haven’t had a really bad nightmare, one where I wake up in a panic attack, in a while. The few nightmares that I have had haven’t been that bad.
  • I don’t feel as dependent on my therapist(s); I don’t feel as much of a need for a therapist. I think this is because I have formed other close relationships in my life where I feel comfortable talking about things similar to those that I talk about in therapy. What I want most from therapy right now is to do the trauma work (which keeps getting put off, because I didn’t have enough time left at the program I did over the summer to do the trauma work then, and then when I got a new therapist I had to get used to her, and I was overwhelmed at the start of the school year and thought I couldn’t handle anything extra until school settled down). As kind, sensitive, caring, and wonderful as my friends are, I know they don’t have the knowledge or experience (or time) to help me work through my trauma. So I still need therapy for that.
  • I haven’t self harmed in a while… maybe a month? I think the past few times I have self harmed have each been about a month apart. I’d say that’s pretty good! I used to self harm a lot, maybe a few times a week, although I didn’t think of it as self harm at the time.
  • I’m getting better at asking for things!
  • I’m being more vulnerable with friends, gradually, slowly.
  • My college feels like a real home now. Last year, my home home (place where I grew up and my family still lives) felt like my real home, and I missed it a lot. It was a better place than college. In contrast, this year, my college home is better than my family’s home. My suite there is my home, and my suitemates are my family. When I go back to my family’s home, I miss my suitemates. My suite is a much more supportive environment than my family’s home, and I feel more comfortable being vulnerable and being myself there. And my friends are there. And we’re at similar places in our lives and studying similar things, so it’s much easier to relate and get along. If I squint, I almost feel like I’ve lived here my whole life. In my suite, we have a kitchen and lots of people who love to cook. Sometimes my suitemates make food and share it because they have extra, so I sometimes wake up and am offered freshly made crepes, or come home from a long day and someone says I can have the caramel apples in their fridge. It’s really lovely.
  • I declared my major! This has a lot of benefits. a) It enabled me to drop a hard, stressful class that I don’t need for this major. b) I can stop worrying about what to major in, which I had been worrying about a fair amount for at least half a year. c) I can plan out what classes to take in the rest of my time at college. d) I can see a future for myself that looks at least a little enjoyable. I am more hopeful. 🙂
  • I’m doing my homework regularly.
  • I ask questions more in class and am developing relationships with professors.
  • I’m getting better at knowing what I need. Sometimes I need to express myself, sometimes I need validation, sometimes I need someone to know something, sometimes I need a hug, sometimes I need distraction, sometimes I need help grounding or need help checking the facts, sometimes I need a broader perspective. I am still working on this but have gotten a lot better at identifying what would help in a situation and taking steps to get it.
Coping Skills, Uncategorized

Nightmare Plan (and ice dives)

I have a lot of nightmares and have a hard time getting out of the fear and/or dissociation when I wake up. It is hard to either fall back asleep or to get up and get on with my day. So, this is the plan I came up with after some suggestions from my therapist.

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Nightmare Plan: Ice dive, Drink water, Play catch, STUN wave (Sensations, Thoughts, Urges, Name the emotion), Listen to music, Paced breathing (in-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4), Go for a walk (go to the bathroom, go outside, pace in room, stretch/yoga/ballet), Self-validation, Ground in present (5-4-3-2-1 senses, colors of the rainbow). Self-validation: “All emotions are valid.” “It makes sense that I am feeling this way, given my life experiences.” “It’s okay to feel strong emotions.” “Something scary happened to me, and it makes sense that being reminded of that would be scary, too.” “I am feeling ___.” (scared, sad, angry, happy, loving, shameful, guilty, envious, jealous, disgusted) “I had a nightmare.” “It was intense and very scary.” “And, in this moment, I am safe.”

My plan has suggestions of things to try that will probably actually help me. It also has pictures of me doing them, so that it’s easier to figure out how to do them when my brain is slow.

I tried this last night, and the ice dive followed by paced breathing and listening to music or calming sounds seemed to help. Identifying that I was feeling fear also helped.

An ice dive, if you haven’t heard of it, is a way of getting your heart rate to slow down (and therefore making your anxiety to come down a bit) pretty quickly by making your face very cold. It’s a way of hacking your evolutionary reflexes. Your body thinks you just fell into an icy river, so it brings down your heart rate.

You can simulate diving into an icy river by sticking your face in a bowl of ice water for 10-20 seconds a few times. Making a bowl of ice water is too much effort and thinking for me when I’m coming out of a nightmare, so I do the ice dive differently.

I keep instant ice packs near my bed and just crack one and hold it over my eyes while lying in bed. It calms me down fairly quickly. A slowed heart rate also helps me to fall asleep! I also keep ice packs with me during the day and try to use them when I am having a flashback, anxiety attack, or am just feeling intense fear and having a hard time calming down.

Ice dives are a part of the “Temperature” component of the TIPP DBT skill. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced breathing, and Progressive muscle relaxation. It’s a Distress Tolerance skill and is intended to change your body chemistry when you are super overwhelmed. I think it’s really cool how well it works. 🙂

More info about ice dives! description of ice divesdescription of TIPP skills, including ice dives

This Nightmare Plan is taped to my wall near my pillow so that I can see it while lying in bed.

Yay for things that work!

Coping Skills, Uncategorized

Morning Routine

I’ve been having a lot of nightmares recently, so I’ve come up with a morning routine to help me get on with my day. I like keeping this sheet next to my bed so that once I’ve woken up I’m not at a loss for what to do and how to live. This routine really helps me to start my day right. I sometimes change up the order or skip some steps, but having a methodical, ordered plan and doing positive things to wake myself up has been really helping me.

I found that I often got stuck between reading something funny on Buzzfeed and getting out of bed. I just stay there reading more and more, or start looking on Pinterest or Youtube for other funny things in order to cram out the bad in my mind. I think the idea of getting out of that warm, safe place and facing my day is too intimidating. So, I tried to break up that step into smaller steps. My ideas about how to transition from lying in bed to standing up are in the picture on the right. They’re intended to get myself to move around a little because after a nightmare I really want to fall into the freeze response, and that doesn’t do me any good. So there they are! 🙂

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What do you do to get yourself going?