Life, Positives

I called 911 in my nightmare! :) Improvement and “Success nightmares”

So, as a result of PTSD, I generally have a lot of nightmares. I have had a lot fewer nightmares since I did DBT-PE (dialectical behavior therapy with prolonged exposure) almost two years ago (yay!! success!!), but I still have them sometimes. However, the content is generally better!

A main theme in my trauma was feeling helpless, and this was also a theme in my pre-PE nightmares. It is still a theme in some of my nightmares, but, sometimes I also take action in my dreams and solve the problems in ways I wasn’t able to do during the actual trauma!

This is really exciting for me because it feels like I am finally “over it,” or at least over some parts of it. And my unconscious, which is active at night, is over it, too. It’s not just conscious-me.

Please note: this post contains descriptions of both nightmares and trauma. This includes descriptions of helplessness, calling 911, brain injuries, trees falling, fire, and mask-less people during covid. There are mentions of Christmas, injuries, a car accident, potential death, unconsciousness, broken bones, and surgery.

The first time I had a “success nightmare” like this was about a few months after I finished PE. In the nightmare, I was at home, and there were various things going wrong. I don’t remember all the details at this point, but one of the things going wrong was that there were all these fires. Several patches of trees had caught fire. So, in my dream, I literally flew around putting out fires. I went to each problem and dealt with it. I was able to do it. I left the trees wet and hissing with steam. It was so good. Being able to deal with it took a lot of the fear out of it.

I had another “success nightmare” like this last night, and I wanted to share it. 🙂 I actually first had a different nightmare earlier in the night. In the first nightmare, someone came into my room, my personal, clean-air breathing space, and wasn’t wearing a mask. I was really scared of getting covid and asked them, very politely and maturely (I think I even used a DEARMAN in my sleep, lol!!), to please put a mask on and leave. (it was something along the lines of “I noticed you are not wearing a mask, I am really worried that I will get sick, could you please put a mask on”).

In my dream he did not put a mask on and proceeded to ridicule me for having the gall to ask him to put on his mask! And then, I left my room and went out and about, and everyone that I knew, including my close friends, intentionally took off their masks when they saw me to make fun of me for making a big deal out of nothing and being too sensitive and worried. Ugh. It was awful. It makes me so angry to think about it. But I also felt so helpless because these people were not wearing masks and were just openly breathing on me, and there was nothing I could do to get away from them.


Anyway then I went back to sleep and had this other nightmare that ended on a better note. I think it started out as a good/okay dream (I don’t really remember that part), and then became a nightmare. I was at my home (which, interestingly, is where almost all my nightmares take place, even though a lot of my actual trauma was far from home) and was standing on our long driveway in the forest. Then all the trees started falling down. (and now I am dissociating trying to write this…) They were these big pine trees with two-foot-wide trunks, and the forest was pretty thick, so there were a lot of them, crashing down. Some trees fell into others and caused a domino effect throughout the forest. My sister and I were standing in the forest and couldn’t get away from them. We wouldn’t have been able to run far enough to get out from underneath the path they were falling in because there were trees coming down in all directions.


This fear of a tree falling on me does come from real life (not trauma though). In the past six months, two trees have nearly fallen on me. One was a huge tree in our backyard that just suddenly cracked and tumbled from rot on a blue-sky, wind-free afternoon. Luckily I was far enough away from it, but when I first heard the cracking noise and couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from, it was really scary.

The other was our Christmas tree, which was a large tree we cut and brought inside. It was partially decorated, including lights and some glass ornaments. The base wasn’t super secure, and the tree was probably too big for the base, and the whole thing just toppled. If there hadn’t been a ladder in the way to break its fall, it would have fallen on me. Anyway. This fear doesn’t come out of thin air. I think it’s interesting to see how things from my life end up in my dreams.

The fear of people coming into my room without wearing a mask comes from real life, too. I’m living back at college this semester, and apparently someone has to come tomorrow to inspect my fire extinguisher. They have to come into my room, and I don’t know if they’ll be wearing a mask. I have seen so many people not wearing masks, even inside my building. If this person isn’t wearing a mask, or it’s only covering their mouth and not nose, or they’re wearing a mask but it’s not well-sealed, or I don’t have time to put on my own mask before they open the door, what will I do? Will all the air in my room just be potentially infected? (this is real life!) I guess I can leave the windows open for a few hours. But it’s really cold outside. I guess I can deal with that though.


Anywayyy in the tree falling nightmare, my sister and I, and my mom and some other people who were now just magically there, like they are sometimes in dreams, did get hurt by these falling trees. They were falling and rolling and crushing us. People had broken bones, and everyone had a brain injury and was slurring words together and having a hard time thinking and doing things. When the trees had all fallen and things were settled down, I knew that I had to call 911 to take us to a hospital and get help. (and I’m dissociating again..) This part is directly related to trauma. (I am trying to write this (opposite action!) but it’s hard.)

In the dream I knew I needed to call 911, but I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t figure out how to call. I was asking each person individually to please call 911. But they all had brain injuries, too, and couldn’t do it. My mom said she didn’t have 911 in her contacts and didn’t know the number for it. I told her that it’s in the name, it’s literally 9-1-1, but she still didn’t get it. Some people had broken phones. No one could call 911. I eventually realized I had my phone in my back pocket. It somehow wasn’t broken by the chaos. I got it out. I had a really hard time unlocking my phone and using it, due to the brain injury. But I eventually managed to get to the phone app and to type in 9-1-1. An ambulance eventually showed up.

This may not sound like a successful or resolved nightmare because we still got hurt really badly, but to me it was successful because I was able to call for help. In the actual trauma, a severe car accident, we were in the middle of nowhere, and the two phones we had were smashed to tiny bits in the accident. We had no way of calling for help. We were trapped, stuck, helpless, in the middle of nowhere. We, and especially my dad, could have died if we did not get help.

I also have had other nightmares, pre-PE, where my family and I got hurt and we were unable to call 911. For example, one memorable nightmare ended with me and my family sitting and lying on the floor of our house, all hurt in various ways. In the dream I could see the phone, but I couldn’t reach it. I was in too much pain / too broken to move any closer to it, and my arm wasn’t long enough to reach it from where I was sitting. I asked someone else in my family to get it (maybe my mom? I don’t remember), but they said, “<my name>, I can’t.” They were too broken to move, too. We were all so helpless.

So, in contrast to the actual trauma and to past nightmares, this one really was different. It was a success. I was finally able to call 911! It feels so good. Such a relief.


Also, side note, there is a difference between a nightmare and a bad dream. I’ve been using these two terms to mean different things, and apparently my friends and family didn’t know they were different. A bad dream is a normal dream that is unpleasant / has negative emotions in it. A nightmare is a bad dream that wakes you up (source). There are also some other differences between them. For example, trauma nightmares can occur during non-REM sleep (source). I often have nightmares during naps after being asleep for only 5-10 minutes. That wouldn’t happen with a bad dream.

I personally normally wake up from nightmares into panic attacks or flashbacks, which often quickly change into dissociation. It can sometimes take me all day to fully come back to reality. I was talking about bad dreams vs. nightmares with my brother, and apparently his bad dreams never wake him up?! So he has never had a nightmare?! What?! When my PTSD was at its worst, I was having like three nightmares per night! It’s also interesting to note that he was in the same car accident with me and the rest of my family that started most of my trauma. When it comes to emotions, my brother and I are very different people.

Here’s an interesting thing, since I’m talking about this now. There’s a statistic that 20% of people who experience a traumatic event get PTSD (source). In my family, there are 5 people, and only one, me, got PTSD from the car accident that we were all in. That’s 20%! I am that literal one in five! Of course, the accident has affected all of us a lot, but only I actually have ptsd. My mom had a lot of the symptoms of ptsd in the first couple years after, but they were more infrequent than mine and didn’t affect her life the way mine did. It was still very valid distress, just not ptsd.

It’s also important for me to remember that although we were all in the same accident, we didn’t experience the same events, and we didn’t experience them in the same way. My dad, who was hurt the most, was unconscious for several weeks. So, he just doesn’t conveniently have any memories of the whole thing! Also, I broke a bone and had to have surgery, but my brother, mom, and sister didn’t. We were also separated, and I had some experiences the others didn’t have. We also came into the accident with different life experiences. I was already more anxious of a person and had probably had diagnosable social anxiety for years. I was also already a little anxious about health because of other experiences I had had. So, the accident wasn’t the same for all of us. I have to remind myself of all this when I start to feel guilt or shame for being the only one in my family with PTSD. But I didn’t have any say in whether I ended up with ptsd, lol, so since it wasn’t a choice, guilt and shame aren’t justified.


There were so many tangents in this post! 😬


Have you ever had a nightmare or bad dream that you turned around or “solved”?

Affirmations, Coping Skills

Affirmation #25 — Each year is different and new in its own way

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The fact that lots of bad stuff happened last year doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again this year. That was 2019, and this is 2020. The fact that some patterns repeat each year, like the start of school, holidays, and anniversaries, doesn’t mean that the same events of the same type of events will happen again this year. Each year is different and new in its own way.


A lot of bad stuff happened to me in December/January/February of last year. I feel better now than I did a month ago, and I haven’t been thinking about those things as much, but sometimes I just can’t shake the feeling that something bad is going to happen purely because a certain date on the calendar is coming up.

Right now, the anniversary of my grandmother’s cremation ceremony is coming up. It makes me anxious. I know that it’s the date in particular that is making me anxious because when I imagine the date being after this particular date, I feel relieved.

In December, I was so scared before each important date happened, and so relived, happy, and hopeful the day after, once it passed and nothing bad happened.

I’m trying to ground myself when these feelings come up and focus on what is going on around me in my life in the present. Reminders like this affirmation help, too. The dates repeat each year, but the events change.

Life

Life/blog update — semester recap, school stress, recovery

Hello! I haven’t posted in a few months! The reason why is that I had a really busy semester at school. I was taking 5 academic classes, instead of the 4 I had taken the previous two semesters, and it was a lot. They were also all hard classes; there wasn’t really an easy one I could blow off. All of my classes were for my major, mechanical engineering.

To be honest, it was a really different semester from any I’ve had in college so far. It was a lot busier, but it was often a good busy. I wasn’t as dragged down by my mental health issues! (!!!) !!! My ptsd really has been better since I did the trauma work. I was still anxious, and I had some depressed periods, and my ptsd was still there every now and then, but overall I felt a lot better than I’ve been feeling the past few years.

I was actually able to do the work! I don’t think I would have been able to handle the workload if I’d taken these classes a year ago. In fact, I couldn’t — I dropped a class both semesters to take 4 instead of my original 5. I had more free time for homework this past semester because I was spending less time upset.

I was also less lonely. I spent a lot of my time with my fellow mech e’s (mechanical engineering people) because we had mostly all the same classes. I like seeing people often, not just once a week. I like having people be part of my life and texting me to ask if I’m okay when I don’t show up to class.

It was also stressful — school itself was stressful. I know that school is known for being stressful, and many of my friends have been complaining/venting about this for years, but school had never really been that stressful for me until now. I think it’s because there were always other things stressing me out more than school. My stress about family members dying and whatnot gave me some perspective, and I prioritized other things above school and knew that if I didn’t complete my homework or do well on a test, it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

It was like I had peeled a thick blanket off to reveal a messy heap of broken parts underneath. I had thought that my ptsd (the blanket) was the main problem in my life (and it was a big chunk of my problems), but all my stress about trauma-related things were covering up my other stresses, insecurities, and ineffective ways of coping (the messy heap). With less of the ptsd, I could see the rest more clearly, and it wasn’t pretty.

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peeling back the blanket

It turns out I do get stressed about school. A lot. I care too much about disappointing my teachers and letting people down when they have high expectations for me. I feel pressure to do well. I’m really bad at working in a lab group.

My health isn’t great. Eating is hard and has been hard for a while, which makes my health worse. I don’t know my body very well, and pushing myself too hard in dance has led to some injuries. I missed a couple days of school because I was in too much pain to walk to class.

I’m uncomfortable with lots of things to do with dating and sex. I’ve never dated someone, and I’m not sure how I would. If that makes sense. Like, what the relationship would look like, what stuff I’m comfortable with, which stuff I’m scared of but could get over, who the relationship would be with, etc. It’s just stuff I’ve got to figure out for myself at some point.

I have a lot of social anxiety and often think that people hate me or are trying to kill me.

I’m still really sad about the losses of my grandmother and uncle last January. My family feels really small, like it has suddenly shrunken.

But…. I can do something about all of these things! I can work on these things in therapy! Little by little, it’s going to be okay! Lots of great things happened this semester, too!

I finally got to choreograph a dance in my dance group!!! 🙂 😀 I’ve been wanting to do this for so long. It was wonderful, though stressful at times, and it was really fun to play around with the formations! It looked great on stage, too, and I got a lot of compliments on it!

I have some good friends! I became closer with one friend this semester, and it was amazing. She’s really fun to be around, and we laugh a lot, but she can also be serious, and she’s helped me through some dark moments. She also replies almost right away when I text her! :O For whatever reasons, I’ve never had a friend before that both replied to my texts quickly and whom I wanted to text back quickly. Texting her doesn’t make me anxious.

I took on a leadership role in a sustainability club I’m part of, and it was fun to get more involved and have more responsibility! Plus I’m friends with almost everyone else who has a leadership role, so hanging out with them was fun, and I felt included.

And I do like my classes and my major. It took me a long time and lots of anxiety to decide what to major in, but I’m glad I chose what I did. It seems like a natural (not necessarily easy, but natural) thing for me to do. Mechanical engineering involves a lot of geometry, moving parts, forces on this and that, this goes here so that happens, this affects that, etc. and I think that’s just how my mind works. That’s how I like to think. I like making things. I like figuring out how things work. I like understanding the world around me.

So when it’s hard, at least I know that this really is what I want to do.

Overall, it was probably my best semester of college yet. 🙂 It was the hardest academically, but other aspects of my life were the best they’ve been in a while.

Anyway, I hope to have some more free time (which doesn’t always translate to me doing more with my time, lol…but maybe) over winter break, so I want to get back to writing more! I like writing. It helps me make sense of things. Sometimes when I’m thinking through things in my mind, I imagine what I would say if I was writing it as a blog post, and that seems to help me be more logical. So I already have lots of ideas in my head for what to write. 🙂

I’m also going to try to comment more on people’s blogs! I read some of them in my email, so I have been reading, but now I’ll (hopefully) actually comment, too! 🙂 

I hope you’ve all been well, and I wish everyone the best in the new year!

Affirmations

Affirmation #19 — In this moment, I am safe

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In this moment, I am safe.


Look around yourself. Do you see any immediate threats? If so, please flee, fight, or do what you need to do to stay safe, but otherwise, hey! You’re okay! No one knows what the next moment will bring, but right now, you are safe.


When I’m in a car and start to get scared that we’re going to tip over when we go around a curve or something, I look around and see that in this moment, we are not tipping over. In this moment, we are safe. Then the next moment comes. I look around. We’re still safe. The next moment. We’re still safe. And then my anxiety starts to go down.

Affirmations

Affirmation #18 — I have gotten through this before, and I will get through it again

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I have gotten through this before, and I will get through this again.


Some of the things I struggle with come up again and again. (note: mentions of self harm and suicidal urges) I think that I did something wrong, I feel intense shame, and I want to hurt myself. I haven’t been sleeping or eating enough, haven’t seen my friends in a while, feel like I never get a break from the grind, and nothing is pleasurable anymore. I get my period, and the pain is so bad that I want to die. A trauma reminder comes up, and I feel so scared and overwhelmed.

In times like these, I find it helpful to remind myself that even though it seems overwhelming, awful, and like it will never end, it has ended before. I have gotten through these things before and come out on the other side. In fact, I have coped well in healthy, effective ways! I am capable of managing this.

I have dealt with strong emotions before, and I will deal with these ones, too. I have gotten through the before, and I will get through it again.

Life, Therapy

Challenges and benefits of getting better

(Note: brief, vague mentions of self harm, eating struggles, deaths, and violence) 

I am happy and proud to say that I have been feeling much better recently!

My PTSD has almost disappeared! I have nightmares less than once week now, and their content is much less violent and traumatic. I can’t remember the last time I had a flashback! I’ve had many fewer intrusive thoughts, too.

I think the main reason for these improvements in my PTSD is that I’ve been doing Prolonged Exposure and directly confronting traumatic memories. I’m proud of this because I’ve put in the work and done things that scared me and were hard to do. I may write about this more later, but it really is remarkable to me how much it has helped.

I have so much more free time in my day now. Being upset took up so much of my days! I have more time available for going to class, doing homework, and hanging out with my friends, and sometimes I even have free time left over after that!

I got grades that I am proud of this semester; I took on a leadership position in a club I’m part of; I even tried flirting with someone I had a crush on!

Getting better is a change, and change can be scary

However, there are still struggles in getting better. It’s new and very different from how the past few years of my life have been. Change of any type is hard and scary for me, even when it’s positive change. There are new things to get used to.

Experimenting with the possibility of dating someone was a very stressful experience for me, even though I’m glad I tried and have grown from it and made a new good friend (I told him I liked him; he said he didn’t like me back, but we’re still good friends). There are a lot of situations I’m not used to being in. Applying for jobs? Having interviews that aren’t for therapy programs?!

It’s scary, but I’m growing. 🙂

Higher expectations for myself

As my mental health improved, my expectations for myself shot up. Before, I called a day a success if I went to all my classes and ate some meals, and I’d be proud of that and pat myself on the back because I knew it had been hard to do. When those things got easier and more routine, I felt that I needed to do more. I thought that since I was doing better, I had to take school more seriously and actually get better grades (in part to make up for the lower ones I’d gotten when I was struggling more). My mental health had been holding me back before, and it wasn’t now, so I felt that there was no excuse to not do well, to not do everything, to not be like my peers.

I didn’t see it at the time, but those were unrealistic expectations. There is a lot of room in-between managing to make it to most classes and getting straight A’s; it’s not strictly one or the other. I expected myself to be perfect all of a sudden. I wanted to be able to make up for all the things I’d missed out on over the years all at once.

Wanting these things did make me more motivated, and I plan to achieve many of the things that I realized I wanted — someday. I have to radically accept that I can’t do everything all at once, and I can’t do everything so fast. I need to be patient with myself. While it’s great that I am getting better and seeing improvements, I’m not fully better. It’s a slow process and something that I need to keep working on.

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Not everything gets better

Another thing to radically accept is that there are some things in my life that don’t get better as my mental health gets better. I came home from college recently, and it was a bit of a rude awakening to see my parents arguing just as much as they had been when I left. My improvement hadn’t affected them — of course it wouldn’t, but somehow I just assumed that everything in my life would get better as my mental health improved. That’s not the case.

Therapy also can’t make up for the fact that I have two family members missing in my life. Opposite action can’t bring them back from the dead. I think that I am dealing with the losses better than I was a few months ago (I’m not incapacitated by sadness; I don’t spend most of my days lying on my bedroom floor crying; eating isn’t as much of a struggle), but they are still gone. I am still sad. The grief resurfaces every now and then.

Worries about things worsening

Another challenge is that I worry about my mental health worsening again. Now that I’ve experienced how good things can be, I feel a deeper loss when I’m temporarily feeling worse again. I know all the things I’m missing out on and feel sorry for myself.

When something goes wrong, I also worry that it’s the beginning of the end. Will I go back to being depressed and tormented by nightmares? Good things can’t last forever, right? Is this a temporary blip in my life, or a more lasting change?

If I check the facts on these fears, I can see that the gradual changes I’ve made over the past year have lasted so far. I can see that I have been doing the treatment recommended to me by multiple therapists who believed that it would improve my life, and they agree that I have made lots of progress.

Yes, more bad things are bound to happen in my life, but I do have better skills to deal with them now. I haven’t self-harmed in maybe four months? I “graduated” from DBT group, and I use the healthier coping skills that I learned there every day. I can get through things.

Same friends, new relationships?

When I became friends with the people I’m friends with now, I was struggling, and I was looking (consciously or unconsciously) for certain things in friends — sensitive, a good listener, etc. In addition, many of my friends have their own struggles with mental illness. I’ve also stayed in touch with some people I knew from group therapies.

As a result of these things, many of my interactions with my friends were centered around me venting/asking for support, or me providing emotional support to my friends. I was happy and grateful for that, and it enabled me to have deep, intimate friendships, but I’m not struggling as much anymore. What do we talk about now?? What if we can’t relate as much because we’re not in the same dark place anymore? What if my friend liked me because she felt like she was helping me, and now there’s nothing left to be helped? The dynamics have shifted.

I don’t think that any friendships will end over this, but I may end up more distant from certain people, and that makes me sad. I suppose it’s also possible for friendships to evolve as people evolve, and I hope that mine will, because I really do like my friends.

On the other hand, I am also making new friends. Now humor and playfulness are more attractive qualities to me. I want to laugh for a while with a friend more than I want to express to them how badly I’ve been feeling. There is a time and place for both, but I find myself wanting more fun now than I did before. This is another change that is scary for me at times!

My friends enabled my avoidance

Some of my friends also enabled some bad habits that I want to stop doing now. They let me and even encouraged me to avoid things. Part of my exposure therapy is not avoiding things that aren’t objectively dangerous. I don’t want to avoid things anymore, but the message hasn’t sunk in for my friends yet.

Several people know that I hate blood, decapitation, violence, and related things. When there are scenes in movies with those things, they say, “[My Name], don’t look!” They say, “I don’t think you’ll like this movie, it’s not for you.” When I ask, “What are you laughing at on your phone?” they say, “You don’t want to know, you won’t like it, it’s bad, trust me.”

I very much appreciated these warnings at times when I felt like I needed them, but now I feel like I can handle things. I know that avoidance makes my fears stronger. I don’t want to avoid! I am ready to face scary things!

It’s just frustrating that my old habits were so deeply engrained that they spread to my friends, and now I have to change my friends’ habits, too, not just my own.

Overall

Overall, I’m doing so much better now than I was a few months ago. A couple of weeks before final exams, someone asked me how I was doing, and I said “good”! She said, “haha, like the dog in the fire meme?”

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“This is fine” meme — image from https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1401347-this-is-fine

Meaning, was I saying that things were fine when I was really super stressed out about finals? I wasn’t! I was serious that I was doing well! As I thought back on the conversation afterwards, I realized that I wasn’t just doing well, I was doing the best I had been in the past two years. That seems quite amazing to me.

I wrote this post because I think I had an idea in my head of “getting better” that was all perfect sunshine and butterflies, and I wanted to express the ways in which getting better is still hard. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. 🙂

Affirmations

Affirmation #16 — I am imperfect

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cannot be perfect.

It is impossible.

I cannot do everything.

I cannot prevent everything bad from happening.

I am imperfect.

The world is imperfect.

It sucks sometimes.

It’s the way it is.

I have a life to live,

Not a death to prevent.


 

This affirmation is maybe not as uplifting as some of the others, but it can be freeing. It’s more about radical acceptance of my inability to control everything.

I was in a bad car accident a few years ago, and for a long time afterwards, I fixated on the things I could have done to prevent it and ways to be safer in the future. I was very cautious. I avoided traveling, long car trips, and driving on the highway because I feared they would lead to situations where another accident would happen. I carried safety gear around with me wherever I went. My backpack was big and bulky, but I carried it with me everywhere.

Over time, these things and many more worsened my PTSD because I was avoiding so much and made me depressed because I was limiting my life. I ended up in a partial hospital program, and, with the help of my therapist, realized that some things in my life needed to change.

Some bad things will happen no matter how hard I try to prevent them. It’s sad and awful and makes me feel scared, helpless, and out of control, but it’s true. There are some measures I can take to be safe, of course — always wearing my seatbelt, maybe keeping a resQme tool in the glove compartment of the car but not carrying it with me otherwise, practicing driving on the highway when it’s less busy so that I build up my driving skills over time, etc. — but staying in my safe bubble was making my life miserable. Thus, I have a life to live, not a death to prevent. I can’t do everything, but I will do what I can and live my life.

Affirmations

Affirmation #12 — I can remember AND stay in the present

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I can REMEMBER and stay in the PRESENT.


As part of the prolonged exposure therapy I’ve been doing, I do imaginal exposures, which involve talking through a traumatic memory. I tend to dissociate when talking or thinking about the trauma, so it’s sometimes hard for me to continue thinking about the memory because my mind goes blank with dissociation. However, I need to engage with the memory in order for the memory to make me less scared in the future, so I can’t just block it out. I have to balance not dissociating (by grounding myself in the present moment) and remembering the memory (which brings me a little to the past).

This affirmation is to remind me that it is possible to do this. It is possible to remember without having a flashback or dissociating. I can remember non-traumatic events and still know where I am in the present. With time and hard work in treatment, I am gradually able to do the same with traumatic memories.

Life, Therapy

Finally talking about my trauma in detail

I experienced a traumatic event four years and nine months ago. I decided to do DBT PE (Dialectical Behavior Therapy with Prolonged Exposure) to treat my PTSD eight months ago. And today, I finally talked about the trauma in detail in therapy.

I’ve been building up to this for so long. I’ve gone over the traumatic event in my head so many times in varying levels of flashback-y-ness but always fairly anxious states. This has been a part of my life for so long.

But I had never said it out loud to another human being. I had never said it in order from start to finish. (well, the finish of one part, at least)

This feels like a watershed moment. Something small but fundamental has shifted inside of me, a change that will grow more pronounced as I continue this treatment.

I am still going about my same daily activities and interacting with the same people, but I feel a little different, as if I’m experiencing everything with freer eyes. It feels a little like what getting baptized felt like, or what traveling to another continent for the first time felt like. I knew logically what to expect, but now I’m experiencing it emotionally.

Of course, it was also really hard, and this is also only the beginning. But I finally said it!!!

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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my life is full of holes