Unsteady

Things are not very stable at home at the moment.

The Girl tends to express a lot of anger, some of it overtly, but much of it covertly. I mentioned her punching animals in the nose. She reports her own dog bit her. Well, I wonder why….

Her main solution to this is to move on to someone else. I won’t give her her own way, and she wants to go home again. So yesterday, she went home to find her mother drunk, fought with her mother, and went to stay with her brother instead.

This would all be fine, except that she said hurtful things to The Boy, which I had shared with her and evidently should not have, because her motive for repeating it was to wound him.

So the Boy came home, but in a guarded state. This was alright, except that the anxiety overwhelmed him and by evening he felt like running away. I kind of get how the pressure builds up, because it happens to me too. So in the evening when he asked to stay overnight with his friend, I let him. It’s Friday night, I am not sure how much kids are normally allowed to stay overnight with their friends, but a sleepover sounds ok to me.

After he left, I realized he had stolen money from me. I went to look for him, and he was not at his friend’s house. I don’t know where he is or what his plan actually had been.

The Girl is still at her brother’s house, which is fine. I suppose in a few days, she will get angry at him too and want to come back. I don’t know how to help her with her anger exactly. If I had an idea, I would try it. It doesn’t bode well for her future, but I don’t really know what to do. You cannot rage at people to get your way, and if you use abandonment to exact revenge on people (which is what she is trying to do), then generally they lose interest in you. It doesn’t keep working.

At some point, you have to accept the boundaries other people set for you, and learn to work within them. You cannot continually ramp up aggression and live any kind of decent life.

Meanwhile, I am home alone and starting on a project of my own. I am trying to write out a memoir kind of thing about my traumatic past while weaving in what is happening in the present–somewhat like my blog, but more coherent. It’s possible it may turn out to be readable, but I also think writing will help me to make sense of it more deeply.

It’s quite difficult, to put it mildly, and yesterday in the middle it seems that I switched. I left a message for C’s dad that I loved him. I came back from going to the bathroom and saw that I had done this. I don’t know how it happened–if I had simply typed into the wrong window (I tell C I love her all the time) or if some part of me couldn’t hold in the impulse anymore.

It is something I periodically want to say to him. I feel it. But for adult men and women who are not related, I suspect, “I love you” is always romantic, and that isn’t what I am trying to say. My brain is a confusing place, and it’s not very clear to me what I do feel.

It’s possible I was writing, and felt overwhelmed, and I just wanted to reach out. That expectation that there will be a reward on the other end of reaching out does feel like love. There is this gratitude you feel in anticipation of receiving support.

Anyway, he came back online later and said, “I love you too.” Life moved on.

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Switching

The Boy called me last night from the bedroom and I came to him. When I got there, he didn’t seem to realize I had come for any kind of purpose. I hung around for a minute and then left. Sometimes, by the time you get there, the kid has solved their own problem.

He called me back and still had nothing to say when I got there. I brought it up this time. I can’t remember how. “That wasn’t me. That was J. I am not J.” So he had switched.

I asked him what J had wanted. He didn’t know. I said can you ask J what he wanted and see what he says?

J wanted permission to do something trivial–I can’t remember what that was either. It was something I had gotten angry about in the past, but not for the sake of it. It was not okay within a particular circumstance. I wish I could actually remember the details of this.

Anyway, I felt I understood why he had switched in order to ask. The contingency had gotten lost, and he didn’t know whether it would be okay under these circumstances.

States

I have an idea about what being in parts is actually about.

Crittenden’s attachment theory talks about two basic states, which lie on a continuum. She discusses them as strategies, but a mental state underlies them. In a “preoccupied” state, people use expressions of emotions to get their needs met by other people. What is lost in that state is sequence and cause-and-effect, so that people who use preoccupied strategies can be observed to retrace the same experiences in a kind of loop without seeming to achieve any resolution. They are highly expresssive and talk in a very emotional way (“his eyes were popping out,” rather than “he was very angry.”) It comes across as dramatic, but repetitive.

The other state distances the self from sources of danger in order to cope, rather than attracting attention to oneself to gain support in coping. So dangers are minimized or denied. People in this state tend to lack detail in their stories.

One example she gives is that someone who had been assaulted as a child at night by someone in a red jacket would remember this in a different way depending on their dominant style. A preoccupied person would remember the red jacket–an unimportant detail. A dismissive person may not remember the event at all, or might know it happened but not remember how frightening it was.

I have noticed these states in the people around me. Preoccupied states are very expressive of the self, but not necessarily aware of it. People in these states seem to operate under the assumption that if they emote more forcefully–but not necessarily more clearly or specifically–they will get the cooperation they want. It can come across as being very self-absorbed. It tends not to be a state in which one can maintain an awareness of other people, and it doesn’t allow for thoughtful reflection.

Dismissive states can lose focus on one’s own experiences or inner states, but are aware of others and aware of social mores.

So that’s the background. I think someone in parts uses dismissive strategies most of the time. The learning over childhood is that one’s internal experiences are bad are wrong–likely because a parent lacked empathy or mentalization skills and couldn’t understand the child’s felt states, why the child had them, or what was causing them.

Periodically, one’s dismissive strategies are overwhelmed by intense emotional responses, usually to reminders of trauma. The other state of being very expressive of the self takes over, but then cause-and-effect get lost.

What this means is that the reasons behind the emotion are lost. So in this state I may not know I feel overwhelmed by shame, because someone has, for example, criticized me. I only know I feel like I am “bad.” Because of that, it then seems that this state is only about me, not about a transitory experience happening to me.

These times when one’s dismissive strategies are overwhelmed by the nearness of danger feel both ego-dystonic, because they aren’t one’s usual self, but also as though they are intrusions of authenticity. They feel both like “not-me” and like secret “mes” which are shamefully overwrought, impulsive, and self-absorbed. Because the emotions of being in a preoccupied state are felt more intensely than the numbness of being dismissive, it can feel that these experiences of being in very negative emotional states are what you might discover to be your “true self.” Which can seem pretty dreadful.

In the end, what I have felt over my lifetime is both a sense that my self and my life are fragmented and that I may, in the end, discover I may be concealing from myself an authentic self which is fairly dreadful.

Actually, these experiences of being overwhelmed by emotion are not more real than myself in a dismissive state. Both of them are unbalanced mental states, caused by the perceived nearness of danger. They are, in a sense, illusions.

I think integration involves actually knowing how to be safe. I think it’s common for people from abusive backgrounds to learn coping strategies which actually make the people around them less safe: I see The Boy humiliating The Girl (did I mention I have two children living with me? I may have…) in situations when he feels hurt or sad or ashamed.

There are other reasons, too, which can lead to a life that is actually not safe. Difficulties in being able to mentalize make other people seem unpredictable even when they are, but not knowing how to respond effectively also leads to less predictable or stable interactions.

My thought is just that until life is safe, it’s very difficult to achieve a balanced state of mind which makes a more coherent experience of the self possible.

Post-Halloween

It usually starts to get somewhat easier after Halloween has passed. I begin to sleep better, as I get more exposure to sunlight in the mornings and less in the evenings. The decorations come down and are traded for what are, for me, more neutral holiday symbols.

I don’t know if it will get easier this year or not. It might.

I saw my therapist on Saturday. She had had a GI infection all week and we hadn’t seen each other for two weeks. She asked me how I had been. I said I lived through it. She asked if I would normally describe a week that way. I said no.

I was somewhat appalled at this point that she forgot how hard this was for me.

She said she knew fall was hard for me. I said fall is hard because of Halloween. She had been vomiting all week. I felt I ought to try to be charitable that she might forget my troubles completely.

I think the worst possible feeling about what happened might be that the lives of the girls I grew up might simply not matter to anyone other than me. They were the ultimate in disposable human beings when they were alive, and when one of them was brutally murdered, this was forgettable too.

So I didn’t feel charitable about it.

At the time, I didn’t know how to communicate any of that. We moved on. She asked various questions about how I had coped. I answered dutifully. I am not sure what the point of these kinds of questions are. I functioned. I did not get through the pain of it by, say, shooting up heroin, but there is very little she could have done if I had. I ate rather more than my fair share of junk food and watched quite a bit of old movies.

I didn’t know how to describe how it felt to me that made it difficult. I tried. I don’t know why it is difficult. Anyone with PTSD probably feels as I do. I don’t know how to say, well, I feel like smashing my hands with a hammer when I wash dishes, but I actually don’t know why. It makes it harder to wash dishes.

I suspect some of my inability to explain comes from speaking to someone used to people who unknowingly strive to cope using dissociation, when I am trying not to. They want the urge to break their own hands to be blotted from their awareness, and I want to be able to experience the emotion that lies under the impulse I am aware of: partly because I think the emotion would be easier to work with and partly because dissociation has not gone well. You end up half dead doing that.

She asked me if teaching was the right profession for me, which seemed rather extreme. I said I like teaching, but also that I think all jobs have their stresses. There is no career in which I can wrap myself up in cotton wool until difficult anniversaries pass.

I have learned this in the past few years: life proceeds, regardless of whether you can manage the pace of life or not and all you can do is the best you can with that.

We had been talking about parts the previous session, and she did remember that. Not that I had held my dead lover in my arms as she drew her last breath on this green earth 31 years ago, but that I have dissociated parts. I felt I probably had to talk about them.

So I did. I did not feel that comfortable about it. I felt rather like this was torture that needed to be endured. The whole session felt that way really, like something terrible which needed to be gone through.

Then I went home, and lay in bed without thinking what I was doing and it was probably five hours later before I even noticed I had done that or that time was passing while I lay there, watching old movies. I don’t have any real idea what to do when it’s this bad. I lay there the entire day. I spent a lot of today, the next day, in bed too.

My mind does feel now as though it has begun to sort of wake up, but I wonder about this. Why does it seem that my consciousness actually evaporates when I am under severe stress and what do I do about that?

 

Progressing

The good news (in my mind) is that in spite of my intensely unpleasant reaction to Monday’s therapy session, my brain seems to continue to chug along, integrating as I am hoping it will.

This morning, I began to think I might be able to guess at the therapist’s perspective, and it was adequately explanatory. I didn’t, with this hypothesis in mind, feel befuddled by her responses to me or some of the decisions she made.

It has to do with what aspects of the self seem to be “I.”

If you take the Apparently Normal part as “I,” then washes of intense emotions will seem to be intrusions of someone who is not the self.

Go back a step. If the Apparently Normal part was formed by authority figures who lacked empathy and did not model an awareness or responsiveness to feelings–either their own or the child’s–then one’s developing sense of self is likely to be minus emotions. Either minus all emotion, or minus emotions deemed to be too intense or minus unacceptable emotions. Competent adults don’t have those emotions, and they cannot be included as elements of the self. Children might have those emotions, but adults don’t. You learn to disavow them and when they come sneaking back, you might consider them to be childish leftovers. Because they have not been integrated into your present, adult view of yourself, they will come heavily linked to unprocessed childhood events when they were most intensely activated.

The person who disavows these experiences and emotions will seem to be the “self.” The disavowed emotions and experiences will be seen to belong to some other “self.” Past selves or child selves.

You won’t, in that case, see that the feeling of loss experienced when you dropped your freshly brewed cup of coffee was the same loss you felt when your mother, for example, took all your toys away and burned them. (Didn’t happen to me, but this does happen.) You won’t see that loss feels like loss, and dropping your coffee as an adult evokes some of the same emotions as your mother’s unresponsive, heartless abuse. Adults experience loss as well as abused children.

You might be surprised by the intensity of your reaction to the dropped cup of coffee, which could be more intense because you have disowned it: why should you try to regulate it? It isn’t your emotion. It belongs to this troublesome, unwanted child within you who persists in trying to point out that, while your mother might not be part of your life, you continue to experience feelings of loss and it could, potentially, be useful to consider how your mother intentionally or negligently pushed you into situations where you felt it with painful intensity.

I presume I saw things this way once. I didn’t always see my felt emotions as part of being alive. I saw them as intrusive elements of the past I needed to expunge. Seeing things in that way did help me, I would imagine, to get through life, hold down a job, and stay focused on present-day goals rather than find myself dysregulated and overwhelmed by all the linkages I might need to make to pain.

At the current moment, I don’t feel that way. I think felt emotions are part of being authentically myself. They aren’t always pleasant, but they are real, and they do tell me things about the present as well as the past which are information if, at times, confusing and unclear. I think Apparently Normal is something I do when I feel too frightened or ashamed to be authentic. It is a retreat from life.

But if my therapist, whom I am prepared to meet again on Monday in order to be sure it really is not going to work out with her, is of the mindset that Apparently Normal is me, and my washes of intense emotions are dissociative states, which are not me–if somehow, she believes I cannot be washed in fear of Yuri and simultaneously be located firmly in the room and aware I am with her and reporting on the state of my own mind to her, then she will be alarmed that I sobbed and alarmed that I took a minute to digest surprise what fear feels like and also that I feel it so intensely for Yuri, and she will try to keep that from happening.

Which makes her acceptance of me in what felt (to me) to be a checked-out, numb state make sense, and her alarm in moments when I felt authentically connected to myself–emotional, but still able to think and reflect (my criteria).

Integration is an interesting process.

The analysis

I finally feel a bit normal.

Dysregulated, but in a way that allows my mind to engage with the dysregulation. I can engage my ability to reason and reflect along with the feelings at the same time, in other words. So that’s nice.

I didn’t really know what to do or how to calm down enough to know what was wrong, if that makes any sense. I was walking home and tried a grounding strategy a commenter suggested, and that sent images through my mind of smashing my own skull. Not pleasant.

I don’t know if that was because I calmed down enough to start to tap into the distress or if it intensified it.

I got home and sent a message to a good friend from a part: “Can we talk to you? It’s loud in here.”

Okay, so that was helpful. Things are too intense. It was helpful to myself to know what the problem seemed to be, and I am sure it was also helpful to feel some connection to my friend (even though she was sleeping at the time).

I have some more reflections on the session with the therapist that I had on Monday. I think there will be more to come, as I am thinking about not just what happened for me in 50 minutes, but what it reminds me of about therapy in general. I haven’t seen a therapist in four years. I can’t remember how long I saw that particular therapist I saw before I left for Country X. It might have been two years. But there was a long gap before that, as I stopped therapy when I went to graduate school and began teaching, because school and work full-time along with a substantantial commute made it impossible to continue. In other words, it’s been quite a long time since I saw a therapist, and I have changed substantially since then.

I hope you won’t get bored.

The therapist asked a lot of questions about what I had discussed or not discussed with a therapist before. Well, it’s been four years. I don’t exactly remember. She wanted to know what I had discussed with therapists prior to the most recent one–what were the goals? Well, that was 12 years ago. She wanted to know what the goals were. Fuck if I know.

Trying to answer those questions, I was acutely aware of how life feels in parts: that it is often authentically experienced as scattered moments rather than as readily identifiable patterns. I thought about one therapist and what I remember most is staring at her rug for long periods of time. She exclaimed once, “You’re individuating!” And I wondered why this felt important to her and what evidence of that happening she was responding to. She used to say I hadn’t had adequate mirroring, and I wondered where one goes with that. It’s not something you can time-travel to fix. She used to tell me as I learned to self-soothe things would get better, and that I needed to stop depending on other people to soothe me. Those are things I remember.

The thing that strikes me is that particular therapist’s assumption that I would understand where she was coming from and that she didn’t need to explain. I also take away from it that when I went into a freeze state–staring at the carpet seems like a freeze state to me–she was patient, and did not push, which was at least not harmful. But she did not know how to help or even that I might need help.

I remember the one I saw after she retired used to ask me, “And how do you take care of yourself?” when I was unable to pin down what was happening during conflicts. Why was my partner responding to me in the way she was? What about her response was upsetting me. The therapist seemed to believe boundaries would fix everything. To me, looking back, her expectations look much more like tit-for-tat. Hurt her the way she is hurting you, and she’ll stop.

She tried to point out “healthy ways” to set boundaries and I now see them as unassailable ways to fight.

That’s my honest opinion a decade or so down the line. Not that boundaries aren’t important or that I shouldn’t stand up for myself in a conflict. It’s just what I see as her motives. Not actually very good. At some point in her life, she had felt given permission to get other people to behave the way that she wanted by punishing them for misbehaviour, and she assumed that I would respond well to the same kind of permission.

What I think now is that people are free to choose and you need to find the strength to accept their choices. My ex was free to choose to intentionally hurt me, and I needed to find the strength to accept that she does that and to her this represents a valid choice. Those aren’t choices I am willing to make and as it turns out I don’t want to be around someone who sees that choice as an acceptable one, but I need to allow her to make that choice. Standing up for myself does not take away her choice to hurt me intentionally. That choice remains hers to make.

What I am getting at is that what was memorable to me about my therapy experiences weren’t the things that interested the therapist I saw on Monday.

She wanted to know what I talked about in therapy when I was in college. I know it had to do then with my family and with sexual abuse, but fuck if I know what the specifics were. It was 25 years ago.

The therapist seemed to be a bit younger than me–I don’t know if she actually was or not. If she were 10 years younger than me, it might be difficult for someone that age to think about what it is like to remember what happened when they were in still late childhood. That’s one possibility.

A lot of the session seemed to hinge on memory and how we experience it and understand it. Early on, something came up and she said the usual thing, I guess, which is that it protects us not to remember. Now, I am aware people think this, but the evidence is pretty strongly against it, that people who don’t remember traumas have more intrusive symptoms, more disruptions in relationships and are generally less happy than people with the same kinds of trauma who do remember.

So I explained why I think people have trouble remembering trauma, or one of the reasons, which has to do with our constructing meaning out of events collectively.  If no one else saw the “ghost,” you start to think there is no ghost. If no else sees you are being harmed, you find yourself unsure that the harm is occurring, even though you seem to be feeling pain.

She said this happens only when you are little.

I looked at her for a minute. She was very sure of herself. “Okay.”

I am not going to argue about this. I said what I think. You said what you think. We have established we disagree about it.

But I can imagine she thought of my attempts to describe previous experiences of therapy and she presumed I am protecting myself from something. I don’t think that necessarily. Get away from the assumption of the need to forget as a dominant motivation, and other things start to crop up as possible explanations: I am a teacher; there are many reasons I have observed that people don’t remember things. Among them, it didn’t seem important or worth remembering in the first place. Or, that information has not been accessed in a long time, and the neural pathway to it is not very strong.

I am reminded of the tissue incident as I write about this, because it seemed to create some confusion. In talking about the therapist handing me tissues, I was pointing out my willingness to see this as rejecting. I don’t know what the therapist intended by it. I am not in her head. I don’t even know what most people intend by it, since I have never done it before. People do cry around me from time to time–students do, parents do more often than I ever expected. Tissues don’t usually cross my mind.

But my thought about what it meant–get yourself together, stop crying, this is making me uncomfortable–told me about the lens through which I was viewing her already. People refer to this as a distortion, but I won’t go that far. It sounds judgmental to me. It’s a lens, a preconceived notion. It’s not possible to go through life without these. We need to have some framework through which to interpret reality, even if that framework may be imperfect or inaccurate.

This is part of the therapist’s lens: Forgetfulness is motivated by a desire for self-protection, to avoid the pain of memory. She probably does not think of this as a lens, nor does she probably wonder periodically, “If I didn’t what I think, how would I understand this? Are there other ways to think about this that are more interesting or that seem to be more accurate?” I don’t think most people do that.

What I think about my own forgetfulness is that it does not protect me, because I already have the fragments within my mind which constitutes memory. I already know. So not thinking about them or reflecting upon them makes my world less comprehensible to me, but it does not protect me from pain. It does, however, protect other people from that pain. They don’t have those fragments, and if I don’t construct a memory out of them, then there is nothing for them to know. I do think people learn forgetting as a coping strategy, because forgetfulness helps other people to cope, but I don’t think it’s as simple as our minds protecting us by not remembering.

There were four points in the session when connection with the therapist seemed to be possible, times when I felt connected to myself. The second was our discussion about memory, because this question of memory interests me. We disagreed. I don’t know if the therapist understood this as disagreeing.

Anyway, we did.

The first time was when she asked me who cared for me as a child, and I thought of who those people were: Aisha, Ksymcia, Nata. Losses. And I began to sob.

She got the tissues. I tried to box it up. I told her about Aisha or at least the fact of her existence. After that, the question of memory came up.

The third time was when I was telling her about trying to put a dismembered corpse back together. I can’t remember how that came up. I told her how distressing it was to be unable to get the pieces to fit.

She said something like, “Do you remember that?” I didn’t somehow quite catch the words. Well, I was telling her what I remembered. I couldn’t understand the question. It seemed to suggest that what I was telling her did not seem to fall under the category of memory for her–“Is there a “real” memory?” she seemed to be asking. What’s a real memory for her?

I think I just said yes. I remember it.

But it was another dysjunction between us.

The last time was when she asked me something to do with trafficking–the answer ought to have been Yuri. I know I mentioned this in my first post about.

I felt suddenly frightened. So, I paused, surprised about it, and told her. She might have asked something about that, or maybe I volunteered. I said I seemed to be afraid of speaking. It might be that Yuri is someone I cannot talk about, or it might be that Yuri did not like when I spoke.

She said, “Let’s leave this for now.”

Later, I came back to it. I just said, “It’s interesting.”

And she said again, “Let’s leave that.”

After that, I checked out and performed.

Now, in retrospect, what I think was so dysregulating about the session was the intensity of my desire to connect, and my inability to do so–the combination of this pain that’s really separation distress and fear.

 

 

 

The morning after

I still don’t really have any feelings. I have very little felt sensation of myself. It’s frustrating, because until I feel safe enough to feel emotions, there seems to be little I can do to regulate them. Off = stuck on max setting.

I don’t really have a strategy for dealing with this. It hasn’t happened in a long time. I know this used to be how I felt all day, every day, but I am not accustomed to it anymore and I don’t like it.

I have suicidal and self-harming urges, but they aren’t embedded within any context. There is no real place to go with them.

I don’t know what to do.