Friday, October 23, 2015

Emotional Flashbacks and C-PTSD

Call them "triggers".

Call them flashbacks.

Sometimes they surface as painful but distinct memories. More often they manifest as a sudden hazy but overwhelming feeling... of doom? Of danger? Of despair? A feeling of something being wrong. A disturbance in the Force, perhaps?

Feelings of panic. Why is my heart racing? Now I'm sweating. I must be having a heart attack. Or a stroke. But I'm driving! Will I cause an accident? I feel like I can't breathe. Is my face red? My chest is so tight. Maybe I should pull over. Is my throat swelling?!

Pain. My muscles are tightening against my will. My joints hurt. I woke with an awful headache. My temples are throbbing. My ears are pounding/ringing. My jaw is clenched. My neck is stiff. Chest pain!

Confusion. Spacing out. Mental fog. Dizziness.
Those words won't stay still. Is this grocery aisle spinning?
Those lights are so bright, I can't see.
Have the lights always been so dim in here? I can't see.

What did he just say? I'm trying to concentrate but I can't think. 
That word--I can't remember that word! But I know that word! It has three syllables; it starts with "c"! What's wrong with me? Maybe I'm losing my mind. Something is seriously wrong!!

Desperation for an escape route.
I need to get out of this room, this seat, this car. 
I can't go in there. 
This place is too crowded.
This place is too open.
I'm getting off the highway at the next exit.
I can't stay here. I need to find people. 
I need to be alone. 
I need a drink. 
I need to sleep. 

Sudden anger. Inflexibility. Inability to cope on the spot.
Why would you do that?! I can't believe you would treat me like that!

Hyperarousal. Exaggerated startle response. Jumpiness. Oversensitivity to unexpected sounds or touch. Difficulty calming down. 

Many of us lived with these symptoms for years before discovering what they were. And even a diagnosis of anxiety or post-traumatic stress is only the beginning of learning to manage daily life. Like many other abuse survivors, I've spent years learning to cope with triggers and deal with panic attacks.

One therapist explains it this way:
"A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. This often occurs on a subliminal level outside the boundaries of normal consciousness, and is why recognizing flashbacks is both difficult but crucially important. External triggers are people, places, things, events, facial expressions, styles of communication, etc., that remind us of our original abuse or abandonment in a way that launches us into reliving the painful feelings of those times... When trauma has been severe or we are in an especially depleted state, resemblances can even be scant – perhaps all unknown men or authority figures trigger fear, or anyone noticing or looking at us triggers toxic shame."
--Pete Walker  (FAQ about Complex PTSD)

I still get triggered. Much less frequently now, but flashbacks are not really avoidable. My house is replete with triggers, after all. My fellow survivors know how external triggers can lurk in the most innocuous of places: a playlist, a fragrance, a bookstore, a menu, a wallpaper print, the fit of a sweater. And internal flashbacks, like shades of grief, can seemingly arise out of nowhere, interrupting even the happiest of times.

What has changed about my triggers is how I quickly I can recognize them. After decades of blowing off my emotions, I am learning to pay closer attention to my feelings and emotional shifts. Instead of my body having to go into full panic mode to get my attention, I can often sense subtle changes and respond before my nervous system maxes out.

This week, I was having a great time ice skating on my birthday. Feeling the cold air rushing against my cheeks, the blades beneath me gliding evenly against the ice. Moving my body to the rhythm of the music. Enjoying being myself while sharing an experience with my family. And then, out of nowhere, a snapshot from long ago showed up in my mind. I suddenly felt... sad. Overwhelmingly sad. So sad that tears began to spill out. And I let them come.

Once I accepted that I was sad, it was easy to understand why. I sat down for a minute to sniffle, get a hug, regain my equilibrium, and wipe my face. But after a few minutes of teary release, I was fine again.

Sometimes a flashback happens as I stand at my kitchen sink. Today one visited as I stepped out of my daughter's school conference. I felt a sudden sense of gloom, as if I'd stepped under a cloud. Deep inside, my heart ached. But somehow recognizing and labeling the feeling was enough to keep it from getting worse.

When I got home a few minutes later, I knew I was merely experiencing a flashback. Even though there was nothing upsetting about the conference itself, it's no secret that for many of us homeschool survivors, the education system is fraught with triggers! My inner child needed to be heard and reminded that she is safe.

Fortunately for me, Chris came upstairs at that moment and wrapped me in a soothing hug. I cried for a few moments and the cloud moved on. (If he hadn't been there, I could have gone to my next door neighbor for a hug, or done yoga poses, or colored, or written in my journal until the flashback passed.)

Afterward, I took time to celebrate my small victory. Gazing at the autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, and the last roses of the season from my back patio, I sipped a glass of wine and meditated once more on where I am and who I want to be.

Over the last few years I have practiced being honest, and loud, and brave. I've gained experience in standing up for myself and standing up for others against bullies who want to mistreat them, shame them, or take away their rights. I've practiced being my own parent. Self-protection and self-compassion were both new to me!

I'd like to spend the next year learning to self-soothe, strengthening my ability to be patient, and gentle.
Patient with myself as I take charge of my own well-being. Patient in relationships.
Gentle with my body, and more sensitive to my heart.
Gentle with others who are quietly but doggedly fighting their own hidden battles.

When I was a teen, and sheepishly even after I swore off all other Christian rock music, I loved the song "The Warrior is a Child" (Twila Paris), about looking stronger than one feels. Well, I finally found a secular replacement for that song in Madonna's "Joan of Arc". It has been a favorite this year:
"I don't want to talk about it right now
Just hold me while I cry my eyes out
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet
But I'm in the dark, yeah
I can't be a superhero right now
Even hearts made out of steel can break down
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet..."
Sometimes flashbacks turn us inward because we don't know who else is "safe". But this year more than ever, I've found that the more vulnerable I am with other people, the safer I feel. More often than not, the person I risk trusting also reveals a glimpse of their own secret wounds and insecurities.

This life thing is painful and none of us make it through without at least a few scars. Whatever our inner struggles, we are not really that different, even though our anxieties may make us feel that way!

We may not feel like superheroes most of the time, friends, but we are strong and getting stronger! And we're not alone. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd, "When we set out on a [survivor's] journey, we are often swimming a high and unruly sea, and we seem to know that the important thing is to swim together--to send out our vibrations, our stories, so that no one gets lost."

Courage is like a sourdough starter; the more you feed and share it, the more there is for everyone. When you, my friends and readers, let me know how you are learning to thrive despite your pain and even using it as a fuel to generate good and beautiful things, you inspire me to keep moving, too. Let's keep cheering each other on and signaling to each other from whatever point we've reached!



Saturday, October 10, 2015

Parentified Children and Phryne Fisher

Chris and I have been enjoying Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix lately. We adore Phryne Fisher, the smart, sassy, fierce, curious, capable, and self-assured lady detective. She's everything I want to be. And damn sexy to boot!

Miss Fisher with her ward, Jane

We were unwinding with glasses of wine in front of the television the other night, my head resting on Chris's lap. When the tears began to spill silently down my face, he didn't need me to explain; he'd seen it, too.

Jane, an at-risk girl being fostered by our heroine, had gone to visit her recently-surfaced birth mother.

Jane's mother wants to be loving and nurturing. They cuddle and read a story, she bakes Jane a cake. After years of neglect, this attention . But we soon see that Jane's mother is too needy to look after herself, let alone her daughter. Fearful to the point of paranoia, she ends up trying to jump from the building, endangering Jane who valiantly keeps her head and protects her mother until help arrives.

Miss Fisher takes her exhausted protégé's face between her hands. "You're safe now," she assures.

Supported once more by sane and capable adults, Jane allows herself to break down.

"She wouldn't listen to me! I tried," she tells Phryne, tearfully. But quickly, in her mom's defense, "She's not mean. She just needs me."

Of course our heroine takes both Jane and her mother home, where she is able to show Jane that other adults can assist with her mother's care. Jane, knowing her mother's inability to care for herself, is afraid of her mother being hurt.

But Phryne knows that a child ought not be saddled with responsibility for a parent's health or safety.
"We'll find someplace where she's happy."

And Jane trusts her to make good on that promise.

* * *

I sniffled through the entire scene because deep inside, my younger self identified with Jane. I understand what it is to feel needed by a fearful mother. To feel endangered by her paranoia. To feel both helpless yet responsible for the well-being of one's primary caregiver.

In what therapist and author Pete Walker calls "a tragic role reversal", the abused or neglected child may become "as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can". This can become such a habit that "hints of danger soon immediately trigger...abdication of rights and needs."

Since recognizing this pattern in my own behavior last year, I've been working to relearn healthier relationship skills. It's not as easy as flipping a switch, and often feels like trial-and-error, but I'm making progress! That night, we both knew the tears were one more piece of the restorative grieving process.
"Grieving ... tends to unlock healthy anger about a life lived with such a diminished sense of self. This anger can then be worked into recovering a healthy fight-response that is the basis of the instinct of self-protection, of balanced assertiveness, and of the courage that will be needed in the journey of creating relationships based on equality and fairness."  --Pete Walker

As we get to know Phryne Fisher throughout the season, we realize that she also identifies with Jane. Beneath her confident exterior, she also carries a traumatized little girl with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Her ability to nurture Jane grows out of her need to assure and comfort her younger self.

We turned on the TV expecting to be entertained, but we got so much more. Thank you, Miss Fisher, for modeling the way adults should care for the children in their lives, for one another, and for themselves.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Comment Policy

It's time for a friendly reminder that this is a blog about my personal journey out of Christian fundamentalism.

My audience is primarily others making the same journey, as well as those curious about the effects of fundamentalist homeschooling in general, and Bill Gothard's teaching in particular.

My path has taken me away from theism altogether. I do not attempt to de-convert my readers, and I wish my readers would not try to re-convert me. If you think I have rejected all gods merely because I have not yet tried yours, please refrain from saying so.

Attempts to proselytize or to apologize for the sincerely-held beliefs of my parents will be deleted as readily as we dismiss Jehovah's Witnesses who come to our door.

Thank you. :)

Another Halloween

For as long as I can remember, Halloween has made me uneasy.

The end of a Michigan October was generally dark and cold; fallen leaves rotted in wet clumps and the trees looked skeletal. And as born-again Christians, when the pumpkins began to show up on front porches, we pulled out our own favorite "ghost stories" every year. When I was little, there were scary rumors about tainted candy and pets being stolen for Satanic rituals (yeah, I actually looked those up on last fall). As I've written before, Dad picked me up early from school on Halloween so I would not have to participate in a costume parade with my classmates.

One year in our attempt to be "salt and light", I seem to remember Mom handing out healthy snacks (raisins, perhaps?) and religious coloring books. Another year we substituted a harvest-themed costume party. Then came more tales about the Druids making bonfires, and demons living in jack-o-lanterns, and of course we knew that God commanded the execution of all witches and wizards which was why we couldn't read fairy tales. For years after that, we kept our front door dark and pretended not to be home on Halloween night. In our fervor to avoid contamination from occult associations, we were as superstitious as the ancient pagans!

Later, after Frank Peretti's novels gained popularity, we imagined we could sense stronger "warfare" between supernatural armies at that time of year. (Especially when we spent the week fighting past fake spiderwebs and graveyard displays to leave pre-election flyers on people's porches.) We boycotted an October church party that included a hayride at a pumpkin patch. Later still, Reformation parties became popular Halloween alternatives among our friends, some even dressing up as the leaders of the Protestant church in 16th-century Europe.

Last year's "Creeper" jack-o'-lantern
After Chris and I got engaged, I remember a conversation we had about holidays. I wanted to know what to expect from this man I was going to spend the rest of my life celebrating with. So I quizzed him, over AOL Instant Messenger, about his family traditions. How did he feel about Santa Claus? Halloween?

He told me he'd grown up going trick-or-treating, and expected our future children would do the same. The thought made me a little panicky. But he was to be the spiritual head of our household, so I tried to mentally adapt.

In the early years of our marriage, I bought candy and tried to get into the holiday spirit, but mostly failed. Sugar, darkness, and spooky stuff just weren't doing much for me. My toddlers were disturbed by the ghoulish displays at the grocery store, and I didn't blame them a bit! When pint-size ghosts showed up at our door, I tried not to cringe. I still associated Halloween so strongly with evil that I found church Halloween parties disorienting. "Christian" witches and mummies really confused me!

Even after concluding that supernatural evil was a myth, I shied away from the gore and the pervasive theme of death and decay. I read Dracula and Neil Gaiman novels in a gentle attempt to build up my tolerance for horror. Yard displays of gravestones or spiders or body parts no longer seemed evil to me, but I still couldn't see what attracted otherwise normal people to such things!

I tried to ignore the icky stuff and concentrate on the costume angle, but my imagination never took me very far from reality. After all, I'd spent most of two decades wearing outfits that would pass for costumerie in mainstream society! All I had to do was pull together a few stronger pieces from my real-life wardrobe and I could have stepped out of Leave It To Beaver, or Little House on the Prairie.

Last year was the first time I actually stepped beyond what I thought of as my real self.

The thought of a costume party was way too much for me to handle--I stayed home rather than venture outside my shell or risk seeing anything scary.

But, on a whim the morning of Halloween, I bought a witch's hat and assembled an all-black outfit out of my closet. I played with different facial expressions for the camera and posted this selfie to Facebook.

When the kids walked through the neighborhood that evening, I went along, wearing the hat. Strangely, it was kind of fun! And stranger still, friends shared how the costume reflected a side of me that they recognized even though I didn't.

As I've been exploring less familiar sides of myself this year, I find myself appreciating the fun of costumes in a new way. Most of us have enough facets that we can identify a little with healers and helpers at the same time that we identify with witches, warriors, and waifs. We may have a little bit of sexy waitress inside, as well as a silly hot dog.

My kids knew exactly what they wanted to be this year. They see Halloween is their chance to identify with a favorite character or to create one of their own. I like the idea of Halloween giving us an opportunity to embrace a part of ourselves that we may not actually even accept or understand. Perhaps one that contradicts the way we live the rest of the year, or an ideal we aspire to.

This month, we took our first family trip to the Halloween costume store. I'd always been too intimidated by the window displays to venture in, but this time I was feeling brave. And once inside, my imagination began to stretch! Chris kept losing me in the store as I moved down aisle after aisle trying on masks, gawking at costumes, picturing myself with assorted accessories, and perusing the dozens of exotic make-up options.

And this year, to my great surprise, the spooky Halloween displays have not troubled me. I still have no need to decorate my own yard with corpses or giant spiders, but I understand how it can be fun, and even a little empowering, to wear our insecurities on the outside for a change, to reveal our darker sides, to make light of the horrible fears that have haunted our species through the ages.

So bring on Halloween, with its ghosts and candy and costume parties and traditions passed down since the celebration of Samhain. :) I won't be hiding in the basement anymore.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Living From the Heart: My Other Side

On our drive to school one morning, my daughter pointed to the toys dangling from her backpack: a plush pink pony and a devilish red Lego cat. "These are the two sides of me," she observed matter-of-factly. "This one is my good self, and this one is my dark side."

I looked up from following the road to stare at the mini-me in the passenger seat. Two sides, yes! What a profound thought!

Of course I always knew that I had a "dark side", but from an early age I was taught to "crucify" that part of myself. There was black and there was white. Sin and righteousness, good and evil. And we sorted them out the same way we sorted the characters in the Proverbs into categories of foolish or wise.

Numerous homeschool assignments rated our "virtue" according to Bill Gothard's preferred character traits. A perfect score meant an absence of those characteristics Gothard found unsavory: tardiness, slothfulness, fairness, extravagance, restlessness, loneliness, anger, and resistance, to name a few! (Looking back over the list today makes me shudder! It was a steaming load of bullshit, but for ten years, we took it very, very seriously.)

And so, as a teenager, I obediently discarded those "illegitimate" parts of my personality, or stuffed them down deep. A poster mounted outside my bedroom charted--in pink and blue print according to gender--acceptable aspirations. The sorts of things I might choose to become? A faithful scholar, an excellent home manager, an obedient daughter, a teacher of good things, a wise mother, a virtuous wife.

Subconsciously, I think those ideals were still defining me until last year.

But this year... I am intentionally exploring the rest of myself...
My less-than-wholesome side!
The facets of my personality that have no place in the Proverbs 31 model.
The parts that had to be squelched to be a "godly" woman. 
So far I have liberated:
...a bold risk-taking heroine,
...a flirtatious and sensual "harlot", inner bitch who swears and speaks her mind,
...a scared little orphan who misses her mom and longs to belong,
...a provocative artist yearning to create...
And I'm sure there are other aspects of me still hiding. I rather hope there is an actress in there somewhere!

Frankly, some facets of my personality intimidate or embarrass me and I feel like I ought to apologize for them. But at the same time, they are helping me grow as an individual. They are coming to my defense when I would otherwise cower in fear. They are broadening my horizons, offering new adventures and experiences. They are helping me discover my passions and showing me how to have fun. They are leading the way as I learn how to live from my heart instead of merely from my head.

And oh, the conversations I have with myself these days!

My sexy self has gotten me into so much "trouble", in the best sense. My heart got cracked open. More on that later.

The familiar "mom" voice: "It's not like you weren't warned! You knew the odds going in and you accepted the risk."

Drama queen: "I feel like I'm going to die!"

Passionate poet: "But you're not dying, are you? That feeling you feel? That's being alive. Sometimes it hurts like hell, sometimes it feels like heaven. Sometimes it's both at the same time, or all over in between. Isn't it amazing to feel alive?!" [begins humming song from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood]

Feminine feminist, interrupting: "I guess so. Remember how excited you were to have your own birth story? Not that pregnancy was so fun, but afterward... I finally felt like part of the sisterhood of adult women. And I'm proud to have finally gotten to share this human experience, too. Most people have a breakup story, after all. This is my experience and I'm grateful to be having it. It shows that I'm living my own life!"

Bitch: "[censored]!"
(I have journal pages devoted to the things she says, in hopes that they won't actually come out of my mouth without warning--ahem!)

Journalist: "Don't forget that someday your kids are going to have their hearts broken. You need to lean into this experience and etch it into your memory so you can pull it out and relate to them when they need you to understand. Just like you used to imagine having a teenage daughter when you wrote in your journals as a fifteen-year-old. You never wanted to forget what that age felt like, and how misunderstood you felt."

And speaking of teenagers, I've felt like one this year, in so many ways! This delights me, because the ATI cult robbed me of a normal adolescence. I had believed that phase of emotional development gone forever, but this year I was given the greatest of gifts—the chance to experience some traditional rites of passage as if I were a teenager for the first time. One of those was exploring my own sexual and emotional autonomy. I went on my first "date"!

Of course, like a teenager, I was unprepared and didn't know what to do with all the wild new sensations, but the adventure was a gift all the same. It felt as if I'd unlocked a new level in the game of life, with access to powers and even weapons I'd never tried before. I tapped into my feelings in a new way and found them a regular cataract of contradictory emotions that threatened to overwhelm me, just as I used to feel torn apart by emotion when I was much, much younger. And yet, somehow listening to my feelings feels far healthier than attempting to dam up the "bad" ones or use reason to shut them off.

Living from my heart rather than my head has had a cost. I've been forced to confront my deepest insecurities, evaluate my values, scrutinize my motives. It was messy and I saw some ugly things. My "dark" side was sometimes clumsy and graceless.

In the parlance of the courtship cult, I "gave away" a bit of my heart--and it got predictably hurt. It has scrapes and bruises it didn't have before, but it also has stretch marks, because it grew. I learned a lot about the nature of love. About my own resilience. That friends keep on caring. That there can never be too many hugs. That many humans are kinder than I imagined, the world a safer place.

2015 will go in the annals as a year of intense feeling and exquisitely painful growth--and every bit has been worth it. It's been a year of active transition as I discover how I want to live and who I want to be.

This is a season to rest quietly, to look inward and ponder. To absorb the many lessons learned from an independent relationship with an incredibly brave and generous individual. To process the changes and ask what they mean, even as the ripples continue to slowly spread.

Most days, I like this newer, updated version of my self! She feels less "right" but more real. More open, less rigid, and therefore less fragile. My anxieties have receded this year, in both number and potency. I spent so many years fearing the shadowy places of my own heart, having been warned that following my heart would ruin my life. Now that I've embraced my less decorous traits, I realize they are part of my strength, not a threat to it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Missing My Mom

One weekend a while back, I felt like calling my mother. I sat on the floor and typed this instead, wiping away the tears before they could drip on the keys.

[My mother],

I wanted to go dancing tonight but I have a cold and my chest aches. My period started today. And I’ve been crying a lot because I had my first breakup this month. (I know, right? You had how many breakups as a teenager? No wonder you didn't want me to date.)

So we ordered pizza. We watched cartoons on Netflix and B--- and I did one of the sticker mosaic pictures you sent her. The two of us enjoy doing art projects together. Art rests my mind and soothes my feelings when the ends get frayed. And you’ve found so many easy crafts that are fun for us to work on together.

I wish it was fun for me to do things with you. I wish we could hang out together and make pretty things while we talk about life. I wish I could trade the mom role for the daughter one, and show you the things I do and have you smile and tell me how impressed you are and hang them up to display to everyone.

I wish you could be proud of how brave I’ve been this week.
  • I went back to the Spanish class—the one I had to drop two years ago before I knew I had PTSD—and I think I’m going to make it this time! The professor seems smart and kind and calls us her sweet pumpkins. I love her for that. 
  • I had a pap smear, and got blood drawn for my first ever STD tests, and even asked my doctor to look at ____. I’ve wanted to ask a doctor about that since I was 17 and I only just got up the nerve. I may even have surgery! I remember how much hospitals and doctors used to frighten you. Don’t you think I’m brave?!
  • And I spent a whole morning at the abortion clinic. The same clinic where Dr. Tiller used to work before some religious terrorist murdered him in his church. I had to drive past some male terrorists to get into the parking lot. They were trying to intimidate me with Bible verses and gruesome pictures, and I so wanted to give them the finger. But I knew that wouldn’t do the women I was there to help any good, so I restrained my feelings and ignored the ignorant haters. I watched the security guard inspect my purse, even the zipper pocket still full of condoms from the relationship that isn't anymore. 
 I was compassionate and non-judgmental and a little scared and still very emotional. But I tried to be professional and mostly I was just there with those women on a very difficult day of their lives. And I was there because of you. You and your fifteen (sixteen? more?) pregnancies. I know you can’t appreciate that, but how I wish you could. After all, you taught me how to do things you believe in even if no one else gets it.

It felt like autumn today. My roses are still blooming but I saw a golden tree branch amongst the green this week so I know crisper days are around the corner. Today felt like the sort of Sunday to go pick apples and drink cider. I miss the Michigan colors. And the sandy trails. If it wasn’t uncomfortable to see you, I would want to drive up and eat pasties and go hiking and roast marshmallows and look at the stars. But it wouldn’t be any fun if you had to hold your nose to notice the things you like about me. :(

I’m so proud of my girls. I learn so much from them, and I love that they are their own people. They think and feel differently from me and in some ways I can’t even relate to them. But they know I love them and care about them and am there for them. They can ask me about anything and come get a hug whenever they need one. From here on, I am just winging it, for there is almost nothing from my girlhood beyond eight years old that I desire to repeat in their experience.

Did you know that I’ve taken up coloring? I even draw pictures once in a while—usually to calm myself. And I just crocheted a scarf—wrong season, I know, but there’s nothing like the repetitive movements of hook and yarn to work out tangled emotions.

I have realized this year just how emotional a person I am. It’s as if my feelings were stuffed deep down below my reasoning for years and have just been tumbling out lately. There are so many and they are so strong! Some days it’s a wonder they don’t tear me apart!

I miss you, Mom. Maybe I've always missed you.