Saturday, June 16, 2018

Quiet Ferocity

CW: I discuss mental health a lot on my blog so approach with caution. Talk of suicidal ideation and non-suicide death.


This is the first morning in months if not years with a quiet house.

Of course, there is often a toddler awake by this time. But even when I rise before her I have a tendency to fill my space with noise to distract myself from time with my own thoughts. I used to love self-reflection but it's been overwhelming the past two years.  It seems my life is just now settling down from the whirlwind of graduate school even though that was over 4 years ago. There's always been some next step I was racing toward, some new cliffside in the way I had to scale.

Don't misunderstand, we are still planning our next steps. I think that's a perpetual part of life. But I feel... content. I'm preparing but I'm not rushing because for the moment, I'm at peace in the moment. If you've kept up with my posts of the past, you know that's rare for me so I'm trying to soak up every second. So today, there will be no television shows or podcasts or chatter to pull my focus away from the simple pleasure of having time to write and sip a cup of warm coffee in my PJs.

Who could have a bad morning with this sweet mug?
If this seems like a sharp turn from my last post, that's because it is. It's remarkable how much has changed over the past month, in small ways and large, and all of it has made a dramatic impact on my health and the health of our home. I plan to continue the Self-Care series with updated information detailing the small changes but this lovely, bright summer morning I plan to dig into the large ones with you.

MONEY
People in my home country love to pretend that hard work is all it takes to be a success, and they generally define success as material and monetary wealth. The first half is demonstrably false, and I used to think the second was as well but these days I'm not so sure. It's not that I believe you are unsuccessful if you aren't rich; it's that our society is structured in such a way that we really can't do much without money and it is literally killing us. The suicide rate has increased dramatically in recent years and a significant portion of that is due to financial instability and struggle. I have a family member who killed themselves for just that reason and it is certainly something that has haunted me. Not to mention all the smaller ways lack of money ripples throughout your life:

  • Can't afford decent insurance or regular doctors visits, meaning health concerns often go unchecked contributing to worse health and earlier death
  • Can't afford mental healthcare contributing to declining mental state and increased rate of suicide for that reason at worst and poor physical health due to stress at best
  • Can't afford decent, safe housing
  • Can't afford healthier food options
  • Having to work long hours and/or multiple jobs which contributes to rapid physical decline and poor mental health
And the list could go on. For me personally, my husband changed jobs not too long ago and our insurance followed. The new place has, not kidding, PHENOMENAL COVERAGE. I'm sure it helps that the company is based in Europe and not the US. This meant that I could start attending therapy. This meant that when I got really sick a few weeks back, I could do something as basic as actually getting treated for that illness, which in turn meant I didn't have to miss work and therefore pay. This means I don't have to freak out about what we spend on food and household supplies because I'm worried about how we'll afford it if my daughter gets sick; she's well covered.

Some stuff I've been able to afford that makes me feel better.
In addition to the new fabulous insurance, we're both making more now which helps with those bullet points above. And we can also manage stress in smaller ways. Going out to eat to give ourselves a break sometimes. Having enough to put money into savings so we are prepared for emergencies. Repairing things as they break, or replacing them if they can't be fixed. Paying off debt (we just paid off a card balance). Purchasing some self-care items. Buying big ticket items that are on sale.

I can promise you that having money (though we still are by no stretch of the imagination rich) has had the single largest impact on my physical and mental health of any change in my life. And it was mostly out of my control that I have it now. I fought for some money I was owed at my job, but in general we just accepted what we were offered. Not everyone has those offers or opportunities, and it breaks my heart to think off all the people who will continue to suffer - often for the rest of their lives - because of something they can do nothing about.

TIME
I mean, we all knew this was coming, right? I work in the schools and am therefore off work for the summer. I broke it down for Hubs last night. There are 3 basic spheres in my life that pull my focus on any given day:

  1. Work
  2. Home (parenting falls into this category)
  3. Self-care/hobbies
Those first two are. not. optional. We need money to live (see above!) and work provides that. We need our daughter and home taken care of because basic life reasons - we've got to eat, clean home means healthier inhabitants, etc, etc. Generally, I don't have time in my day for all three of those spheres. So the obvious one to lose is self-care. While eventually not caring for myself will have some very detrimental effects, moment-to-moment I and my family have more basic needs that must be met. It doesn't help that work often spilled over into home, and I'm working on some strategies to combat that this coming year. I've already mentioned to my therapist that while I feel GREAT right now, I am terrified of the Fall. It is not a sustainable system long-term that I be miserable and borderline self-harming for 10 months of the year and super cheerful and happy the remaining two - but I digress.

A new hobby I finally have time for.
For the next couple of months, being off of work means I have the time to really focus on the self-care that I've been trying to incorporate all year. And who would have thought, when I actually have the money and time to spend on myself, it works! I feel much better! I'll talk about some of the specific things I'm doing in other posts to follow, but it has just been hugely helpful to have the time in my day to play around with some of this stuff I've been desperate to try. And with the toddler starting daycare a couple of days a week, I have some regular time with no distractions. This too is a result of a lot of privilege on my part. Many people don't have the ability to take this kind of time, either because their job isn't structured that way or because they have to pick up extra work even if it is. I'm trying to nail down some routines so I can keep them up when I go back to work and this all doesn't just fall by the wayside, but I also have to confess that I'm seriously considering a career change - see the next section.

NO WORK
So, yes, this is different from time. While I appreciate the freedom in my schedule that being off allows (and trust me, I am SO grateful), I also appreciate the freedom from stress. My job has been a source of incredible stress for me. Some of that is on me because there were other things going on that prevented me from focusing and being as productive during work hours as I should have been. But a lot of it is just the nature of the job. And while every job comes with some stress, there are obviously many that come with less. For goodness sake, a huge part of the reason I chose my field was because it is routinely listed as one of the most stable fields financially with good work-life balance. And yet that has not been anywhere close to my experience.

I'm hesitant to leave for a lot of reasons: I really like a lot of the people I work with, I do like having summers off, supposedly I'll get some loan forgiveness in a few years, I've spent years of my life preparing for this field, and I do genuinely find it interesting. At the same time, I'm afraid it will literally kill me. I have suffered from suicidal ideation for about 15 years now. Over the past year, it got dramatically worse. And almost the exact moment I walked out of the building for the last time on the last day of school those thoughts were truly gone. Now, that's temporary because ideation is a part of my mental illness and probably something I will deal with the rest of my life. But for a while there, it was almost constant. Yet that entire last week I was walking on air because I knew I was nearing the point when I wouldn't have to come back - for two months at least.

This fabulous new planner has been so helpful; there's a whole section on goals!
And that feeling-of-freedom euphoria has lasted. I feel lighter, more able to focus on what matters to me. I've set life goals and yearly goals and NONE of them have to do with my job except one that reads: better work-life balance. We'll see how this next year goes and if I'm able to keep up these good habits I've started once 8 hours-plus of my day are taken from me again. I would certainly be happy to stay where I am if I can find that balance. I'm also mentally preparing myself for the decision to move on and investigating other avenues that may make sense for me.

THERAPY
Listen, I think everyone on Earth could probably benefit from therapy and I'm a huge proponent for it. (This is why we need universal healthcare, people!) The past couple of sessions I discovered things about myself that I probably knew somewhere deep down but had never really realized or acknowledged before:
  1. One of my core values is time in nature. I hate being sweaty and gross outside so I had always sort of assumed I didn't like being outside period, but so many of my dreams, visions, goals, etc. have to do with getting into nature. I want to live near the ocean, I compost and recycle, I'm planning a vegetable garden, I love fresh flowers, I love to swim, I love natural light to the point that I feel nauseated with yellow fake lamp light at times. And because of my false assumptions about myself, I haven't been feeding this need. So I'm working on that by going for more walks to and around the park near our house - bonus points for also getting me exercise, entertaining Little, and having tons of Pokestops - and planning some trips to beautiful natural locations. I'm looking for other ways to incorporate more of this into my life so I'm open to suggestions!
  2. My walk in the park - bu-dum-tshh.
  3. I don't remember my childhood. This is a weird one. I believe I wrote about The Wreck here a few years back. If you don't recall, the TLDR version is that I and much of my family, both immediate and extended, were in a bad wreck when I was in high school that resulted in serious injuries for many including my own broken collarbone and concussion as well as the death of one of my aunts. I only recently came to realize how odd it was that other people seemed to have such vivid memories of their childhoods when I didn't. I made the connection in therapy that this was probably the result of my brain injury. There are three or four bright spots, moments colored with strong emotion that I recall but that's pretty much it before high school. I know my past, but I don't remember it. I didn't wake up after The Wreck with no idea who I was or who my family was or anything. I knew that, and I've heard enough stories that I could tell you a lot about how I grew up. But I remember almost none of it. No wonder I have struggled with my identity and finding myself - turns out half my life was missing! This information didn't suddenly solve all my problems but it explained a lot about myself to myself, like why I have so much trouble connecting to others. As I said, it doesn't fix the problem, but it's still reassuring to understand more about the cause. For all I know, that brain injury is at the root of my mental illness - though there is also some family history so it's likely not exclusively to blame. 
The point being that therapy has been hard but fantastically rewarding already. Understanding so much more about who I am and how I came to be this way is... I can't even put it into words. It's opened up my inner world so much and it gives me great information and ideas about how to move forward even though that will be more hard work. I also plan to start taking medication so I will hopefully stay fairly even-keeled with I go back to work.

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I've rambled on for a while now, so I'll wrap this up with a few final thoughts. My mantra lately has been, "The best revenge is a life well-lived." There have been people and circumstances in my life that have tried to destroy me. And I've hit a point where right now, I refuse to allow them to do so. At my lowest, I chant this to myself, I remember all that I've already survived, and I get pissed. I will not let this bullshit beat me. And I take one more step, one more breath, determined that if I achieve nothing else in life I will be happy because FUCK all the people and things that tried to stop it from happening. I'd love to get to the point that my motivation is less revenge and more genuine self-love, but for now I'll take what I can get if it helps me keep going.

Finally, I know that everything on this list of "ways I improved my mental health" is stuff that isn't available to everyone. As much as my life has sucked in some ways, I also have an incredible amount of privilege. And it's awful that I can't list out a bunch of self-care, mental health tips that anyone could access. I'm planning a post like that in the future and there are things out there, but the reality of our world is that not everyone gets what they need. Some people even actively try to prevent their fellows from getting what is needed. It's awful and I wish I could fix it. I think an important for step is for us to just acknowledge the truth of it. We can't start taking better care of each other until we admit that everyone deserves care.

My lovelies, I hope you all are well. What do you do to take care of yourself? Please find someway to love and care for yourself today, however small. 💙💚💛💜 And happy Pride from your favorite Bi blogger!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

What's The Problem?

We burned a letter to my ex in therapy this week. It was sort of a cathartic experience, but I've had similar before so I was interested to see if that feeling of a weight lifted stuck around. I was eager to discuss the experience with friends.

It's something I've known since the beginning. A big part of why I benefit from therapy is that I feel safe to talk honestly about myself knowing I won't be judged, disliked by my therapist, or have the information used against me. This is a totally novel experience and the visceral feeling of relaxation I get walking into that room is alone worth the experience. My whole body unclenches and that is the only time I've experienced that happening including during sleep or massage.

Because the truth is that people don't like me and use my weaknesses against me. So I don't trust them. No one I know (or don't) has asked me about my experience in therapy so far and I don't feel comfortable bringing it up myself. I want to debrief about what I've been learning and working through so far and I don't have a resource for that. It's just screaming into the void.

I check social meeting and see people I know making posts about nonsense like how wrong you are if you like those grocery store cookies and that gets more reaction that my pleas for help. I see people I know posting pleas for help themselves and those posts get more discussion than mine to an exponential degree, from mutual "friends." Supposedly you shouldn't compare, but I don't know how to avoid feeling bitter and resentful when I see the exact same setup play out completely differently just based on who's asking for support. My support system is crushingly small and family is great for tangibles like childcare and bringing over meals, but less gifted for things like a shoulder to cry on or talking through heavy emotions. Mostly I get Bible verses, prayer guides, and/or ignored.

I just don't feel I belong anywhere. My whole, minuscule friend group has started pulling away as they all now share a hobby that I don't. I have no hobbies anymore. We joined a church that I genuinely love for its liberal, accepting message. But it's been over a year and I haven't connected with anyone there. My worldview is so disparate with my family's that I'm not able to discuss anything of much substance there without disagreement. I just want to feel connected and I'm not sure what to do about it. My life is just the necessary chores to make it to the end of the day before starting over again the next. Cook, eat, work, pee, clean, cook, eat, bed. There is nothing I look forward to, no one I go see, no fun in my life. I enjoy spending time with my daughter (generally, toddlers have their bad moments, as everyone knows) and.... that's pretty much it. I was terrified of my identity being consumed by motherhood, and my worst fears have come to pass. What's so sad and infuriating about it is that it's not because I walked away from my life but because it walked away from me.

Seriously, what's the problem? What is it about me that is so repugnant? I realize people don't want to hear complaints all the time, but look through my post history and you'll realize that's not me until lately. I make a conscious effort online and in person not to be negative very much both for my personal health and because I know people find it off-putting. Also, as I mentioned, I know people who do complain all the time and our mutual relationships continually rush to their aid while steadfastly ignoring me.

Why doesn't anybody like me?

Monday, March 26, 2018

Therapy

I had my first therapy nightmare!

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Some of the basics I've learned in therapy. PTSD has 3 key diagnostic categories: Intrusion, avoidance, and hyper-vigilance. There are other areas of importance - obviously having suffered a trauma is one - but you have to have significant symptoms in those 3 areas to be properly, officially diagnosed.

Intrusion: These are the things that throw you back into the trauma in the course of your every day life. Flashbacks, nightmares, physical or emotional reactions to triggers. Some of my triggers that I've uncovered: People who look similar to my abuser, the Big Bang Theory theme song (long story), a certain house, condescension, and phone calls. For real, do NOT call me unless absolutely essential. For damn sure leave a message about why you called if you don't get me because I will have a panic attack.

Avoidance: Pretty obvious, this means avoiding triggers, distracting yourself from memories or physical reminders such as photos. This is actually a potentially healthy way of coping if you can avoid taking it to extreme levels. Ex: texting over calling can be a hassle at times, but it's still less disruptive than a panic attack, right? A version of this is actually a skill I'm working on with my therapist. The problem comes when I avoid significant things, like important conversations because I'm scared of confrontation or paying certain bills because they are tied to his financial abuse and therefore might trigger me.

Hyper-vigilance: This feels a lot like a panic attack. All my senses get cranked to 11 when I'm triggered and I look for signs of danger everywhere. My therapist mentioned that if you can learn to exercise conscious control over this symptom, it can actually become a useful tool. But when triggered unexpectedly it overloads my system and I shut down (dissociation).

So since my trauma includes assault, I was/am an at-risk person for re-traumatization due to labor and delivery. I feel reasonably confident that childbirth did worsen my symptoms as I had what many would consider a perfect delivery but I still hate thinking about it and avoid doing so. Probably didn't help that I wasn't given time to myself afterward as I requested. That will go differently next time, I promise you (and myself) that much. Plus the hormone dump and changes were bound to exacerbate the crap that I've had hanging around for years now.

Depression and anxiety are typical parts of PTSD (and PPD for that matter) to the point that they are basically diagnostic criteria on their own. My therapist said that depression is a focus on the past while anxiety is a focus on the future. So the way to address them is to be in present. That makes a lot of sense to me, though we'll see if it helps. In short, there are 3 possible ways to get myself out of a bad spot when I find myself in one:

1. Safe space: a visualization technique where I craft and practice existing in a space that brings me peace and comfort. I'm not sure I'm comfortable sharing the specifics of my safe space yet, largely because I am alone in it. That could be because I genuinely desire and seek solitude or because I have trouble connecting to others and taking comfort from them. While I, like anyone, certainly do crave time to myself, I believe I fall into the second category. I don't trust people enough to open up to them as my weaknesses have too often been thrown back in my face.

2. Grounding: this is the part where I focus on the present. I assess my senses; what is going on around me? What do I see, hear, smell? Am I hungry, tired, thirsty? I focus on the current and the concrete. I've tried it a little and didn't find it especially helpful. Yet.

3. Meditative breathing: I'm a big believer in meditation. It's been scientifically proven to provide health benefits. Plus, I am bit of a sucker for yoga which is often meditative. I actually use that anxiety gif to slow my breathing at work, and it does help in the short term.

The idea is that we will use these techniques to help me cope with talking about my trauma. If I can tell my narrative, it should help me move on. But bringing all that stuff up is risky and can cause side-effects, so I have these techniques to use as needed. I've already told a large chunk of the story on this very blog, and apparently it didn't help, so we'll see how this goes. Herein comes the nightmare in which I was trapped in a version of The Walking Dead with my ex and literally ran out to be eaten to get away. (My dog saved me so... happy ending?) I could not move my body for about 10 minutes after waking and tried to use grounding to help me overcome the visceral feel that my abuser was standing behind me.

Theoretically, after we tell my "trauma narrative" and I get a good handle on my coping techniques, a lot of the depression and anxiety symptoms should fade. We will deal with what's left. Here's why I call bullshit. If you've ever taken one of these mental health questionnaires, you are familiar with the fact that they specify what symptoms you've experienced in the past week. I don't know about you, but if I'm in a decent enough place that I'm able to ask for help I haven't had a particularly bad week. So if I answer honestly, things don't look so bad. But if we were surveying the previous month, they'd be a lot worse. One of the darkest times of my life was several years after the wreck trauma (no PTSD there because I don't remember it) and several years before the abuse related trauma. I mean, we'll see. Maybe I'm totally wrong. I don't have great self-awareness.

I'm not feeling great, but I do feel a little more positive in the sense that at least I'm working on it. So far I like therapy. If nothing else, it's nice to dump all my fears and neuroses on someone else without feeling guilty for talking about myself.