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The Struggle Continues

Please accept yet another apology from me for my absence from the blog. It was my intention in the beginning to post twice a week, and I haven’t kept that commitment to you.

I haven’t blogged, because I’ve been struggling myself. When I started this blog, I wanted to share my success story, my journey of recovery with you. Now it seems that I’ll be sharing my own struggles with you. I hope we can encourage one another. At the same time, I will be sharing what is and is not working for me. Perhaps we can be of help to one another.

For such a long time, I’ve been out of therapy, partly because I thought I didn’t really need it anymore and more recently because I just couldn’t afford it. Now that I’m back in treatment, after several visits, my psychologist and my psychiatrist agree that I am probably not fully integrated. As I have shared previously, I thought I integrated 11 years ago. However, when they told me, though I was disappointed, I can’t say I was terribly shocked. Several occurrences had caused me to wonder if perhaps someone or “someones” were still there.

I think it’s possible they’ve been afraid to rock the boat, because I was so convinced I was integrated. Lately, though, I think part of the reason my life has become so difficult may be because I haven’t allowed them to “be,” to share what they need with me.

The fact that I also have bipolar disorder muddies the waters of my symptoms and treatments. The dual diagnosis makes the work and the decisions of my psychiatrist and psychologist that much more difficult. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I don’t have bipolar disorder at all. Perhaps the symptoms are caused more by the parts inside rather than dysfunctional brain chemicals. 

As I share this, I wonder whether this blog serves anyone’s needs. Please comment to let me know whether you want to me to continue and perhaps we can walk down this path together, though it is different from what I expected. I don’t want to continue posting if no one finds my words of comfort, encouragement or value, and my posts may be infrequent as I’m struggling to have the energy to write or the ability to think and communicate clearly.

Thank you for your caring and sharing.


The Truth of Mental Illness

By now, you may have heard of the death of Rick Warren’s son by suicide at the age of 27. This is just the most recent of several people I know, or know of, who have made this choice.

Because of the high profile of this man and, therefore, of the tragedy of the death of his son, I decided it was time to speak out on Facebook. This is not what exactly what I posted, but it is basically the same. I wanted people who don’t deal with mental illness to grasp what it’s all about in the hope that it would dispel some myths and grant a measure of understanding. And here I want people who do deal with mental illness to find hope to hang on to when they see there is someone who does understand, in fact, there is a whole community that cares and wants to offer help.

I want to make it very clear that, in spite of my comments regarding compassion for any person who takes his/her own life, I am in no way endorsing it. God knows the number of our days, and He is perfectly capable of knowing when it is time to call you out of this life. He does not need our help!

I am in recovery from dissociative identity disorder. The PTSD is a remnant of the abuse I lived through as a child. This sometimes causes me to be gripped by the memories of the past, unable to find my way back to reality. I relive the awful events all over again. Sometimes at night I awaken, heart beating rapidly, “feeling” the presence of one who is attempting to attack me, his hand clamped around my arm. I swing at the empty air trying to claw my way free from my invisible assailant, attempting to scream as no sound escapes, only to wake up still trying to determine whether the dream or the waking is reality.

I also have bipolar disorder II. This means that, at best, I’m only slightly depressed. I’ve learned to accept that that is just the way I have to live my life. On rare occasions, I have felt good, which is what most people would call “normal.” Others, I experience what is known as hypomania: times during which I become irritable and sometimes can’t turn off my thoughts, my constant activity and find myself thinking of doing things I would not otherwise consider. However, like most people who have bipolar II, I live most of my life depressed. Medication and therapy make a tremendous difference and are the only reasons that I am even close to the self I was born to be. Without those, I would either be impossible to live with, permanently in an institution or dead.

Those are the facts of mental illness. Those of us who deal with this are not weak, lacking in faith, demon-possessed or oppressed or anything else but suffering from faulty brain chemistry. Our disorders are no different in essence from diabetes or the disease with which I am most familiar, cystic fibrosis. Our family and my friends need to understand this and offer us grace and understanding.

The disorder affects my daily life: my ability to work, interact with other people, activities of daily living to the point of sometimes being unable to get out of bed or leave my house. I hate it. I hate that God has chosen this path for my growth and sanctification. Depression is my nearly constant companion. I rarely get a break. I wake up with it. I work with it. I go to sleep with it, knowing that tomorrow I’ll wake up and live it all over again.

Our disorders and illnesses affect every aspect of our lives. I have, at times, considered taking my life. In fact, as recently as a few weeks ago, I felt the temptation for days. I fought it day and night until I realized that fighting it alone was too risky and called friends who truly “get” it. I made a commitment to God, my family and myself on May 18, 2001, that I would never again try to take my own life, and I was determined to live up to that promise. My friends picked me up and let me stay with them until I made the decision to go into the hospital, where I spent a week getting daily therapy and adjusting medication. I came home much improved.

Why am I telling you all this? I am doing it, because you all may deal with similar issues. There are so many of us who suffer silently, because it is not acceptable to discuss mental illness. Cancer is OK. People have sympathy and understanding for that. CF, diabetes, MS and the multitude of other terrible diseases and disorders are acceptable. Mental illness is considered taboo. The stigma attached to it prevents people from getting the help they need, from picking up the phone, from asking for prayer. I’m telling you about my struggles to be part of the movement to de-stigmatize the many conditions that fall under the umbrella of mental illness.

Many, many people, especially Christians, negatively judge people with mental illness and especially those who have made the awful decision to take their own lives. A common statement is: “It’s the ultimate selfish act.” I have, in the past, been completely and thoroughly convinced that if I loved my family, especially my children, as I said I did, I would remove the evil (me) from their lives, so I would no longer influence them for evil. 

These are the kinds of thoughts that people who choose suicide experience. Yes, it is an unspeakable tragedy that leaves those left behind with the worst kind of pain. A pain that I can’t even imagine as they believe that the one who died didn’t love them enough to fight. I know those are the thoughts, the feelings of those left behind, but they are not the actual reasons suicide was chosen. In fact, just the opposite is likely true.

However, those of us who are here and dealing with our problems must realize that there is hope, and there is help. I hope that through this blog, I can be a beam of light in a world of darkness that many of you inhabit. I seek to be the hand that reaches out for you to grab and hold onto as you climb out of the deep hole of despair.

 


Living With the Aftermath

It’s over. It’s in the past. I know that. That’s the good news. And it is good news. Really good news. It’s the present that gives me problems.

The results of the abuse are always lurking. They show themselves in the fear of the future, the “knowing” that what’s coming is going to hurt and more than what’s hurt in the past. The sense that, in spite of the horror of the past, the other shoe still hasn’t dropped, and it’s only waiting for me to make a mistake. One mistake and it will all fall apart, all the good that I’ve worked so hard to build — my home, my family, my life. And I will be responsible.

That’s why I work so hard to keep all the balls in the air. I have to be good enough; I have to pray enough; I have to work hard enough; I must be the perfect mother. No stone must be unturned. I’m sure that the one time I forget to buckle a child’s seat belt will be the time there will be an accident, and I will be responsible for the results. I will miss one essential plea before God’s throne and a daughter’s brain tumor grow beyond treatment. I forget a job contact and my career is unsalvageable.

I think I can take whatever life can throw at me; after all, I already have (or so I think). Then PTSD steals up from behind and brings the awful memories to life in living color complete with sounds, the sense of being touched and the smell of the people and things around, and I realize I’m not prepared at all.

The dissociation steals my mind away and I have car accidents. Then I realize that I am not in control at all.

The nightmares from which I cannot wrench myself suck me back into my position of vulnerability, and sometimes, in my sleep I whimper or beg for mercy. I wake up drenched in sweat.

I wonder. Am I losing my mind? And what do I do to get it back? Can I get it back. Does anyone care if I get it back? Or do I just let my head fall on my pillow and allow the nothingness to take me away. Would it be a relief? And yet, even when I give in to the temptation, my thoughts will not allow me to just abandon my sanity. They bring me back to the now of how do I do this life, and I find there are no easy answers. So, I let the tears of sadness, loneliness and fear soak my pillow with salt water.

I may not be alone, but the journey of clinging to sanity is walked alone. Oh there can be people who support, who love, who encourage, and I have learned to let them. But, the journey in my head is made alone with only my voice trying to be the voice of reason tepeating the words of others, though always wondering how they know that what they’re telling me is the truth if they’ve never walked this journey themselves.

This is the sojourn I have been on that recently resulted in two and half weeks in a psych hospital. I had gone in for what I thought was a deep depression brought on by very difficult circumstances. However, once inside, my wise mind let me know there was so much more to be dealt with. Namely, years of memories that had lain untouched since the last time I had been in the hospital and had seriously addressed them in therapy.

You see, I had thought all that was in the past. I had thought that once I had integrated, I had dealt with all the memories, the hurt and the pain of the past. And I was anxious to put it behind me, so I walked away. I put that part of my life neatly in a box and set it on a shelf in a dark corner of a closet that I never entered and tried hard to forget. I seemed OK and I wanted to be. I wanted to be “normal.” I wanted to be the Jessi that I once had, the Jessi that people remembered. The Jessi that was all together.

But the “monster of abuse” refused to stay locked away. Now, I know that it is not a monster, maybe not a friend, but a companion that will probably always walk with me. I think there will be times, when it will be content to keep her distance and others when it sidles up to me and whispers in my ear. I’ll probably never get used to or be happy with its presence, but, as a survivor of abuse,it will most likely stick by my side. And now I know that I CANNOT ignore it. It has a tendency to throw tantrums. And they’re not pretty, and I seem to end up the loser.

So, I have committed to ongoing therapy that I had been neglecting because of financial problems. Now I know that my therapy is as important as my phone or electricity. I cannot function without it. I am working with my psychiatrist to adjust my medications. And, I have learned to “never say never” when it comes to going back to the hospital when I need it. It may have saved my life, and I’m so glad it did.

Now, that I’m doing what I need to: journaling, seeing my therapist and my psychiatrist, and working with my meds, the PTSD seems to have subsided, the dissociation (at this writing) seems to be at bay, my nightmares have gone away for now and I no longer think I’m losing my mind.

Life is not a panacea. Loneliness comes and goes. I miss my children. But I see a hope for the future. A hope that promises life does not have to be filled with only the remnants of a painful past but also with the threads of a promising future.


1 Sure Way to Derail Your Recovery

I’ve observed through my many hospital stays that people tend to compare their abuse against what others have experienced and then rate their hurt and pain on an imaginary scale. Then they decide how much hurt they should be experiencing in relation to others. Some come to think they shouldn’t be making such a “big deal” about their hurt; others look at their pain and wonder what others are complaining about, because clearly they haven’t suffered as much as they have. To illustrate the futility of this behavior, think about your last trip to the doctor or emergency room. One of the questions frequently asked is, “How would you rate your pain on a scale from one to 10?” Never do they ask, “And how do you think your pain compares to the person in the next room?” It would be ludicrous, and yet we do it with emotional pain all the time.

This continual evaluating of your pain against another’s can become a serious distraction from recovery. When you minimize your pain, you don’t give your best effort at feeling and working through it. You devalue it, thereby derailing your recovery. You begin to wonder why, if your pain was so “minor” compared to others’, you feel so devastated. You wonder why your life is in the pits and you’re feeling so out of control.

Those who compare trauma to prove their trauma is worse, do so, I believe, because their feelings are so big, so overwhelming that they think they MUST have had the worst trauma ever. Otherwise there is no justification in their world for their dramatic emotions. They feel they have to prove why their feelings are so intense.

There’s also a phenomenon among people in group therapy settings that cause some people to play the “one-up” game. You know, someone tells her story, giving some details. The following day someone else speaks up to tell his story, and it’s just a bit “worse.” And so it goes until the stories have eroded into bizarre fantasy. These people are not bad or trying to minimize the pain of others no matter how it may seem. It’s simply their way of justifying the depth of their feelings.

What’s important to understand is that in some important ways, your story doesn’t matter. If what happened to you was bad enough to cause you pain, then it was bad. And that’s all that matters. You hurt. You need healing, just like I do. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t share my story in the blog, because it really doesn’t matter. I was wounded, and I had to work through healing, just like you.

I have discovered that pain is pain. You can’t compare it. If you hurt, you hurt. It doesn’t help to hear that someone else hurts worse. Or do they? How does anyone know? And why would it matter anyway. Pain is pain. If you’re hurting, you’re hurting. And that’s what you deal with.

That’s what you have to deal with in recovery. Just focus on what’s causing you pain. Minimizing your pain, because you think someone else had it worse or inflating your trauma to justify your feelings, does nothing but delay your healing. Your focus must be on yourself, your pain and your problems. This is one time when your attention needs to be on yourself for the purpose of healing. What others do in their journey to recovery has no bearing on you or your recovery.

I understand that you may have a family that needs and deserves your time and attention, and you don’t want to neglect them in favor of focusing exclusively on yourself. It does mean, however, that you take some time for yourself when you shut everything else out and care for yourself. Just remember to deal with your own pain and let others deal with theirs. You can have compassion for them, but keep your boundaries in place as you deal with your burdens and move toward healing.


Establishing and Maintaining Good Boundaries

Maintaining a relationship with those who hurt you requires a great deal of thought and firm boundaries. I think, but have no way of knowing, that it would be easier if the abuser were a stranger or someone with whom contact wasn’t necessary.

If your parents or other family members were your abusers, you are presented with tremendous challenges. If you’re like me, you loved your abusers and counted on them to take care of you, a trust they tragically violated. If you grew up with the knowledge of their abuse, perhaps you rebelled as a teenager to try to put distance between you and them. You may have consciously tried to be different than them in every way. You may have told yourself that you hated them, but ambivalence and conflict usually take up residence in your heart as the natural pull of familial love tugs you back.

Or perhaps you’re like me and repressed all the memories, stuffing them away to cope. However, memories like these can’t remain hidden forever, at some time, bits of memories and feelings start to bubble to the surface. When that happens you’re confused and stuck with feelings that don’t seem to make sense.

Either way, you’re faced with the question of how to deal with them once you know the truth. Will you end your relationship with them, turning back on your history once and for all? Will you sweep your feelings and memories under the carpet for the sake of maintaining your relationship? Will you have a conversation with them about what you remember and ask them to own up to it and say they’re sorry? Or will you come to an acceptance of what happened and then see how the relationship plays out? There are so many different ways the relationship can develop once the truth is out.

I confronted my parents one at a time with the truth. My father admitted it, cried and asked for forgiveness. My mother stonewalled, sitting tight-lipped, refusing to look at me. She refused to accept it. As they left, relief swept over me. I had been told not to expect anything from either of them. My then-husband took them to the airport afterward and they talked cheerfully about everything except my conversation with them. Later, my husband asked them how they felt about what we’d talked about, and they both vehemently denied admitting anything. They claimed that they would say “anything to make her better.” Shortly after, I wrote them a letter ending my relationship with them. I told them that if we couldn’t deal in truth, then there was no basis for a relationship. Now, that was my choice. Perhaps it was the right one, perhaps not, but it felt like the only one I could live with at the time.

I kept them out of our family’s life for eleven years. This decision had far-reaching consequences. My children grew up without this set of their grandparents, and they didn’t understand why. I wouldn’t accept gifts for my children from them, sending them back instead. Later, I learned that my children wondered why their grandparents had suddenly forgotten about them. I justified continuing my distance from them by telling myself I had to protect my children, after all. That was true, but perhaps I could have done it another way. I just couldn’t figure out how to have a relationship as long as they refused to acknowledge the truth. To me that was tantamount to calling me a liar. I couldn’t understand why they would want to have a relationship with me if they believed I would lie about such things.

Finally, after my divorce I went to visit them with my sister. The visit was a disaster because of my insistence on talking about the truth. After that, however, I did consent to occasional contact by phone, because I had learned certain truths that my ex-husband had kept from me. Like the fact that my father had called monthly to find out how I was doing and other things I felt were important.

After that I would have dinner with them if they came to the area to visit my sister and me, but I kept my distance . . . for a long time. Then I started to believe their professions of love and care, and immediately my mother pounced and tried to exert her control over me once again. I pulled back and quit taking calls. The last several years have been strained. I have learned that it is critical to keep my boundaries high and firm. I can’t risk the health I have worked so hard to achieve. However, that does allow for some occasional, careful contact. I don’t believe much of what they say about how they love me.

Here are the guidelines you need for a relationship with your abusers.
1. You have to learn what kind of relationship is right for you.
2. Whatever you decide, remember that, unless they have confessed their wrongs and admitted with sorrow their sins against you,
they are not trustworthy.
3. Determine what your boundaries will be in regard to phone calls, visits and letters.
4. Remain firm. Your health is at stake, and perhaps, the health of your own family as well.

Remember, now you have to establish a new normal, a healthy normal. You will be working to create strong new relationships that are likely different from any you’ve had before. Keep these things in mind as you work toward your new life with positive people to encourage you and hold you accountable.


Anger Management

When I started in therapy for my abuse, one of the first symptoms to be addressed was my flat affect (lack of emotion). I talked about the abuse as a matter of fact, as if I were discussing data from a marketing report. I just couldn’t “feel” about it. I couldn’t get angry about what my parents had repeatedly done to me. My doctor and therapist asked me how I’d feel if my parents abused my children in the same ways they had abused me. I think my reply was something like, “The first thing I’d do would be to take a shotgun to my dad’s balls.” In other words, I had no trouble getting angry at just the thought of my children being hurt. That certainly helped me understand the problem I was facing.

When I was hospitalized, I was on the Trauma Unit, which deals primarily with people who have been abused, I attended the Anger Management group. It sounds like it’s for people who have a problem keeping their anger under control, and that’s true. It’s also for people like me, who couldn’t get angry. After attending a few groups, I discovered that one of the problems I faced was that I was afraid of being angry at my parents. I had seen the consequences of expressing anger with my parents. It wasn’t pretty to say the least. In one situation, my dad took a bullwhip to my brother. The fact that my parents were hundreds of miles away and had no idea I was even in the hospital, let alone what I was discussing didn’t make a difference in how I felt. Facts often have little to do with emotions.

Facts are, however, where we have to start. Fact: I was sexually abused. Fact: My father did it. Fact: My mother knew and did nothing to stop it. Fact: I was now royally screwed up because of it.

I started by getting angry, because my husband and children had been hurt: by being separated from me every time I was hospitalized and by my suicide attempts. In Anger Management we threw balls of clay at a sheetrock “board.” The first few times I just threw the clay as an exercise in connecting my body to my emotions. Sound strange? I was only able to acknowledge the possibility of anger toward my parents in my brain. I needed to reconnect with my body, and throwing the clay helped do that.

After a while I could feel a little anger, call it frustration or annoyance, and I tried to let those feelings connect with the clay and fly out of my body onto the board. The feelings gradually and slowly grew into appropriate feelings, and I got angry. Really angry. I was encouraged to yell or scream if I needed to as I threw clay at the board. The point is connect with the anger, feel it and then leave it there with the clay on the board. I had to practice staying with it while I was throwing. I would approach the anger, then run away out of terror of the feelings.

I learned about healthy anger that alerts me to the presence of a problem that I need to deal with. Now, it also took practice to know where, when and how to express it. Sometimes, outside the hospital and the Anger Management room, I’d get angry and express it inappropriately. Caused some embarrassment for my family a few times, which I regretted. Eventually I learned to get it right, at least most of the time. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” is not really true, as my daughter’s orchestra conductor taught her. Instead, “Practice makes permanent, and perfect practice makes perfect.” So when I’d get angry, I’d slow down before just acting on it. I’d think about where, when and how to best deal with it. I’ve gotten better with it over time. Occasionally I still express anger inappropriately, which means I’ve gotten really good at saying I’m sorry and asking for forgiveness.

I’ve learned a lot about anger, and I’ve had to admit there are other ways to deal with my anger at my dad besides shooting his balls off, though once in a while, I admit it is a somewhat satisfying visualization.


The Guilt Bucket

The Guilt Bucket   This post goes hand-in-hand with Step 3: Take Responsibility. Accepting responsibility and asking forgiveness for the things we do wrong are keys to maintaining successful relationships. However, when sexual abuse has been a part of our history, guilt tends to get in the way. Why is that?  Well, children are egocentric. That is, they think the world centers around them. That’s the way they’re supposed to be; it’s part of the normal developmental process. But when sexual abuse enters the picture, they believe that they are the cause. When we become adults, it means we are left with feelings of guilt. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it is a reality.

So now that we’re adults, what do we do with this guilt? It’s time to learn the difference between true guilt and false guilt.   True guilt is the guilt we experience for the things we do that are wrong. We all come equipped with a God-given conscience that alerts us when we do something wrong. The problem for abuse survivors is that the conscience becomes warped, and we find ourselves continuing to feel guilty even when we’ve done nothing wrong. That’s false guilt.  So what does that have to do with taking responsibility? A really good therapist explained it to me using the example of the Guilt Bucket. He told me to think of it this way: You have a bucket that fills up with the things you feel guilty about. When you fill it up with false guilt, for things like sexual abuse, your bucket becomes full. So when true guilt comes along, you can’t accept it; your bucket is already full. So you reject the true guilt and become defensive when someone calls you on something.   The way to heal it is to dump out the false guilt to make room for the true guilt.

How do you do that? The first step is to learn how to tell the difference between true guilt and false guilt. This is where the 5 Steps of Recovery come in.  You must decide to face the issue, tell the truth and now, learn to take responsibility.  The main issue is looking into the past and giving responsibility for the abuse back to those who were responsible. That’s not easy, so try this. Take a long look at children you know. Now imagine someone approaching them to do harm. Would you then blame the children? Of course not! And yet if you’re like I was, you feel responsible for what happened to you.  It was not my fault, and it’s certainly not yours.

Practice emptying your guilt bucket of false guilt, so it won’t overflow when the real thing comes along. I just try to visualize what’s in the bucket. I “look” at each one in my mind. Was this really my responsibility? Is this something someone else did to me? Is this a choice that I made? Answer those questions honestly, and then you will be able to take responsibility for the things you do wrong while letting the other stuff go. You will be amazed at the improvement in relationships you’ll see when you can take responsibility for your own stuff. It’s just part of being adult. And the most surprising part about this is how freeing it is to be able to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong,.”

What? you say. Yes, I know, I really do know, that to say you’re sorry is to humble yourself and be vulnerable. Those are two very difficult things to do for anyone, abused or not. And notice:  I said humble yourself, not humiliate yourself. Those are two very different things.   One of the first times I practiced taking responsibility for something I knew was mine was with my daughter. I realized how much I had hurt her with all my suicide attempts and cutting, so I told her that, and then I said, “I’m sorry. Would you please forgive me?” I knew I had done the right thing when she turned around with tears streaming down her cheeks. It’s what she needed to hear from me, and it was the beginning of a transformation in our relationship. That was the moment the gap between us began to close, and now our relationship is better than it’s ever been, all because of two words: I’m sorry. They may be the most powerful, most healing words you ever utter.


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