church, Process, Spiritual Abuse, Vulnerability

When Being Human Feels Like Imposter Syndrome

For me, nothing feels more vulnerable than not being able to perform at the level I’m used to.  I find solace in the idea that if anything I prove my worth by doing ALL THE THINGS.   Over the past few months, my health has taken a weird turn, requiring me to really pare down how much I am “doing” throughout the day.  I’m consistently tired, thus needing to pass some of the workloads I’ve previously owned, to my husband.

At the same time, I’ve been in therapy with Jessica for over three years now.  I’ve been working through years and years of trauma and abuse, while simultaneously trying to {adult/wife/mother}.

I have a lovely husband, an amazing child, and a great life.  But my trauma keeps me from enjoying it the way I should.  I feel like an imposter in this life, as if I can’t play all the parts I should to deserve it all. I sit in therapy and spin in circles about the human I am, who I was supposed to be, and the complex factors that created who I am today.

Despite her not giving me a single reason to, I’ve consistently challenged Jessica’s dedication to me as a client by calling her out on various things she says that trigger me.  (Interestingly enough, she probably finds this totally helpful and empowering for me to do.)  Every few months I seem to hit this Wall of “OMG WHY AM I NOT “BETTER” YET?”  Today she mentioned in response to the Wall, that therapy for complex trauma survivors can take 10 years + to move through.

I was dumbfounded.  Then she drops this:

“When you’ve grown up in persistent and systemic abuse, with incident after incident, complex trauma, therapy is a process of totally rebuilding a new human being.

Of course it’s going to take a long time.

Not only that, but it’s expected and okay.”

I left shaken, and in tears of both shame {for feeling this way} and relief {maybe I’m not broken?} I turned on a podcast and started listening to my weekly “geek-out” of Psychology in Seattle about Imposter Syndrome.

The podcast got me thinking.  I feel like just existing is imposter syndrome for me.  I consistently question my own reality because of the spiritual abuse I experienced.  The church shunned facing trauma head-on and working through it.  I recall ministries that would have you bring your trauma to a weekend retreat and be expected to let god heal it all {read: never need to worry about, deal with, or mention said trauma again}.  If you did struggle with that trauma afterward it was because of {a lack of faith, a lack of reading your bible enough, a lack of prayer, unconfessed sin in your life}.

Perhaps this is why the formerly religious struggle so much with trauma.  Without a forum to safely express feelings, doubts, and struggles,  how is trauma to be resolved? {Or maybe not even resolved, but integrated into our lives.} When lack of healing is connected with lack of faith, there is little motivation to explore struggle with past trauma.

When I was in the church, I was basically cattle.  I was being raised to fulfill certain duties {youth leader/wife/worship leader} and to not stray beyond that.  Purity was of the utmost importance, and the appearance of being unblemished was critical for those roles.  The girls, specifically, were raised with a goal of a marriage and children.  There was little room in there for humanity or cracks in our perfect porcelain plates.  In order to have a great match, endorsed by the pastors, we needed to have an appearance of perfection, and a lack of struggle to be holy.

Upon exiting the church, I felt everything I was and formed myself to be was called into question.  I was wandering among the world we were taught to not be of, with huge gashes from childhood and young adult complex trauma, with no support system.  I felt so vulnerable because the part I was groomed to play was suddenly taken away from me.  An arranged marriage to a member of the ministry, all my friends, my musical self {worship team}, and even my family.  My sense of self was systemically taken from me {or never allowed to develop}, piece by piece during my childhood through to my young adult days along with countless others.  {Some of whom are still deeply involved in the church life to this day, and now a cog in the spiritual abuse wheel.}

Thankfully, I’m a member of several FB groups where deconstructing religious experiences and spiritual trauma is an everyday discussion.  I feel less alone when I see similar stories of spiritual abuse, and how their experiences in the church have cause people significant and ongoing harm.  It hurts me to know that a group of people can hurt people so badly, and even after a person leaves there is significant, ongoing wounds that pop up.

On the flip side, at times a topic will be brought up that turns my world on end again.  This goes along the lines of “know better, do better.”  I will suddenly have a realization that something I experienced wasn’t normal, or was downright abusive, which puts me back in the trenches of needing to deconstruct my long-held beliefs.

I frequently doubt my ability to reconstruct a whole human being from the broken parts I’ve gathered over the years.  I feel a sense of obligation to be further along in my process than just 3 years.  When I struggle to be the perfect wife, mother or friend, I have little sympathy for myself, or grace.  I am keenly aware this is a result of the unbending black/white thinking I grew up in, but cutting myself the slack to know that I’m not going to break my child by reacting a certain way when I’m triggered… my husband isn’t going to leave me because I need to rest and not unload the dishwasher… I’m not failing at life because I sit in therapy every week spinning on the same issues over and over… is difficult.

 

 

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The Body Keeps the Score

CW: Rape & Trauma Processing

Recently I’ve been faced with a health challenge that is draining my physical reserves.  The cell phone battery of my body charges to an unpredictable level… when I wake up, usual daily chores/activities are taking everything for me to get through.  Often even walking upstairs causes me to need to lie down for a bit.

This lack of autonomy/function in my body has caused me to have increased flashbacks as of late.  My heart is already racing from basic activity, so it doesn’t take much for my mind to jump into a PTSD moment.  Something as simple as my child accidentally scaring me, or even the sound of a male voice can fast-forward my memories into trauma.

Flashbacks aren’t new to the survivor, and I’ve certainly had them before, but the flavor of these have been particularly intense.  During the actual assault, I did what many people do in traumatic events, disassociated.  I recall leaving my body behind and watching from above.  In the actual moments, I don’t recall feeling pain, as my body protected me from the physical trauma by disconnecting my body from my brain.  However, in the past month, my flashbacks have incorporated split seconds of “pain memories.”

The first time I remember feeling actual pain was in the hospital after the assault.  I was numb, and I don’t actually know how I got there (obviously I drove, but I don’t remember the act of getting there).   I looked down as I stood on the collection paper, and saw blood, and a lot of it.  In that moment, I started to “wake up” and realize what I had seen wasn’t a movie, but rather something that happened TO me.

My body told the tale that my mind protected me from.

Very quickly, though, my brain shut down those pain feelings… and filed them.  Until just recently.

The lack of autonomy that I feel in a body that is not at its best is wildly triggering.  I sit in therapy trying to hear what she’s saying… at the same time as I hear voices in the foyer that are male and try to manage the flashes that happen.  When I’m alone at home, it’s even harder as my mind spins on the possibilities of what “could” happen. I check the doors, make sure they are all locked and crawl into bed and wait for the moment to pass.  Sometimes it passes quickly, but more often than not it lasts for what feels like an eternity.

PTSD is a bitch.

Process

Same office, different hour.

Once (sometimes twice) a week I walk into a room where I don’t have to speak French to talk about trauma or “not trauma.”  I can walk in and speak about whatever I want, and know that I can be understood.

At times, that is the most freeing experience ever, and at times the most frustrating as I can’t hide anything.  I can’t hide my microexpressions, my breathing, nothing.

Trauma is isolating. Survivors are isolated from the world, from non-survivors, and from each other.  We are on an island.  I don’t get to therapy early because I don’t want to sit there in the waiting room and see other trauma survivors and not talk to them.  It’s already so isolating.  I don’t even look at anyone in the eyes in the office because I know that they have a story I can relate to, but I’ll never know it.  It’s worse to be surrounded by them, and know that you can never know.  Being aware these are your people, and you’ll never know them, it’s incredibly hard.

It’s worse to be lonely, than alone.

One day when I walked into Jess’s office there were drawings left over from the previous hour, another client… a drawing of a spider, on pink cardstock… with the words “fuck u.”  I saw that and just got them.  I got IT.  Sometimes that’s just how we deal.  We sometimes feel like we are just balloons floating around the world that doesn’t get it.

For me, I often have/had to approach the world with a “fuck u” attitude.  You think I can’t make it? Well, fuck you.  You think I need to trust everyone?  Fuck that and fuck you. (And so on.)  The Survivor’s Guide to Life is defense AND offense.

This little glimmer of the Fuck U spider was a moment of the humanity of someone else battling their own war.  Jess cut it out for me, and I have it in my wallet, to remind me that even though I don’t see them, somewhere out there, there is someone out there who gets it.

Over time, I’ve formed a music playlist that has been my go-to source of inspiration, and often play it in therapy.  I shared it with Jess and she asked if she could share this list with another one of her other clients.  Music is a huge part of my soul, and to pass it to another going through trauma was a gift I was thankful to share.  It gave me comfort to know that the notes that I curated into this list were being given to another.  Eventually, the idea was floated to connect the two of us. This person had no name, it’s like they weren’t real.

Until they were.

 

I got an email in my inbox, from the same office… different hour.

Subject line: Insert Awkward Subject Line Here.

Right then I knew, Hannah was good people.  Right off the cuff she was snarky, fun, and made fun of the therapeutic process, as we hardcore PTSD clients are prone to do. (It’s a coping strategy, don’t judge.)  Within days we developed a good rapport where we were able to express some of our challenges (what brought us to our hour) with ease.  It was amazing to be able to not only talk about those challenges without needing to interpret why xyz might be complex for us, but also knowing Jess allowed us to understand how that expression might play out in the hour.

My therapist offered a bridge between our two islands.

Suddenly, I wasn’t quite so alone.

Process

Brokenness

Broken

a :damaged or altered by or as if by breaking 
:having undergone or been subjected to fracture 
:not working properly 
:disrupted by change
:made weak or infirm 
:subdued completely (a broken heart/broken spirit)
:cut off 
:imperfectly spoken or written
:not complete or full 
The vulnerability project was born of brokenness. Of a desire to put together pieces of my soul and spirit in a new and unique way sure, but at its core, out of brokenness.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been processing an event that occurred more than a decade ago.  Part of trauma is the constant cycling of information in your brain, the recycling even of new ways of looking at the same event.  My therapist would refer to it as processing (UGH).
I’ve loved, truly loved, two men in my life.  I’m married to one of them.
This event involved the other.
More than a decade ago, I worked at an overnight camp and fell in love with an amazing person.  He was strong, kind, and knew what it was like to live through something hard.  At the time, I was still going through night terrors and reliving my own trauma, and he was able to empathize as he was a vet with PTSD himself.  The ability to speak the same language with him, without ever actually talking was unique and powerful.  For the first time in years, I felt like I wasn’t alone.
So much could go unsaid. But not like in the outside world.  Words could go unsaid because finally there was understanding.  I could bring up a trigger, and I didn’t have to go through the full story.  He could do the same.  It was like being in a book group, with someone finally reading the whole book, just like I did.  It was a breath of fresh air.
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I felt broken for years, alone, like a jagged shard of glass, but around him… since he had his own trauma, I thought perhaps we could be more like sea glass.  We could tumble a bit together and become something less sharp, if only because we had a mutual understanding.
Maybe together, we could both heal.
One night in the pitch black we went walking together in the neighboring regional forest next to our camp, after work.  It was dark, but I was with him.  I was with him. We were just talking.  I said something that caused him to be upset with me.  I recall he stopped. We stopped. and then he left me there.
And suddenly I was alone.
I remember my thoughts running in fast forward.
Where did he go?
Why did he leave me here?
Where am I?
I have no way of getting back, what will I do?
I.AM.ALONE.
I am going to die here.
And then I started to panic.
My mind flashed.
Suddenly I wasn’t in the forest, I was in my assault, and he put me there.  He left me alone in the middle of the woods, he knew what he was doing, and he left me unsafe.
Someone I loved, someone I trusted.
someone WHO.KNEW.BETTER.
I came back to my body in a violent landing, like a comet hitting the Earth because that’s exactly what I had done.  I was on the forest floor on my hands and knees, wondering why it was so loud.  What is that horrible noise?  What is dying?
That noise was me, screaming.
Time stood still.  I screamed and screamed.  I had no way of getting back, I didn’t know where I was in the park because I thought I was walking with someone safe,
someone I loved,
someone who would protect me.
He was in the army for god sakes, leave no one behind?
I thought I was going to have to wait until daylight to return back to camp, and if I had to scream until then, I would.
Time passed.
Days.
Years.
Minutes.
Seconds.
He finally returned.
We walked back together, and by that I mean somehow his body and mine shared space along the way to where we needed to go.
I moved my things out of his cabin that night, and he kept moving them back in.  I recall sleeping next to him shaking.
I spent time thinking about this throughout the following days/weeks and made a conscious choice to put it aside in my memory.  “You’re broken,” I thought.  “This might be your chance.  He gets that you are broken, and stays anyway. This might just need to be the way it is.”
So we moved on.  We stayed together for several more months together until we broke up in the fall.
Years go by, and we reconnect.  He has married and has a lovely wife and kids.  I do too and we realize that we still both deeply care for each other.  We have great conversations, and I look forward to any time we are able to talk.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago.
Out of nowhere, he says (I’m paraphrasing) “You know, I’m sorry for what happened in the forest. I knew it would trigger your PTSD.  That’s why I stayed nearby, you couldn’t see me, but I was nearby.”
……… And I look at those words and my heart sinks.
He had left me there and heard me suffer.  While he listened nearby, triggering me into a trauma space.  And as someone with PTSD himself, doing that knowingly.  Suddenly my narrative of the situation drastically changed.  I thought he had left and then returned when he noticed I hadn’t made it back.  Instead, he was nearby, listening to me scream.
I spoke with him via skype because I needed to know what he was thinking.  I needed to know one thing.  Had I triggered HIM, with something I had said?  This was the ONLY reason I could come up with, the only acceptable purpose for him leaving me in that moment.  It was the first time that I had HOPED that I had royally messed up and done something egregious.
But I hadn’t.
And I knew I hadn’t.
He said I hadn’t.
I had “frustrated him” he said.
I started to spiral and went into a very dark place.  How could someone I loved so deeply do this to me?  Could I trust anyone to not do this to me?  I had recently lost a friendship with someone I had cared about who hadn’t valued my friendship, was this a pattern?  Am I broken?
Could I trust myself, my heart, with a person who would purposely do something to trigger me into a deeply traumatic space, regardless of our history?  I found myself mourning the idea of losing someone who had been a big part of my life, and someone who was truly one of the only people who spoke the trauma language fluently in my life.
This relationship is broken.

Broken

a: damaged or altered by or as if by breaking 
bhaving undergone or been subjected to fracture 
cnot working properly 
ddisrupted by change
emade weak or infirm 
fsubdued completely (a broken heart/broken spirit)
gcut off 
himperfectly spoken or written
inot complete or full 
e3594e608b8a8ad58cca8201613eb1df--vikings--vikings-lagerthaI HATE that this situation has now spun me into questioning whether other people I love and care about will also “leave me in the forest” triggered, and terrified for reasons that aren’t equivalent to the amount of terror that it imposes on me.
Will my husband?  Will my friends?   Will my care team?
I feel vulnerable.
I feel that I let my guard down, and I’m now reaching for my shield again.
Process

You Have The Floor

Recently I’ve identified as being numb.  This is a scary place to be.  When one feels nothing, there is no place to go but down.

I sat on the floor of my therapist’s office (yes we do this), today and expressed how numb I felt to life, and this alarmed me.  Typically little things like the sound of my child laughing and my husband kissing me on the forehead would bring a smile to my face, but I just had no reaction to them anymore, other than straight apathy.

For 30 minutes I sat there describing my apathy, my numbness while Jess deftly navigated around how I presented.  Until I came to the realization that numb is another presentation for emotionally flooded.

I’m currently overwhelmed with feelings, and when I am overwhelmed, I tend to go inward and shut down.  For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been a metaphorical emotional black hole.

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I have a pattern of being very frustrated with the pattern of cycling back on a topic that I feel I’ve “dealt with” in the past.  If I’ve brought the trauma to the surface in the past, talked about it “to death,” picked it apart, and “processed it” I feel like it should be done.

Right?  It’s that simple.

I feel deep shame when I circle around to an issue that I’ve brought up before and feel like I’ve met a conclusion with.  As if there’s some sort of failure curve in therapy.

I’ve wanted to write, and every time I open this page, I felt this pang of failure.  I have a big topic to discuss but felt like it wasn’t the BIG trauma, thus, not important enough to write about.  This came up on the floor today too.  I couldn’t talk about this other trauma because it’s not like my life was on the line here.  I wasn’t going to die in this situation.  So it wasn’t important.  So I turned those feelings inward to apathy.

IT wasn’t important.

So *I* wasn’t important.

I need to get to writing.

 

 

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“You’re So Brave.”

Brave: having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty; making a fine show 

“You’re so brave.”

When people say this to me in regards to my story, my go-to outer response is “thank you.” My inner response is “I have no choice, so it’s not bravery, it’s survival and even that isn’t always a given.”

The past two weeks have been full of the bravery of a different type, simply figuring out a way to stay alive. I walked among the living, not feeling a part of them.  I smiled and joked, and played the part of the living, but was not one of them. I am around people, but alone.

PTSD is a Liar.  Anxiety is a Liar.  Depression is a Liar. Trauma is a Liar.

As someone aptly mentioned, trauma is like “my neighbors who not only play their music super loud but have extra bass that you can feel from across the apartment.” Wednesday night, that music brought me to the brink after a full week of operating at emergency trauma level, and I took a handful of pills on top of my typical nighttime medication.  This was brought about by quite a few of events involving a mix-up with a member of my care team, a person from my past coming up on Facebook surprisingly, and continuing feelings about the friend-breakup from the prior weeks.

 

My thoughts were scattered when I made this choice.  I can’t describe it.  I didn’t want to die.  I just didn’t want to live.  Or didn’t want to feel.  I’m not sure, maybe both.  Trauma is a liar. You can’t escape your brain, it’s always there.

So I talked about it.  First in a terrifying text to my therapist- where I downplayed exactly what I took.  Second, to my husband when “the story in my head” told me that likely my therapist would call the police to do a wellness check (which didn’t happen.)  Third, I reached out to my sister-wife, Diana.  Fourth, to Katherine.  Fifth, made a small circle post to my trusted people.  Oddly enough, the scariest reveal was to my bodyworker, as I was totally feeling very vulnerable about sharing this very deep scary part of my soul.  With previous attempts, I kept silent.  This time needed to be different.

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I was talking with a gal on Insta today about how she was worried about her mental health stories being depressing.  And maybe they are.  Maybe we ARE telling the depressing stories.  We talk about clawing against the walls to get out of the well.  We talk about the awful side effects of medication and how we want to crawl out of our own skin with it, and without it. But here’s the thing, these stories HAVE TO BE TOLD.

Mental Health HAS to be talked about.

Suicidality has to be talked about.

I can appear at a mom’s group at 9:30 AM on Wednesday looking perfectly functional, joking, and at 5:30 pm try to end it all.  The person right next to you could be struggling with trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, all sorts of things and we AREN’T talking about it.

This HAS to change.

I’m not brave.  I’m alive.

Sometimes, despite my best efforts.  This week, despite my best efforts.

Bravery, in this case, is “Making a Fine Show.”

 

 

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The Profit

“It’s a Process”

There are a few words that truly make me cringe when I’m sitting on the couch in therapy.  Rape.  Victim.  Compassion.  and Process.  I suppose I’ll get to the former three at some point (and they may seem obvious to you,) but today I’d like to talk to you about the word process.

Therapist’s (and all help gurus, let’s be honest) seem to throw “process” around expecting all of the trauma ridden to catch and hold on to it like a Hope Ball.  Thankfully, I’ve got a fantastic (or perhaps sort of odd) relationship with my therapist in which I throw back my annoyance with these words/terms very quickly.  I’ve dubbed them as “pretty words.”

Here’s what I’d like to say.  Fuck process. That’s right.  FUCK.PROCESS.

Whew.  That feels better.

Now that I’ve said it, I can move through my emotions on the topic without the total anger towards the sentiment.  I can’t speak for everyone who is dealing with systemic and longitudinal trauma, but it’s exhausting to loop back over the same topics over and over and “feel” like no progress is being made.  From MY side of the couch, it’s an orbit, where I’m orbiting out away from trauma symptoms (triggers/flashbacks et all) then launched past them again at supersonic and uncontrolled speeds.  From THEIRS (or so say they all) it’s a process, and progress is made.

There’s a show called “The Profit,” which I’d call a mix of Shark Tank and Undercover Boss, where an investor comes in and helps to rescue a failing business.  He has three points he addresses when he helps rescue the business; People, Product, and Process.

As I’ve spent more time in thought about why “process” bothers me so, this show keeps coming up.  Perhaps I have an issue with this word because of the fact that process implies that we humans too are business like, and if we can just get our process together, we won’t be malfunctioning. If I am not broken (the person), if what I’m doing isn’t broken (product), then it must be how I’m doing it (process.)

Not only is that process something that is broken, but the process is always changing and needing to be altered for each situation, each person etc.  It’s also a landmine trying to bring other people into my process.  Trying to describe to someone how to navigate my process can seem totally ludicrous for a person who has not experienced trauma.

Yesterday evening, I was at another Authentic Relating event where a person was expressing how hard it was to have an experience that no one else could relate to, and how isolating that felt.  They didn’t want to even try to explain it because they were concerned that it might make them look crazy. I wanted to scream, “BUT I GET THAT! I AM YOU! YOU ARE ME!”

Trauma is so isolating because we don’t talk about it.  We sit in little rooms alone with therapists talking about our feelings, then leave to live our lives alone.  We typically don’t talk about our trauma, even with our loved ones because they don’t ask and/or we don’t tell.  It’s too uncomfortable for them, NOT because it’s too uncomfortable for US.  We walk in the grocery store longing for a PTSD button on someone’s shirt so we can exchange glances and go “hey, I get you. Carry on, Warrior.  Wanna talk about it over the squash? Because I SURE AS HELL DO.”

“Did you breathe today?  Like a full breath?  Dude, that’s amazing.  I made it out of the house.  Yeah, I know.  I’m a fucking rock star. You are too.”

“You aren’t alone…”

“Fuck Process.  Let’s just breathe today.”