Dealing with Trauma during a Pandemic

Hey folks, I know many of us with trauma are having a rough time at the moment too. Some of us are not safe in our homes, are facing increased risk of harm from people close to us, or are struggling terribly with awful triggers such as feeling trapped, abandoned, and not having enough resources to survive. Shops don’t feel safe anymore, many of us are losing access to essential supports and are finding our brains are blowing up under the strain.

I’m very busy at the moment supporting my family and clients, but some of my beautiful contacts have been swiftly responding to create free resources for people.

A friend of mine, Jade, is running beautiful resources such as reading kids books online particularly for little’s and kids in multiple systems – check out her work here. Jade has been co-admin of the Dissociative Initiative facebook discussion group for many years, she’s incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. She wrote a huge blog and has published a range of stunning books on trauma, multiplicity, and recovery.

Another friend of mine, Raven, is part of a huge free online conference for survivors. It is accessible from anywhere, and takes place between 23rd-27th of March. Raven is well known for her amazing Puppetry (R)Evolution using creative techniques and hand made puppets to discuss issues such as child sexual exploitation. Her 25-minute video is about using creativity and activism in healing on the 26th March, and I’ve been assured it will include puppets. Here’s the schedule and list of speakers with their topics: http://walkingwithoutskin.com/rape-and-resilience-summit-speakers .

I’m hearing a huge surge in self harm, suicidality, eating disorders, and PTSD symptoms. Anxiety and depression are high, right when everyone around us is telling us to not panic and go out and do a lot of things. Executive function skills are in short supply and bad memories are looming large.

Some of us know that if there are shortages, we’re not on the list of people who will be prioritised. That alone is a kind of social shame and rejection that can send people down a dark spiral. It’s hard to put into words, but we all need to feel like our lives have meaning and purpose, that we’re not just here to consume, and that we’re not expendable.

If this is you, or someone you care about – hold on. If the old stories have kicked back in and death and self destruction feel like valid – or the only – reasonable response to such widespread terror and shortages, hold onto the knowledge that we need you. If the ‘broken people’ trauma narrative has you feeling that you’re not destined or worthy of survival, if the idea of taking up essential resources that someone else might have to go without makes you want to run rather than fight for a place in the world, if it all feels too hard to hold on while the planet tips into darkness anyway…

I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for what you are going through, and for the people who don’t understand. I’m so sorry that at the point where you want to stand up and shine brightest you’re falling apart. I know what it is to feel tuned to the agony of the world, to feel the death of every person, every creature, in your own skin like a million needles. I know what it is to be seduced by the idea of scapegoating yourself, that perhaps the world would be a better place without you in it. That perhaps someone more worthy would have a meal or medicine. That perhaps you could take with you all the darkness and anguish and dive over the edge of the world with it clutched to your heart and vomiting from your mouth and dripping down the inside of your legs and leave behind you a brighter and gentler dawn.

These stories are like parasites that eat us alive and turn our minds against ourselves. I say to you – what kind of world do we want? Because if you want a world that is a little kinder to the so-called broken people, we need you in it. If you want a world that is loving to those in pain, we need you to bear the pain and find the love. You cannot make any of it better or reduce the suffering even one mite by tearing another hole in the fabric of the universe on your way out of it. Stay here. Hold it with us. Mourn it with us. Love it, with us. Stay.

Why do they do that? Understanding people's reactions to crisis

We’re in a pandemic and most of us at the moment are baffled and frustrated by each other’s responses. Most of us have heard about threat responses in terms of fight/flight, but many of the pandemic responses are actually about the step before that, what makes us register something as a threat in the first place.

There’s some pretty good data on this topic fortunately, and it can take some of the heat out of it to put people’s responses into a broader context. It’s not that people are being ‘difficult’, it’s that people have different capacities to identify threats and risk. Understanding that can be the difference between explosive frustration, and a compassionate and useful response. Whether you need to help your Mum understand why it’s important to stay at home with her sniffle, or a client make sense of increased hygiene issues for staff at the moment, or a policy maker , HR manager, or boss respond quickly and appropriately to the emerging crisis – it helps if you have some insight into why they are behaving the way they are.

Under-response

What crisis? Everyone is going mad. Panic merchants are the ones doing the harm. Everything is okay, really.

Statistically, about 70% of people will not recognise a crisis as a crisis. This is termed ‘normalcy bias’ and is a pretty well known cognitive bias or common thinking error for people. Normalcy bias simply means that the mind finds crisis hard to comprehend and tends to assume that things will stay the same as they’ve always been. The wiki entry on this is wonderful and has some great links to research and further information about disaster planning and so on.

For people in this state of mind, the crisis is people’s ‘overreaction’ and panic. They will fight this and resist efforts to recruit them into seeing there is a crisis because the panic is the ‘threat’ they are responding to. It’s an accident of thinking, that’s all. There’s a number of things in my experience, that make it more likely people won’t recognise a crisis such as:

  • Preoccupation with a different crisis – this often applies to highly vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, domestic violence, poverty and so on. They are already in crisis mode and focused on the next meal/not killing themselves/a safe place to sleep/appeasing a terrifying person in their life
  • No living memory of the crisis at hand. We get better at managing crises we’ve experienced before. We’re not even that good at recognising many of them the first time. Some things seem to be somewhat hard wired – fear of heights and spiders, for example. Others require memory and stories to help us recognise the danger – such as a swiftly emptying beach before the tidal wave hits. The living memory between severe pandemics can be easily lost.
  • Changing nature of the crisis can also slow our capacity to recognise and respond to it. Changing animal husbandry practices, travel patterns and global trade have also changed the nature of pandemics in ways we’re not familiar with. Some areas in the world have regular epidemics and are much more familiar with issues of biohazards. Others rarely deal with them are far slower to recognise them.
  • No emotional impact of the crisis warning signs. It’s primarily our emotional responses that allow us to shake things up from ‘life as always’ to ‘urgent new priority’. As much as we like to congratulate our own rationality and see people who under respond as irrational, in a way it’s the opposite. We’re scared enough that our emotions are able to hijack our plans for the week and insist – there’s a huge issue we need to address, forget everything else! If you want to learn more about this amazing process I suggest the fantastic book How we decide by Jonah Lehrer.
  • No training to deal with the crisis. People are generally better at recognising and responding to a crisis if they have trained for it. This is why we do disaster planning and train people in exiting planes, burning buildings, and so on. Basic level training gives us a slight edge. Really good training means actually doing the thing – getting people to swim out of submerged helicopters and so on. Muscle memory is reliable in crisis mode in a way that our rational brain and other forms of memory are not.

People who under-respond need to be bypassed where ever possible, and engaged with in ways that bring the reality close to home for them – not just statics but emotionally. The impact of ‘it won’t happen to me’ thinking can also be incredibly difficult to budge, so work with whatever seems to clicking best with them – facts and figures, appeals to emotion, proximity to the threat. These folks need education plus emotional impact. Sometimes are more able to act on other’s behalf than their own and will respond to protect a ‘vulnerable group’ provided they don’t have to face their own vulnerability. Humans have developed a lot of defenses against recognising our own mortality and don’t tend to appreciate having to pull them down.

The Freeze response

This is a threat response that can look similar to those who under-respond. The outcomes may look the same, but the mechanisms are the very different. These folks have identified that there’s a crisis, but have frozen in response to it. They are numbly going about their ordinary day, because they don’t have a new plan of action. They need a completely different response to the under-responders, because while they may appear the same they are in a vastly different space. These folks are in terror or massive dissociation. Emphasising the severity of the crisis will make this worse. These folks need emotional support and a clear plan of action. The education needed is about what to do next, and the emotional need is about hope. Hope is still present, and hope is preserved through action, not inaction.

Freeze is a common and at times extremely useful threat response – play dead until the predator leaves. As with all threat responses, there’s no single one that works in every situation. Freeze may well be a useful response for some people who are geographically very isolated. But for most of us, a plan will be far more useful, particularly as this plays out over weeks and months.

Over-response

Panic, hoarding, shutdown, terror, suicidality, eating disorders, self harm. Fight and flight. Threat responses are curious things, and some folks are registering the crisis but responding in ways that make themselves less rather than more safe. I can relate this, currently my ‘startle response’ is over the top, I jump out of my skin at unexpected sounds or touch. This is a part of my PTSD – I’ve literally been neurologically wired to expect and respond to a particular type of crisis – personal attack. A heightened startle response is helpful if I’m under some types of threat – it’s not so useful in a pandemic.

We’re all coming to the pandemic with our personal history of what threat looks like to us, what’s helped in the past for us (even if the type of threat is different) our cognitive distortions and bias, and our primitive threat responses that are largely outside of our conscious control and generally well geared for historical threats (attack, starvation etc) rather than modern ones.

Helping to contain the emotional responses through the ways that humans regulate such as social connection, grounding, mindfulness, prayer, self expression, and so on, literally calms the emotion centers of the brain so the rational mind can come back online and help to direct the crisis response to be more useful. This is why loneliness and isolation in quarantine are such huge concerns for people, because for many of us they cut us off from our connections and leave us in a state of chronic distress and hyper-arousal.

As long predicted, the new poverty is a technological one – those with internet connections and home devices are far more able to compensate for quarantine than those without. Helping people to access smart phones, laptops, and good internet or data plans will be as essential as food and medicine to help in the months ahead.

From Individual to Community Health

We have become used to thinking in terms of individual health in Australia and other developed countries. Epidemics and pandemics challenge this approach in a profound way that can be very uncomfortable for people.

Did you know, there have been over 1,300 epidemics in the world since 2011? (Epidemics are local to a region, pandemics are worldwide) Some places have been hit by these over and over. They are far more profoundly aware of the impact that lack of resources such as supplies and a robust public health system, community education, basic food and sanitation supplies, and a robust health workforce can have on everyone. Health is not and has never been just an individual behaviour or characteristic. We are healthy or sick, well resourced or vulnerable, together. When there are not enough resources, communities turn on themselves. This is the entire field of public health – how communities thrive or struggle.

Predators and vulchers

Already evident in the pandemic is a harsh fact of human existence, that we prey upon our own. Predators are out there doing harm in the form of scams, stealing, exploiting, and deceiving. Some are individuals who lack any other forms of resources. Some are vast organisations who are skilled at distracting people from their bloated consumption of common resources. Vulchers rarely directly attack their prey, but they will pick the bones of the wounded and vulnerable. They represent a significant additional health risk to manage. They are always present in any society, but much more so in conditions of scarcity and social breakdown. Civil war and food scarcity for example, often go hand in hand. Cultures that cannot provide for all members tend to self destruct and devour themselves.

Violence

Family violence rates are likely to vastly increase under the added pressures of the pandemic. Quarantine leaves people vulnerable to those they share their homes with in terrifying ways. Trauma bonding means people will hold strongly to those who are doing them horrible harm. It’s a huge social issue and it’s likely to get worse.

In the same way that school bullies and rapists are not all doing it for the same reasons and in the same ways, people who are violent to their families fall into basic categories of type. Some people are sadistic and enjoy torturing people around them. Some have profound control needs stemming from their own trauma. Some have impairements that make it difficult for them to understand the impact of their behaviour on the people around them. Some feel entitled to bend everyone else to their will. There’s a wide range of reasons people are violent, but the broad trends hold – less freedom to leave, and higher pressures are both recipes for disaster.

People’s who’s threat response is geared towards ‘fight’ are some of our greatest allies at the moment, tackling political inaction, industry collapse, and personal crises. But some are going home and attacking the people closest to them. Again our existing infrastructure already fails us – people trying to flee abuse are often faced with homelessness, poverty, cruelty, beuracracy, and additional abuse (same as children taken from their families). Under the additional strain of the pandemic the human cost is likely to be brutal.

False prophets

As people scramble to pivot in the new economy, false leaders will also emerge, many of them quite unaware of the harm they are about to do. People are already sharing health information that’s completely incorrect, advice that’s harmful, and resources that don’t work. As people are facing the overnight destruction of their existing business models, many are having to urgently reskill which means there’s a lot of folks branching out into areas with limited expertise and training. This is what happens when there’s totally inadequate community safeguards in the form of housing, welfare, and infrastructure. Desperation will create some of the most amazing innovations and wonderful resources. It will also create a whole stack of people who are way out of their knowledge areas.

So be careful of what you’re consuming at the moment. If the self care advice leaves you feeling ashamed and overwhelmed, ignore it. Most of it is slightly recycled rubbish and does more harm than good. If the resiliency articles make you feel vaguely superior to the people out there falling apart in the ER – they are utterly worthless to you. Resilience is largely about access to community resources, not your personal qualities. Think twice about what you’re consuming and where you place your trust.

Leaders and Healers

These folks are emerging too. A little talked about threat response is the tend-and befriend. It creates connection and cohesion during times of crisis. Strangers help each other, friends form deeper bonds, families put aside quarrels and pitch in. We are seeing magnificent online movements such as The Kindness Pandemic, and the local supports on Facebook through the #loveyourneighbour groups. People with expertise in disaster response, crisis communication, epidemiology, social cohesion, community resilience, trauma responses, mental health, digital communication, business models, public health, disability, diversity, inclusion, homesteading, freelancing, and managing unpredictable circumstances are all in the spotlight as folks who’s wisdom and experience is urgently needed. While some people are in panic or shutdown, others are emerging, sharing resources, making sense of the complex health instructions, translating things for their communities, and helping people to respond. They are like lighthouses. Look for them, they are always present and they shine brightest when things are dark. Often they’ve been doing these things all along, and suddenly we have a new clarity and can see more clearly the value of what they do.

Overfunctioning/underfunctioning

Right now most of these helpful folks are scrambling and under pressure. Where some people have had their work wiped out overnight, others of us are working until 3am – whether that’s in the ER or our home study, trying to close the horrifying gaps out there that will translate into suffering, loss, and death.

Some of us are scrambling to start new businesses, find new jobs, cover essential bills, refill the pantry, get life saving scripts, and deal with what’s coming. Some of us are falling apart. Harriet Lerner would frame this as over-functioning and under-functioning. In her books The Dance of Anger, and The Dance of Intimacy, she explored how these opposing but complimentary roles become common traps for people. Overfunctioners tend to cope with life by doing things. They swing into action, organise, plan, offer advice, and get in there to make things happen. They are productive but also problematic – all this activity is driven by avoidance of their own vulnerability. They (Ha! Who are we kidding!) We do, so we don’t have to feel. This means some of what we do is helpful (organising a swift hospital response, for example), and some of it is extremely unhelpful (responding to personal crises for example – have you just tried overfunctioning??). Worse, we trap people around us into underfunctioning by taking over things they are capable of doing.

Underfunctioners tend to shut down or get overwhelmed. They drop the ball, signal for help, and zone out. Over and underfunctioners often think the other can solve their problem, but they tend to mutually reinforce the roles for each other and actually make them worse over time. The issue is largely about vulnerability and responsibility. There’s a great little run down here in the Guardian. Underfunctioners have a fabulous capacity to ask for help. Overfunctioners have a fabulous capacity to ignore their needs and take on responsibilities. We may even take on both roles – one in one relationship and context, and the other in a different one.

We all have both a capable and vulnerable self. In crisis most of us are showing much more of one of those than the other. The overfunctioners need the courage and permission to stop and get in touch with their vulnerable selves. Schedule in some time to panic, cry, feel lost, afraid, confused. The underfunctioners need to be cued to bring their capable selves back online. Ask them for help with something they have expertise in – looking after the kids, making a meal, helping a neighbour. Don’t reinforce their vulnerability by taking over, especially not as a way to vent your frustrations and avoid your own feelings. Give them space and opportunities to be part of the solutions, not the problem.

You can do it

Empathy doesn’t mean agreement, but it does mean getting close enough to each other to resonate. We don’t need to fling mud and shame, there’s a context and reasons behind all the ways people are responding to the pandemic, and any other crisis for that matter.

You may be frustrated, baffled, overwhelmed, or simply tired of everything, but you are still part of the human equation and you’re still responsible for what you put out into the world, and what you consume. We each bring our own gifts to this challenging time. Soothe your kids, plant your garden, tend your neighbours, plan your safety responses, do what you do best, and have grace for those who are showcasing all the ways our minds can mess us up and make us fall on our faces in a difficult time. Matching our skills to the challenges we find ourselves in is largely a matter of luck. The next time it could be you. We build a better and safer world for all of us, or we keep fighting over tiny pieces of it, that’s really the heart of it. A stronger community is a healthier one.

For those interested in learning more about pandemics, or where I got the stats from for this article, this is a fabulous easy to read resource from the World Health Organisation: Managing Epidemics, key facts about major deadly diseases.

Support your community through Coronavirus

It’s a mess out there, I know. Whatever impact it’s having on you, I know that we all do better when we are connected. So here’s some thoughts about boosting your connections over the next month, for your own health and that of others in your community.

The disability paradox

If you’ve never had to deal with anything like this before – you have so much to learn from folks with disabilities who are used to struggling with medical anxiety, lack of clarity, having to self-isolate for health, trying to negotiate working from home, and limited access to essential resources. We are your mentors!

We are also under horrible strain. We have heard from many places that people don’t need to worry because it’s only the vulnerable people like us the coronavirus is likely to harm or kill. We are facing extra strain as resources run thin and supports struggle to keep up. Be very mindful of us and how frustrated, devalued, hurt, and angry many of us are feeling at the moment. Reach out where you can and remind us we are valued! Offer supports and learn from our expertise. Together we have got this.

If you are able to be active

Here’s a fabulous little template that’s been going around online you can print or hand write and leave in letter boxes or on doorsteps. According to the ABC it was developed by a Cornish woman Becky Wass who has posted it to her older neighbours. Here’s a printable link for download.

Image description: printable template with the heading Hello! If you are self- isolating, I can help. For full details see the link in the text above.

If you are self-isolating

Rose is unfortunately at high risk of complications if she catches COVID-19 so we are self isolating now. If you are doing so – thankyou and good luck. I will be creating a lot of online resources over the coming weeks so get in touch if you want to be notified about them. I’ve created my own letter which we printed and left under painted rocks in our area yesterday. Feel free to modify or copy yourself, here’s a printable link for download.

Image description: printable template with the heading COVID-19: Take care at home. At the bottom of the image is a painted rock made to look like a bus. For full details see the link in the text above.

Connection is the antidote

Communities are more than neighbourhoods. They are our friends and family, our online connections, our workplaces and support groups. The mental strain of a pandemic and quarantine can be huge but many factors such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety can be easily addressed. One of my friends hosted an online video craft session tonight. A physio I work with has sent out a comprehensive, informative, and reassuring email with clear pandemic safety protocols to their staff. Someone dropped us some lovely eczema friendly soap this afternoon.

If you’re looking for some extra resources I’ll be sharing a draft pandemic safety plan for vulnerable clients within the next couple of days, and here’s a couple of articles I’ve found helpful, courtesy of Headspace, and Prof Nicholas Procter:

Don’t panic, plan. Connection isn’t a crazy response, it’s part of the “tend and befriend” crisis impulse – less well known than fight or flight, but in this instance, far more useful.

Safety and Diversity: Better Together conference

Day three of Better Together caucus and conference. This is my favorite sign here.

ID sign outside toilets, by The Equality Project. Text in black and purple reads Gender Neutral Toilet:

Sometimes because of how people look, they aren’t allowed to use the toilet. We can do better.

Real Impacts: There are real impacts when toilets are labeled for women or men only.

Trans and Gender non- conforming people often face discrimination, harassment, arrest, or violence in toilets!

Everyone should get to do their makeup, change their clothes, change their babies, and use the toilet failures in peace.

Everyone who needs help should be able to use the facilities with their family members, friends, or guardians.

It’s important that we proactively work to create safer spaces whenever and wherever we can. We realise sharing a toilet could feel new and different, we appreciate your understanding.

The Equality Project
ID short haired person in a car, wearing a fluffy violet coat and teal lipstick, looking out the passenger window.

What it is to be different, to not fit the boxes and structures and assumptions of the world around you. I’m here to learn more, to better represent and include the types of queerness and diversity I know less or knew nothing about. To question my own assumptions and challenge my own internalized and unquestioned perspectives and norms and phobias.

What does best practice look like in inclusion work, in policy, in community engagement? Who can I learn from, ally with, and share my knowledge with? What are the range of differences, and how do they intersect with other communities?

It’s been my first queer conference. I’ve loved being here and met many wonderful folks. I’ve also found myself overloaded at times by noise, pain, fatigue, crowds. Having to be patient with my own limitations and let go of my desire to soak up all the knowledge, speak to everyone, justify my time here. Learning is a life long process. Community grows like a relationship, it cannot be forced or snatched.

Whoever I’m sitting next to knows something I can benefit from if they want to connect and share. I don’t need to chase anyone but to do what I need to be present.

Holding a space for my own sense of discomfort, the way I do and do not feel part of this community, my risk of self exclusion, the deep heartbreak of being a multiple in stealth mode, wishing we had this too, conferences and resources and pride. (we do, we are starting to, but that’s a post for another time)Listening to people glowing with a sense of belonging and remembering what it was to stand in Bridges and hear those feelings from other multiples.

What is it about conferences that makes me want to cry? That deep old wound of exclusion and rejection aches, fills up with tidal tear water and I’m a child again. Lost and terrified at school, trapped between anguished invisibility and agonized exposure. Loneliness that burned like fire. We were all that child, we all carry that child. Remembering another Sarah, at another conference, who first taught me this.

Someone walks up behind me and rubs my arm with affectionate welcome, our minds react on all levels, understanding it is prosocial touch, intended to bridge and create safety, wanting to touch back, needing to run, the screaming that starts beneath my skin. Keep breathing, loves.

Accepting that the path that’s open before me right now is about other more validated understandings of diversity. That it’s not a betrayal of my community to focus on the doors that are open and the opportunities that are sustainable. That this is my community too, that all identity is multifaceted and complex. That I do not owe suffering to the world. That mutuality is an essential aspect of community. That it’s okay to belong, to belong to more than one space, to hold membership across many communities, imperfectly and with gratitude and pain. To recognise the universality of these tensions and extend a hand to each other, the autistic folks struggling with the quiet space that’s not quiet, the folks in wheelchairs trying to get through the crowds to the lift, the young person standing awkwardly on the edge of the room.

Rose messages from far away and the memories of being on fire calm beneath her hand, go back to sleep. I write notes, share jokes, make space. Share meals, make connections, not – god forbid “networking”, but relationship. Nod through a talk, catch an eye and smile, hold someone’s hand when they cry, accept a hot drink with gratitude.

The wounded child in me begins to see the wounded child in everyone and the sense of being alone and on fire in the middle of the crowd passes like a breath. We all walk with ghosts too complex to put into words and in the end this is the essence of diversity, the fragmenting of experience into smaller and smaller categories until we stand alone, and the rebuilding into larger and larger overlapping groups and venn diagrams until we are all together under the umbrella of human. It is an oroborous of forming and breaking down and reforming, like a life cycle that honors both our difference and our commonality. Both need room to breathe and support each other.

Shut up

When the world is built on principles that make pain private and unspeakable, anyone in pain feels alone.

When those in power make the rules that hide their indiscretions, their avarice, and the suffering left in their wake, it is literally unspeakable. The nature of oppression is the way it can not be spoken or at times even thought.

The average customer satisfaction rating is above the national guidelines which is a fantastic indicator of success. Within the dissatisfied customers are a smaller, highly diverse group of people so harmed and traumatised they would rather suffer great pain and risk terrible harm than be exposed to them again. We do not collect that data. We not speak of them.

Friendship is the building block of every community, an elastic concept applied to the closest confidant and loosest acquaintance but all with an implication of acceptance and mutuality. It saves us from impersonal formal care, and it fails us in ways too painful to put into words. It is at once more robust and more frail than we think.

Therapy is at times merely an expensive process of transferring trauma in contained doses from one person to another.

Bitterness is almost beautiful – Wendy Orr

I cannot speak of your brutality and of your tenderness at the same time, people hear with only one ear, listen to only one story.

We do not speak of the truly horrifying things. And when we do, we mouth platitudes and vomit rage and break spirits.

After all these storms and tears, I must go home, and face the truth that no one dies of loneliness. More’s the pity – it seems the obvious solution.

On the floor of the therapists’ office I die and come to life. I break into a thousand pieces and walk out again with my face almost but not quite put back together. Pretending to be human with everyone else pretending to be human.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so absolutely f#@$ing sad.

It nearly destroyed me last time. The moment I feel blamed I’m leaving.

Such perfect companions. You betray me and I betray myself, and all who love me. We are always fated to find each other, through history and all of human life, a pairing that inevitably meets over and over again.

Good intentions are not enough. They are all I have. My hands are empty. The ones who did such harm while doing their best, the unquiet ghosts.

Sex and rape look pretty much the same if they are described in writing with no attention paid to the ‘customer experience’. My health and hospital records also probably read quite well, good care, good outcomes. So what’s the problem?

But how was the play, Mrs Lincoln?

Trauma creates a form of diversity. Brains are literally wired differently and it’s visible on scans and tests.

We all want to be virtuous but we don’t like risks and we don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Sometimes I hate myself so much it’s hard to breathe, speak, feed myself, stay alive. Yet it’s like a safe cave for me, when I step outside of it and see the vastness of the pain and betrayal that’s waiting for me, I don’t know how to bear that and I turn back around and hide in my cage. It anchors me.

How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless? – Batman Returns

Stockholm syndrome applies in some degree to every human in existence. We all need to eat and so we all need to lie to ourselves. All our captors are kind and brutal in turn. We empathise with them.

I was not punched or raped. My trauma is not trauma the way we think of it, my scars are self inflicted partly out of a craving for scars, pain I can see. Yet I am a freak, different, awkward, unlovely, excluded, and painfully unsubtle about my feelings on the matter.

I first wanted to die when I was ten.

People reassured me the nightmares would go away when I became an adult. They were wrong. They started to ease off when I came out at 29.

I spent the precious hours after my daughter was born sobbing and unable to move, strapped to a table while vapid doctors sewed me up like a lump of meat. Something in me broke that I can’t mend. It remains stubbornly misshapen and brutalized as a monument to an act of harm that would not even be remembered by the white coats who perpetrated it, utterly secure in their certain good intentions. Only I know if it was sex or rape. They didn’t ask. It wasn’t sex.

I have only ever wanted to belong. We do not create mental health resources for the oddballs, like everything else they are written for the normal, white, cis, straight, middle class, able bodied who have gone through a rough patch and just need to hold on for things to get better.

The very best part of my days is the night, sleeping next to my child. The smell of her hair, warmth of her breath. I soothe the growing pains, calm the bad dreams. When she is content my world is at peace.

Everything anyone has ever thought is true – Phillip K Dick

You’re a hopeless romantic… It would be funny if it were not serious. – Ray Bradbury

You’ve got to jump off cliffs

All the time

And build your wings

On

The

Way

Down.

– Bradbuy

The Dark Sides of Safety

I adore Becky Chambers. Finding a new author to crush on is the absolute highlight of my month. I’ve just read this beautiful book for the second time and am loving the kobo quote tools. https://www.kobo.com/AU/en/ebook/the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-1?utm_campaign=PhotoQuotesAdr&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=App_Acq

We talk a lot in trauma recovery about safety and empowerment as the magic that heals which is real and true and appropriate. They have a dark side though, which is rarely explored. What is it to feel safe? Is safety a good and healthy aim for a human? What happens when we feel unsafe? Threat is the opposite of safety, and many of us with backgrounds of complex trauma feel constantly and chronically threatened, triggering an array of responses across the small menu of mammalian options: fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Safety is crucial to being able to function outside of this menu, to bring to life different aspects of our selves than simply the reflexes of raw survival.

But not everything that threatens us does us harm. And not everything that feels safe is good for us. Abusers feel threatened by the freedom and autonomy of the people they are in relationships with. They restore their sense of safety by undermining that autonomy.

Becoming aware of the ways in which you are privileged can feel very unsafe, especially if you are also tangled in shame and guilt as if you are somehow personally responsible for it. For many people the idea of having privilege has become a kind of personal taint, a character flaw to overcome rather than an abstract awareness of unequal opportunities and a responsibility to share them.

Some people feel safest at the bottom of every hierarchy, too small and powerless to harm.

Some feel safest at the top, apex predators who see all others as fellow predators to compete with, or prey to devour.

When I developed the peer based recovery group for Bridges, the face to face support group for people with dissociation and or multiplicity, I choose Safety as one of the key values for the group. Striving to make a safe place is essential for the involvement of people who had often experienced severe trauma. And yet I did so slightly ambivalently, aware that safety is a good goal but also an insufficient one. Without other values to be in tension with, safety is a kind of death. Extreme risk aversion creates coffins of our lives: isolation, dehumanization, and disconnection rule.

As a parent, safety is a primary concern for me. An essential part of my job description is keeping Poppy and Star safe. Whether that’s from physical injury, sickness, abuse, or neglect, this is my concern. However I hold this concern in tension with their other basic human needs. Freedom, autonomy, connection… many of our essential needs require risk. If I focus only on safety I will shun risk. Risk is my enemy, to be identified and dug out of life like a weed. The highest possible aim to reduce all risks to nothing. But risk adverse living has predictable and at times devastating outcomes. It is in itself a risk to be understood and treated with great care. Children allowed to take no risks also cannot learn, grow, connect, gain confidence, cope with mistakes, or navigate imperfection. Risk adverse approaches lock them into extremely small lives where obedience and fear dominate all.

Risk competence is about understanding that safety must be paired with unsafety. It’s about knowing that a culture that has horrifyingly high rates of serious child injury is taking huge risks, and also knowing that a culture with almost no serious child injuries is taking huge risks in other ways, because the only lifestyles in which that is possible preclude climbing, running, playing outdoors, pets or animals, sports, and all the opportunities children need to become competent at using their bodies and navigating their environments. There is an optimal window of risk, too much or too little are both harmful, which is a difficult concept to fathom in a public health framework.

What this optimal window is and where its boundaries are is highly contentious, informed by the personal values in tension with safety, and the way we cope with the fear of bad things happening. A major way we navigate this fear is called the just world theory. This is the belief that bad things will not happen to us because we are smart and decent people. This is a major way most of us create a sense of safety in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Most of us who have been through trauma can speak of the savage outcomes of the just world theory. The first is that we tend to blame victims of bad situations for their circumstances, because it makes us feel safer to believe they were at fault in ways we would not be. The second is the devastating loss of essential illusions when some trauma strips the just world theory away from you. Trying to function in a world that is unfair and uncontrollable is a nightmare when you’ve previously relied on comforting beliefs that all things work out fairly in some way.

As victims (/recipients/survivors) of trauma we are desperately trying to piece back together our own sense of safety, while resenting the painful price we are paying for the illusions of safety of those around us. We don’t want them to be safe, we are begging them to be brave. To stand with us and face the gross injustice and paralyzing uncertainty of our situations. Safety is cultural denial and numbness in the face of devastating pain and abandonment. As those who are marginalised and dealing with various forms of oppression, likewise.

What this looks like when it comes to risk is a cruel system. People (and parents) who take risks, even massive risks, and succeed are lauded. The acceptibility of the risk is determined by the outcome. Those who take even minor, or very well equipped and skilled risks who have bad outcomes are frequently attacked, shamed, and shunned. Whether they are parents going sailing and dealing with an ill child, or a mother going out for her birthday who is betrayed by the babysitter who harms her child, no risk is acceptable in the context of a bad outcome. Such is the nature of a risk adverse culture with a just world theory (embedded in neoliberalism) and no agreement about the optimum window of risk.

This savagery drives highly risk adverse parenting, which is often called out in ways that shame those parents (mothers) with little awareness of the underlying context. Few of us feel we can afford the risk of being attacked and rejected by our communities at the point of a devastating experience. Each time we witness it or participate in it we drive home the message more strongly: no one can afford bad luck, bad circumstances, or risks. Safety is the only practical goal.

This drives the ‘mummy wars’ where I’ve been told I’m a child abuser for such minor lifestyle choices as allowing Poppy to attend an outdoor event with me, permitting her to not wear shoes in a park, or allowing her hair to be dyed purple. The intensity of these interactions far outweighs the circumstances. Risks become linked to difference, without consensus there is no safe place to stand where judgement won’t fall.

Safety without courage not only cages us in very small lives, it cages our communities and exiles those unfortunate enough to suffer. Safety is essential for us, a basic prerequisite for or ability to get up in the morning and function. We can build it on capacity, consent, freedom, and experiences of risk. Or we can build it at great cost to ourselves and the people around us. It’s a beautiful and noble goal, especially when it’s been shattered. But it also has powerful dark sides best keep in mind.

We are all multiple, and so are the people who hurt us

This morning was a rare one, everyone in my little family home for breakfast. I cooked pancakes and realised my heart is never so full as when we are together. My girls are so precious to me, I feel warm, strong, fierce, joy-sadness when I’m with them. Their happiness is my happiness and their hurts break my heart. It breaks and mends over and over.

I am different with them. There’s a theory about the ‘self’ which states that who you are is not a fixed thing, like a rock or a plant. It’s a unique dynamic. That ‘self’ is what emerges in relationship with another. So each ‘self’ in each setting, each relationship, is slightly unique, and has aspects that may differ from all others. This is both separate to and part of multiplicity. I experience this in both which parts are brought out and also the different selves we all have. This is an aspect of multiplicity which is universal to all of us.

This dynamic also goes in two directions. We ‘hook’ each other into roles. When I feel young I bring out the parent in you, and vice versa. You may recoil from my aloofness or warm to my charm. Relationship dynamics bring out age old stories and patterns between us. They move us deeper into the grove of who we have been accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being, or bring to light new aspects of ourselves we had forgotten or didn’t know were there.

This curious TED talk “Rethinking Infidelity” explores the idea that being in search of a self we have lost for a long time is an aspect of why we are unfaithful to each other. (jump to 9.30 if you want to skip to this part) That in time we put away the parts of ourselves that don’t fit with our partner and community. And a new, different person can bring to light a self that makes us feel more vital and alive than we have in years. Unable to see that this is a normal challenge of navigating community – finding the balance between the social homogeneity and the wild individual – we embrace the new person as a salvation and shatter everything we’ve build and loved until now. And then we do it again.

It isn’t that we are looking for another person, but for another self.

Esther Perel

Integrity is about the threads of beliefs and values we hold through these transitions. The nature of universal dissociation is that it is entirely common to have three beautiful relationships and one in which we are horrifically abusive. Some nazi guards came home from violence and were loving to their families. A man may be kind to his children and friends and brutal to his wife. A mother may love three children and hate and abuse the fourth. When you think of self as one static thing this is horribly confusing and we keep trying to understand which story is true and which self is real – the kind or the vile. When they are understood as both true, real, genuine, there’s both a kind of devastation and a relief in being able to hold them equally in mind. No longer are they different sides of a coin that cannot be viewed at the same time, they are different aspects of the same person and both true.

So the abused person who struggles to find their way to the ‘truth’ of their situation – wrestling with competing stories of who their abuser ‘really’ is, finds a way out by embracing the whole of them. They are both Jeckyll and Hyde. They are sweet, wounded, sincere, and savage. It’s all real, inasmuch as any self is real. You cannot have a relationship with only one of them, however wonderful they are and however much you adore them. And you cannot soothe the savage ones through further abasement, sacrifice, and suffering. Until and unless the sweet ones take responsibility for the savage ones, they will continue to let their demons take their pain and rage out on you, debasing and destroying you both in the process. In some cases the savage selves use the sweet selves as little more than bait to trap the people they envy and wish to harm.

Some relationships – and these are the precious ones – help us be our best selves. With my girls I have the opportunity to parent, mother, mentor. There’s a groundedness and centredness I feel in that role that I treasure. An opportunity to be someone I have always wanted to be. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to help them grow up and find who they are.

Finding Ways out of Burnout and Overwhelm

Poppy and I went adventuring in a creek recently. It was so peaceful. There are struggles and difficulties all around, then there are these islands within it all that are so precious, where everything is still.

I clear a space and ignore my phone. No multi tasking. The curse of the freelance life – work creeping into every waking moment, is deliberately put aside. I don’t problem solve, plan dinner, handle admin. There is a rare clarity, ice clear and deeply refreshing.

Since I last burned out a couple of years ago, I’ve been quietly exploring a private project: what creates overwhelm, and what reduces it? Burn out is bigger than overwhelm, but for me it was the biggest and longest issue I had to deal with. I see overwhelm everywhere, not just at work but in everyday life, most especially for parents. It’s often framed as part of various mental illnesses and disabilities, but it’s such a common and difficult experience I feel it needs its own name and space to be understood.

For me, overwhelm is a chronic state of exhaustion, scattered thought, poor concentration, emotional intensity and changeability, and inability to grasp or manage tasks.

Reflection

I’ve been borrowing ideas from many sources, and using my own therapy as a kind of compass to treat my own overwhelm. I try things out and notice if my overwhelm deepens or eases. I’ve found reflective journaling is ideal for this. Each day or two I journal and notice what’s helping and what’s making things worse. I get an overview that’s nearly impossible for me to find any other way.

Some days when my overwhelm is high, I can barely walk into my shed. It’s way too much to handle, a million things all needing organisation I simply don’t have and I feel such panic that even opening the door makes me want to cry. Other days when my mental space is going well I can walk in and my mind is clear. It’s really not so bad, just a few bits and pieces. I can see what needs to be culled or sorted, packed better, given away. It’s so manageable. The difference can be startling!

Trying harder doesn’t help

For example I’ve found overwhelm is often embedded with false beliefs about productivity – that doing more and working harder and longer are essential to productivity. So my intuitive solution for the early signs of overwhelm (one of which is reduced productivity) is unfortunately to do a bunch of things that are likely to make it worse.

As counter intuitive as it feels, rest, doing something completely different, and setting aside proper time to deep dive instead of scattered multi taking are all very useful for productivity.

Understand the weight of the invisible mental load

One of the challenges about burnout in life rather than work is how difficult it can be to get a break from it or even see it clearly. Some of us find a lot of our work isn’t only unpaid but unrecognised, even by ourselves. We feel exhausted but can’t name what we’ve done all day, can’t take time off but don’t use the concept of being ‘on call’, and end up fitted to the gaps in the somehow more important activities of study or formal paid employment being carried out by those around us. Being able to notice what we do and who we do it for can be essential to recovery. I have found simply tracking my time has been eye opening in terms of things like how much sort work I do for others on a daily basis. This isn’t a bad thing – unless I don’t factor it in. This is a very interesting article on the topic of invisible mental load.

Executive function capacity is a limited resource

I’ve also found it useful to consider ideas around ‘executive function’ from the autism community (here’s a great post about an adult autistic’s perspective on his struggles with executive function limitations). Executive function issues also turn up a lot for folks with ADHD, trauma, and dissociation. They relate to our ability to plan, sequence tasks, keep track of time, and prioritise.

Many higher level brain processes are limited resources. If I’m living such a chaotic life that I need to use a lot of thought to plan hanging out my washing, that’s a lot of capacity being used up on tasks of daily living. Routines, structures, and rhythms are ways I can take those tasks out of intense intellectual activity and into habit, which is largely mindless and takes little mental energy. (which can help explain why some folks become very wedded to routines – if you have limited executive function your routines are your safe way of keeping life going)

It’s the same process that makes driving an intense intellectual process for a new driver, and something that can be done on autopilot for an experienced one. Autopilot frees up capacity for other tasks, or mental rest.

The impact of decision fatigue

Decision fatigue is also an important aspect of overwhelm, and one that burdens those of us in poverty much more than others because poverty involves constant trade offs – and these are the most mentally exhausting decisions we make, between two or more important things when we can’t have both (like food or medicine). There’s a great article here that unpacks this more as well as a lot of interesting research behind the ideas.

Sometimes the job is impossible

Overwhelm is often a response to a catch 22, or an impossible ask. Parenting through adversity of any kind often involves trying to accomplish very challenging tasks, such as supervising very young children while severely sleep deprived or ill, or trying to provide quality childcare and household management simultaneously,or meeting the physical, social, and emotional needs of several children of different ages/needs, at the same time.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of parenting as if it was a job, and thinking about what my union might be asking for when they want better, safer conditions. Do I need less tasks? More time? More skills? Rest? Support? All of the above, of course, but some weighed more than others, and some easier to find solutions to.

When I ask myself ‘What’s usual in thr paid versions of this role?’ sometimes the pressures and catch 22s emerge in a way I couldn’t see before. It can also help me to see and articulate difficult concepts such as I love being with my kids but I hate trying to create fun safe times together and also sort out all the washing. When everything merges together it can hard to figure out where things are actually working because it all feels awful.

‘All or nothing’ is a game you always lose

Another thing I’ve been finding helpful is to watch out for the ‘all or nothing’ mindset that kicks in when I’m overwhelmed. I know I need a break and I’m dreaming longingly of the weeks away on camp, but turn down the opportunity to have ten minutes to myself because frankly, what’s the point.

I have been finding it difficult to make ‘wild time’ since the kids came along. I miss my long late nights writing poetry, driving under stars, and sitting by the sea. For the last month I’ve experimented with 10 minutes by myself in the bedroom each night, with candles and my journal. Part of me hates this – where’s the spontanety? The stars overhead? The long hours? How can wildness be scheduled?

That part is right, it’s not the same.

And yet, it’s better than not doing it at all. It’s still a candle, a bone pen, a sacred space. It might be a snack instead of a full meal, but it still nourishes my soul. And a nourished soul speaks its needs louder, is more playful, resilient, and certain. It keeps seeking a heartful and passionate life. 5 minutes of painting is better than not touching the brushes for 5 years because you don’t have the time.

‘Freeze’ is a type of threat response that looks like overwhelm

I’ve found helpful with overwhelm to understand what scares me. This is much harder than it sounds. Sometimes I know I’m scared, sometimes I just get sick, or develop new pain or symptoms. As someone with childhood trauma I have the common but deeply frustrating experience of sometimes learning about my feelings through problems with my body and health. This means having to interpret the myriad of random symbolic issues that turn up. It can be a slow and frustrating process.

Other times I’m well aware I’m stressed, panicked, frozen, blocked. But I often have little idea why or how to get past it. Why is it that some days emails make me freeze and are impossible to reply to? I’m sitting at my desk in tears, humiliated and full of frustration and self loathing, but I cannot make myself do the un-doable task. We’ve all heard of flight and fight but are less familiar with freeze. If you are scared and don’t feel up to a task you are facing, some of us freeze and shut down.

Overwhelm can be a response to abuse

Not being able to think straight, remember, plan, or use higher mental facilities around an abusive person has long been recognised as a common problem for people being harmed. Making plans away from them is often essential because deciding what to in the moment can be impossible. There nothing wrong with you and it’s not unusual

It’s also not uncommon when the abuse is internal. For example, if I’ve often used a ‘stick’ to motivate myself with, forcing compliance even when I’m frightened, tired, or overwhelmed, using meanness and bullying to push myself through hard tasks, I’ve set this scenario up. Overwhelm at some point is as inevitable as a plant wilting without water.

Empathy is restorative

Making safe spaces to deeply listen and empathise with myself has been crucial. I’ve been working with an art therapist on this, instead of trying to push through or problem solve, instead to deeply and non judgementally listen. It’s harder than it sounds!

Deliberately seek the opposite

There are many opposites of overwhelmed such as calm, content, flow state, and confident. Some of them will resonate as more important to you than others, and you can explore more about those ones.

For me one of the biggest costs of overwhelm is in my confidence, so a side project that’s developed out of this one has been: what builds my confidence? I’m finding resources like this TED talk insightful. Repetition builds confidence which is useful to be aware of given how often I work at edge of skill, seduced by the appeal of a challenge. I adore challenges but I’m also anxious, vulnerable to imposter syndrome, and discouraged by failure and rejection. Learning to pull back on the challenges a little and build on more successes is helping greatly. Intentionally working to reduce my overwhelm this way has been incredibly helpful for me.

If you are struggling with overwhekm or care about someone who is, take heart. I hope there’s been some useful food for thought here. Our interdependence is invaluable in situations like this. Someone we can swap scary tasks like booking each other’s dentist appointments. Sometimes the one with more executive function can help break down a task or sequence a series of goals for someone struggling. Many articulate people with these challenges are sharing their strategies so others can borrow and build on them. You can tweak and change and develop things so that the overwhelm eases and you can think again. Best wishes.

Parenting with Trauma

Having our whole family sick together is an exercise in the logistics of rationing and portioning a tiny amount of energy to extract the maximum benefit. If I take her for an hour late tonight, then you do the morning, I’ll get you a nap at noon then you take her to the park for two hours so I can work on my assignment… The shifting priorities of dishes, doctors, meals, laundry, and mental health. It’s considerably more exhausting than being sick without kids, largely because of the difficulty of getting enough sleep to properly recover.

Monday Poppy and I went into the city. Rose had important appointments and Poppy was full of restless toddler energy. We had an argument on the bus about her not biting me which concluded with her screaming while strapped into her pram and me not making eye contact with a bus load of strangers. She got her own back by refusing to fall asleep for her afternoon nap. Usually she’ll snuggle down in her ‘cave’ made by covering the pram with a cloth, and knock off. That day she leaned as far forwards as her pram seatbelt would let her to fight sleep. 4 times she gently drifted off anyway as I paced around Rundle Mall rocking and circling the buskers. Each time she’d slip sideways as sleep relaxed her, clonking her head on the frame of the pram and waking up with a howl. Gently tipping the pram up evoked rage rather than sleep, and the fifth time she started to fall asleep I stopped and tried to gently settle her back which cued 20 minutes of hysteria.

I thought she might fall asleep in the art gallery but unfortunately that was the end of the whole idea. She talked to the other patrons, wanted to know all about the art, and once we found the kid’s studio space spent a happy hour cutting a sheet of paper into very tiny pieces.

The studio was set up to invite self portraits, with mirrors and oil pastels. This was mine:

I was glad of the space, it’s the most at home I’ve felt in the gallery.

I’ve realized that PTSD has interrupted our usually very calm parenting approach. Kids this age can be intense, they have huge feelings, test boundaries, and have way more energy than seems sensible. Poppy is fearless, explorative, passionate, creative, and stubborn. Generally Rose and I navigate these traits patiently and with appreciation of their positive aspects. But when she hurts us deliberately we’ve both struggled and the conflict has been charged and difficult to resolve. We’ve been worried about what it means and stressed by our own responses. I in particular lose patience and get angry, but Poppy isn’t easily intimidated which leaves me in a bind where I either behave in more frightening ways until she’s cowed and takes me seriously, or I find another way of approaching this. It speaks to the heart of parenting approaches to obedience and discipline. Do children follow instructions because they are frightened of us, or of the consequences? Or because they are connected to us and trust us? Is it appropriate to scare your child? If so, when and how much? Are boundaries about anger or love? Is breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries about immaturity, defiance, conflicting needs, forgetfulness (it’s easy to over estimate the memory capacity of a small child), or something else?

I’ve been starting to do a bit more reading on parenting her age group and it occurred to me that Rose and I are generally excellent at not taking difficult behavior personally, setting boundaries with warmth, and redirecting troubling behaviors. So when Poppy was getting into constant trouble for climbing furniture in the house, she now has a climbing frame outside for her to monkey around on. But when she hurts us there’s no such framing. We see no positive aspect to such behavior, no legitimate need looking for expression. We talk instead about her being mean, we privately discuss her sensitivity to our stress, her restlessness, her trying to get our attention. We’re troubled by a normal child behavior and framing it as lack of empathy. It’s triggering, evoking memories of being hurt by others and we both move into threat responses. Rose tends to freeze and withdraw, I get angry.

It occurred to me recently we’re misframing the behavior due to our histories. Most children this age want to roughhouse. Wrestling and tumbling and play fighting is a normal developmental behavior. Engaged with care it’s a place for learning about how to hold back and not hurt each other, how to apologise and caretake when accidents happen, and it satisfies the touch hunger and intense energy of very young children. Learning how to wind down into calmness following rough play is a key part of regulating such excitable and energetic kids.

Last night when Poppy started to get rough with Rose who was crashed out on the couch with a migraine, I didn’t get charged. I chose to see her inappropriate behavior as a need for rough housing and set a boundary with patience rather than frustration. I told her Mamma was sick and could only have gentle play around her. When Poppy kept being rough I removed her to the bedroom not as punishment but as an appropriate location for rough play. I gently with her permission threw her onto the bed, threw a big stuffed lion at her and told her this was where the fierce and grouchy creatures play. She was thrilled. She ran growling at me to the edge of the bed, waited for me to put my hand in the centre of her chest, then braced herself for me to gently push her back, screaming with laughter.

Later that night with Rose asleep and me exhausted on the couch with Poppy, she started to rough play again and I forbade her from getting on the couch with me. For the first time she was easily redirected into quiet play and spend a calm hour making complicated meals with her toy food instead.

There’s no problem with her empathy, Poppy is an incredibly affectionate and loving child. She’s not unusually aggressive or showing signs of attachment damage or deprivation. In mislabeling her normal needs as something that disturbed us, we introduced a charge into our relationship that she gravitated towards. Kids do this without knowing why, they can sense it and it’s irresistible. It’s why they do mad things like grin at an adult who’s already at the end of their rope and angry with them. They are still getting a sense of their own power in the world and what they can and can’t do. Navigating our own trauma as parents is about recognizing blind spots like this, paying attention to threat responses needlessly activated, and prioritizing basic needs like sleep, connection, and companionship so we function as best we can. For me at the moment on bad days I’m dealing with chronic irritability and low grade suicidality. Sleep deprivation and feeling isolated turn my world black. Over and over in a thousand little ways we choose safety together, celebrate freedom and autonomy, look for loving ways to speak about the unspeakable things, and link into the world around us. Without our wider networks of friends, family, therapists, without kids rooms in art galleries, and foodbank, and doctors who see trauma survivors rather than welfare bludgers, we couldn’t do this. But together there is so much strength, sufficient grace. Enough to let us all grow.

Insomnia as an Invitation

It’s too beautiful to sleep here tonight. The wind is restless and roaming the garden, slipping in through open windows to creak and sigh the doors.

I have little shorthand explanations of things that often help remind me of approaches I’ve found useful in the past. For insomnia it is this: I can’t sleep when my mind decides there’s something else I need even more urgently than I need sleep. If I can figure out what that is and meet that need even in just a small way, sleep will come.

Often it helps. It could be pressuring trying to figure it out, lying in bed exhausted and confused. That would be incredibly unhelpful. For me it’s more an invitation. It changes the problem from one of distress without meaning, something difficult and frustrating that just happens without cause and that I can’t control, to something that makes sense and is meaningful where I have power and influence. My mind and body for reasons unknown to me have prioritised something above sleep. What is it?

Sleep hygiene is important of course. It helps when you understand that melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep, needs sunlight in your eyes for you to build it, preferably early in the morning. So insomnia can be helped by sitting in the early morning sunlight and helping your body build enough hormones to restore sleep routines. It helps when you learn that teenagers tend to have very vulnerable sleep routines that get out of whack quickly and need more sleep than they did as kids – and that some adults retain this and find that one late night means not being able to get to sleep at their usual time for days or weeks. Understanding the way blue light from phone screens interferes with sleep is very useful. All that biological stuff is good and important and sometimes it’s sufficient.

Sometimes it’s not. I’ve had terrible trouble with insomnia at times, and when there’s been other things going on no amount of sleep hygiene would help. Severe nightmares have made sleep a terrifying thing. I’ve stopped sleeping at times for weeks, heralding severe dissociation or psychosis. Very few sedatives work on me so there’s little help from that quarter.

So for me I’ve needed to find other ways to approach it. Thinking of insomnia as something that happens when something is wrong paralysed me. Thinking of it as something that happens when there’s something I need more urgently than sleep was useful. When I can’t sleep, I use the time to tune in and notice what’s going on. I might journal or write to a friend online and chat (it’s useful to have friends in different time zones for this reason). Sometimes I need to think about something, feel something, express something. Sometimes I’m too buzzing with excitement and need to do more to settle and calm my mind. Reading fiction often helps me, on a phone app with a blue light filter and the screen set to black and the text to white I can read in the small hours without disturbing roommates.

Sometimes Narnia is calling me, the night, the wind and stars, poetry beating in my blood. The ordinary world fades away with the dark, and for just a few hours I can taste my own soul, feel the wings at my back. Sometimes that’s a call I need to answer, more than rest, more than sleep. To creep away from sleeping household and stand under stars or paint with inks by lamp light in the silent house.

Some needs are bold and strong as lungs demanding air or stomach craving food. Others are incredibly quiet and can only be heard when the world is asleep or we are alone and without responsibilities. Questions we need quiet to ask or contemplate, trees that need to be breathed in. The dead remembered, the dreams counted. Sometimes it’s only at night the tears can come, or the poems, or the hope. And then it’s a blessing to be awake, that they do not slip past us unnoticed as we forget that the daylight world is not the only one we can walk, and that who we are in all those roles is not the whole sum of us.

Rose is back

Rose is home but not home. She was discharged from the psych facility on Monday. We are doing something that seems strange to most, I’ve asked her to keep spending nights apart. Not because we are breaking up or she’s awful to be around, but because I am so burned out I am on the edge of my capacity to cope. The last time she had a breakdown, so did I. This time I have kids and I desperately need to keep my feet under me. I have had many warning signs I’m on the edge, difficulty making myself get out of bed, or force myself to drive home, lots of crying, episodes of screaming (when alone), intrusive thoughts, intense anxiety and irritability, insomnia. I love her to bits and I’m very empathic. I can’t go offline when she’s with me, I’m so tuned in to her distress I pick up on it and feel it all myself. When she can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. I’m always on duty. I’m also chronically triggered. My history involves a lot of caring, and some very painful memories are very close to the surface at the moment. Helplessness in the face of suicide attempts, profound loneliness, fear, horror, torment. At times I feel like I’m trapped in a cage that’s been dragged underwater, and I’m drowning. Love is the cage, and madness, or trauma, is the water.

Nights alone have been a powerful restorative. I have an evening ritual. I clean and organise and cuddle Poppy and feel at peace and connected. The next day I can meet with my whole heart, however good or bad it may be. I’m not scraped raw and quivering with pain. This was my greatest regret in a previous relationship, that I equated the relationship to living together, and thought leaving one ment having to leave the other. I wish I had left the house but used the time to work on the relationship. Without living with their demons, feeling so unsafe and traumatised, I might have had more success recapturing what we’d lost. I intend to learn from that mistake.

Rose and I did this for a long time during our dating too, we lived 10 houses apart on the same street. That blend of together and apart suited us well and we flourished. Two partners with PTSD is an unusual challenge and needs a very specific approach. We are currently hunting for a room she can rent close by to replicate that time in our lives. Part of my plan to get as much of my life back on the easy settings as possible. We are not sure right now what the future looks like or how long we will do this. We spend time together every day, as a couple and a family. We will keep moving forward day by day, getting back into routines.

There are many hurdles yet before us. Welfare is one, they refuse to offer any rent support to Rose unless we formally, legally break up – absolutely the last thing we wish to do. Community mental health services are another, severely lacking in a sense of responsibility, compassion, or even basic customer service. It’s been a tough week but it’s also been so good to see Rose out in the free air again. Even in such a short time, the weight of institutionalisation was so evident. Out in the world there’s something more adult about her, more dark and wild and free and grounded. I fall in love all over again. Her beautiful eyes, soft hands, kind heart. She’s been so lost at times but she finds her way home. Darkness tears gulfs between us. Love bridges them. She is so precious and I’m lucky to have her.

Kindness

Nursing my glorious baby in bed by candlelight (electric so I don’t set the bed on fire) and reading a book my beloved traded something to get for me. I’m milk stained from nursing, and tear washed from a counseling appointment earlier today. I went to a cranial sacral therapy session this morning, miserable with the flu and chronic back pain from breastfeeding. I don’t really understand how it works or if there’s any science behind it, but a woman held me while I cried, and looked at me with kindness while I talked about shame. That might be all the magic is, but it’s still magic of a kind. I came home and journalled and sketched and read and felt more myself and connected to my roots. It’s enough. 

Making peace

It was a super stressful day for my household, for reasons I won’t go into. Things worked out well in the end, thankfully, but it was really hard, with a lot of  anxiety and tears. We celebrated good outcomes with ice cream at our new favourite haunt in town – 48 Flavours, which lives up to its name by being delicious and having 48 options to anguish over choosing. We all got home around 5pm and the lot of us promptly went back to bed for a couple of hours of sleep or rest. 

This evening we are recharging with pasta and hazelnut chocolate and chai lattes in front of a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marathon. Baby girl is kicking, the heater is keeping us warm, and the critters are dozing peacefully. Star is sketching, Rose has been cooking and preparing drinks for us, and I’m getting notifications that people are buying my prints through my Etsy shop, which is making me a little teary all over again, although that’s also because Dobby just died. 

It’s very peaceful here. I love my little family. ❤ 

Freedom & safety for a charged topic

My Waiting for You exhibition opening night is just around the corner and I want to speak briefly about creating safety when dealing with such a painful theme.

For many of us, this is a really charged topic. It’s painful, intense, deeply personal, and may not be something we’ve ever really had a chance to process – much less to engage in a public setting. Breaking taboos can be liberating but also triggering and incredibly distressing. I’m deeply aware of this, because Rose and I are in this place in a very real way, right now. I want to share publicly the same conversations I’m having with her, because I suspect she’s not the only one feeling conflicted. I want to speak into the heart of that conflict because it’s what hurts so badly and makes it so hard for us to talk about these things and know what we need. We often feel pulled in contradictory directions – needing to talk about it/see it in public/bring it to light, and also needing to hide away from it and deal with it in privacy. It can be really hard.

I have taken a number of steps to help the opening night to be a safer space. You can help me with this in how you treat the other guests and yourself. Here are some guidelines and values I’ve set for the evening:

Freedom

  • You are free not to come! I won’t be upset with you if I know you personally. You are not under pressure to attend to support me.
  • You are free to be ambivalent and unsure. It’s okay to decide at the last minute if it feels like a good idea to come. It’s okay to change your mind. Please don’t force yourself to do anything that doesn’t feel like it’s right for you.
  • Free to leave any time you need to. It won’t be ‘rude’ to step out or leave early. No judgement. You’re also welcome to step out for a bit then come back.
  • Free to decide you’d rather attend privately instead of for an open night with other people around.
  • Free to buy something that speaks to you to take home, and free to find the art confronting or disconnected from your experience, and support me in other ways if you want to.

Feelings are okay

  • It will be okay to feel things. It’s okay to cry, to be moved, to remember, to talk about things.
  • It will be okay to feel good, or sad, or mixed up, or lots of things at the same time.
  • It will be okay not to feel things, to be numb, or not in that space, or not public about it.

Resources on the Night

  • Sands Australia will have a representative at the evening who is more than happy to talk to anyone looking for information or support. Sands provides a helpline and other resources around miscarriage, stillbirth, and newborn death. She will also have brochures and information you can take home and look at later.
  • Tissues and friendly people around (my tribe is full of good people) who can give you space or a hug. Some of my friends are champion huggers, so just sing out if you need one.
  • A place to be involved. Rose and I have created a small installation We Love – providing a space for you to participate and recognise your own losses. You can write names or something meaningful to you on papers provided and have a time to reflect.

Art can be powerful. It can bring the private into a public space. It can help us to speak about things its difficult to find words for. It can help people not to forget that behind silence and cultural taboo are real people who need and deserve safety and connection. It can express and share our unbearable experiences in ways that help make them bearable to look at. This kind of art can be a speaking back to silence, a way of documenting things that were erased from our lives and never allowed into our histories and family stories. These things happened. We felt many things about them. They changed us. They are important. We deserve space to share our stories, mourn our losses, and rebuild our lives – without secrecy, without shame. In community; with connection, privacy, and love.

Hard work and lots of love

Today was madcap. Things have been moving so fast lately with an extra person in the house and all the scrambling to adjust and adapt that come with suddenly caring for a teen. We are working hard to keep stress levels as low as we can, which means riding out big stress spikes for all of us every few days as the wheels fall off something, and then coming back down to a calmer space in which everyone can think, plan, and more importantly – digest food and get to sleep! I feel really proud of us because I think we’re doing really well at this. Some of those skills I’ve worked so hard on about navigating personal crisis seem to be working well for helping our family deal with the ups and downs too.

Today, Zoe had a gash on her leg that looked bad enough to possibly need stitches, Rose and I dropped our van in at the mechanic to have the radiator replaced and got home in our little car only to have it die. A friend kindly came over so we could get Zoe to the vet using their car, we cancelled what we could for the day, sorted out dinner and went off to an important appointment together after school. On collecting the van we discovered that replacing the radiator seems to have wrecked the air conditioning – something we were warned might happen due to some damage probably caused by a front end impact in the van for a previous owner…

Zoe got away fairly lightly with a bandage, cone of shame, and meds. We’re trying to arrange a tow for the car that’s not running at all and cancelling non essential appointments for the next few days of hot weather. At various times today we got heat fried, overwhelmed by the costs, teary and tired, and worried about the baby. It was really hard! But we’ve spent this evening in front of the air conditioner with dinner and ice cream. Homework is happening, there have been board games and hugs. I’ve written a list of the most urgent things we need to get done over the next few days. Zoe has taken her meds. Everything is okay again. Tired, a bit tattered around the edge maybe, but okay.
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On the upside, this pregnancy has really started whizzing by! We’re up to 17 weeks now! That’s amazing. I’ve gone from knowing exactly how many weeks and days I am all the time to missing whole weeks while I’m focused elsewhere. (Rose however, still knows exactly what day we’re up to and what size the baby is all the time) I’ve also stopped worrying about how we’re going to cope with a baby and if I’m going to be an okay parent and all the terribly consuming first parent anxieties that felt so overwhelming only a month ago… It’s overwhelming but it’s also wonderful, delightful, deeply moving. Our tribe has such amazing people in it and I love each of them. Opening our home to someone means they are very special to us, very loved and trusted to be safe and bring their own light, their own heart into our family. We are enriched and fortunate! Amazing and precious experiences are unfolding. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not very worth it. ❤

Courage

My beloved is having a rough time and it’s breaking my heart. She’s been home all week with terrible flashbacks. I’m juggling college and everything else around trying to help her feel safe and supported. And I’m sad. I’m terribly sad that I can’t stop them or make it better, that I can’t fix our money stress, that I’m half drowned in anxiety and dislocation myself. I’m sad because small business start-up means facing more disappointments than I feel I have in me, more opportunities lost than my heart can handle. I’m sad because my cycle is really out by an extra couple of weeks and the wait is interminable.

I’ve finished gilding my print, and I’m proud about that. She is truly beautiful. The rest of my week, my appointments, and my to do list scares me. College feels unmanageable. Even catch ups with friends scare me. I feel uneasy about almost everything, unsettled, like I might bite at a hand even if offered to comfort. My buffer between the world and a big well of vulnerability and doubt is very thin.

But I’m here for my Rose, however I can be, and I’m here in my home as best I can be. Today I spent all day in my pyjamas and I soaked up the sunlight in my backyard and watched the rainbows dance from the crystal hanging in Tam’s tree. I cut Rose and my sister’s hair, and sat peacefully dogsitting. I finished The Matrix trilogy and cried. And when Rose needed me to I sat with her and stroked her face and talked softly and got her a drink or a cold flannel for her face. And when I needed her she held my hand while I cried softly. If there’s not much courage or hope left in me for anything else, it was still well spent. Everything and everyone else can wait.

Rose’s Birthday – the Lowlights

It’s been a full on week with so much going on I’ve been feeling stuck about sharing here… more than that, detached, disconnected from my online world which is so often my territory and my haven. Heartsick. I kept trying to write about Rose’s birthday party and finding myself feeling like I was writing spin when I only shared the good parts, or that I was omitting the bright things when I shared the tough parts. In the end, Rose suggested I write both as separate posts.

Her party was awesome, and it was tough. It was a super child-friendly space but I didn’t feel comfortable letting my kids come out because a lot of those who came were not multiplicity literate. I did out myself ‘casually’ at one point, heart beating hard. In a year or two they’ll be more ready. I can be patient, I’d rather grow something strong than tip over the boat. So I took refuge in adult roles, feeling how my own sense of agitation dissolved as I sank into something familiar and reassuring and… bounded. I didn’t have to know anything or answer any of the dilemmas that were doing my head in, I could just be, and I could be good at it. There’s something to that, I think. I don’t know what yet. Roles can be dehumanising, and yet the lack of them can be… a kind of exile. Skinless and formless and falling into space.

Rose and I were both busy and the week leading up to the party was stressful with money woes and welfare issues and a lot of work… and this was our first month of trying to get pregnant again since Tamlorn died. It’s been so hard! We both thought we would ride it out okay, we felt ready and excited and ready to pace ourselves and ride out the highs and lows… instead it’s been incredibly tough. It’s brought back the loss of Tamlorn keenly. We’re both having nightmares about babies, feeling grief and loneliness and both feeling that we shouldn’t be feeling much of anything, that we need to hide our sadness and fear. It’s not an easy place to be. My cycle hasn’t returned to normal since the miscarriage either, so we started our ovulation testing and got a ‘high fertility’ result a few days earlier than expected and started doing insems. Usually I get one or at most 2 high fertility days and then I ovulate. This month, I got 8 high fertility test results in a row, and we did 4 insems before giving up. About 2 weeks late, I finally ovulated over the party weekend and was in pretty bad pain on that side for about 20 hours. We’ve noticed that I seem to have a pattern of less reliable cycles and more painful ovulation on one side – good month, bad month, good month… which should mean next month is better. We both know this, yet there’s such sadness at the same time, a kind of quiet despair that sits alongside, or beneath all the other things, all the joys and silliness and hopes. One is not more true than the other, one is not a mask to the other. Both are real.

Many of our friends are vulnerable in some way, and the weekend has been triggering for some of us. Rose had a major flashback that’s left her reeling, vomiting with stress, having nightmares, and needing downtime – pj days to recover. We are pretty good at dealing with these now, and so we’ve been going to sleep clothed and reading Harry Potter to her. One friend became too overwhelmed to make it down, another came but was overloaded in the aftermath. I was doing great until the last night when one of the more distressed members of my system woke to the sounds of a storm and then woke Rose sobbing… we ended up out in the wild wind on the front lawn, wrapped in a blanket and watching the dawn come in because when we were outside we were calm and centred, but indoors we were hysterical and about to vomit. We settled outside, reaching a place of acceptance: that she felt completely out of sync with herself, Rose, and our body – and deeply distressed by that in comparison with how others of us have been feeling lately, our awakening sense of connection and security highlighting her sense of being profoundly lost and in despair.

Out in the wind the pain eased and that part was different, freer somehow, more powerful… recently I was exploring some archetype cards with a friend, and each card has the shadow and light characteristics of each archetype on it… I wondered if we have lost sight of her light qualities, if we only know her in shadow, in trauma and disconnection and pain.

Finding a sense of safety and helping each other feel safe… these are such valuable skills to develop. They are a key part of what Rose and I offer to each other on hard days, of how we try to treat our friends and what we ask from them. Making it okay to be human and okay to take risks and feel pain, to struggle at times, to be wounded and fallible. One of my lovely friends sends me texts when I’m struggling that say “It’s okay to not be okay.” It seems to me these qualities are so often linked to ones that it’s easier to value… those friends I know that are struggling with the darkest depressions have such kind hearts. It’s not easy to have a heart like that in a world like this. But we’re all so used to being treated badly when we’re vulnerable and being made responsible for it – this mad idea people seem to have that we can make ourselves feel other than we do, and that this would be a good thing – that we conceal our soft underbelly and our broken hearts and our bad days, and those who would be gentle or understanding never see that side of us, and we never get to see or feel their kindness.

Sharing is vulnerable but also powerful… seeing and being seen. Learning to create safety for humans, in our relationships, our families, our tribes, within our own minds and hearts. It’s such a challenge and we can’t do it entirely alone. We weave it back and forward between us, in our listening and our not hearing, in our seeing and our willingness to be seen. In the way we step outside of our roles and are human, flawed, and vulnerable and imperfect, full of brilliance and insight and deep feelings. This is what it is to love.

Going gently from miscarriage to trying to conceive

I’ve been sick and stressed. Going gently…

This means sleeping in. It means Rose taking a morning off work to hold me while I cry, and read me back to sleep, and coax little bits of toast and water into me while I try not to throw up. It means sobbing hysterically into my keyboard. It means my sister brings me cups of tea. It means nightmares about being homeless with a newborn baby. Blinding headaches, and body aches. Sitting on the bed with Rose and a perfectly laid out set of clothes for a 6 month old. Talking about Tam again, daily, feeling their loss keenly.

We’re trying to conceive again and my cycle is weird. Apparently this is common following a miscarriage. I thought we might bypass it – we’ve waited until all my levels are normal again, I’ve lost that little bit of weight on my tummy and feet, my body feels like a pre-pregnancy body. But no, things are still weird. I’m currently on day 8 of testing as being ‘high fertility’, when I’ve only ever had 2 days of that result, at most. I’m spotting, which is really unusual for me, and could mean anything from implanting, to not ovulating, to ovulating, to endo messing around with me. Having a weird cycle is kind of worse than having a normal cycle and just not getting pregnant. Today I’m going for a blood test for progesterone levels to see what they’re doing. It’s like being all geared up to turn a corner or fall over a cliff and having the trip extend just a little and then a little more so you stay in that tensed up state and the bottom doesn’t fall out of your world just yet.

On the plus side, we’re getting a lot better at doing insems quickly and easily. We’ve ditched our original syringe method and moved to the cup method, which is a lot more comfortable and portable.

Death is in the background constantly, again. My friend Leanne is in my mind a lot. I find myself sobbing for friends I know who are struggling, fearing they’ll kill themselves, feeling helpless in the face of loss. I find myself carrying Tamlorn’s name around with me like a scar, like a precious relic, like a secret. I remember you, love, I remember you. Some days it feels so close, the baby feels so near that all we have to do is keep the faith. Some days those dreams feel like mirages that recede as I think I’m nearing them, and all my hoping becomes an empty, gasping, darkness. I fall into it, and the world goes on brightly without me. People mouth platitudes at me and they become knives that fall from their lips and cut right through me. We can’t know anything, and anyone who pretends otherwise is turning their face from that brutal reality. Life is not fair and love is not enough and dreams are essential but often unrewarded. Those of us who choose not to know this walk on paths made of the bones of slaves.

Lastly, there is this peaceful place. Down in the bones of the world, where I can sit at the balance point between life and death. I accept my powerlessness and the risks and wounds of love. In that place I can let be. What will come, will come. I do not rule the world. I am old enough to know that dreams must be abundant, like sperm, like tiny sea turtles, like thistledown on the wind. Because most will die. This is the nature of the world, and it hurts, every time. Here, in this dark place, Rose and I sit and lay out the baby clothes. We weep and laugh and count our blessings and number our dead. We sleep and dream of children. We hold hands and we cry in our sleep. We hope, which makes our hearts and faces shine. We hope, which makes our hearts bleed. Going gently. Breathing in and out, the beauty and the nightmares. Faces pressed to the rich, rank earth, living deeply. Loving greatly and accepting the cost.

Learning the cycle

So I’m noticing a cycle. I soar into something wonderful – a new capacity or skill or realisation. Life is wonderful, almost ecstatic. Then I find myself grounding and trying to integrate the new experience with my life and ideas and past. It’s messy and complex. Then something glitches badly and I find myself way down in the swamp.

Messy turns to painful. I hurt and cry and become anxious and overwhelmed. No matter how many times I’ve gone into and come out of the swamp, a key feature is that at some stage I will lose hope, lose all sense of competence, lose any guiding light. In that place, where my vulnerability is total and the darkness around me absolute, I will discover the block. Forced into confronting it, I will find a name for it and begin to explore it, deeply afraid and very resentful.  Once I’ve found this block, I will be released from the swamp. In understanding the block I am freed from it and come soaring back into flight again.

It’s a cycle of learning: not an illness but an emotional circle, of learning and doubt and reflection that repeats and at each stage offers me an opportunity to confront something key and learn. With support and with time for honest reflection I am learning how to tune in and listen more quickly to myself, and my writing and journals and poems help me tremendously, become paper mirrors that help me see me. Focusing skills help too.

If I don’t listen or tune in and I don’t find the block, at a certain point I’m come out of the swamp anyway, but I’ll go back in shortly, over and over again in the most exhausting and demoralising spiral. If I find the block and come out of the swamp but then stop tuning in to myself, I’ll try and push myself through the block instead of negotiating it and I’ll make a mess of myself, driving myself to exhaustion. If I keep listening I’ll find out how to unpick the mess and go forward in a way that suits us and gives us freedom.

Adult learning. It’s a fascinating field! Emotionally, it’s painful and messy. But when I see it coming and get out of the way and understand that by tuning in it will move along faster, I can see how it works and why its needed, and how people can get stuck. Yesterday we figured out a block and settled. Today, I feel fantastic again. I’m glowing with health and enthusiasm and enjoying my work again. So maybe I need a note on the bedroom wall that says – “when you go down, listen well, and you will come up again. It will be okay, you have been here before and you will be back again.”

People don’t like cycles much, we tend to pathologise them. But cycles are intrinsic to nature, seasons, day and night, even our own cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Rhythms and tides are how living things work. And all cycles have their winter or their dark night in them. It doesn’t have to mean anything is wrong. Some knowledge we need in life is bright, beautiful, glowing and sitting on our lips like honey. Some is dark, painful, angry, wounded, and spilling from our mouth like blood. Some things we learn in ecstacy and some in anguish. Some things we dress in our finest clothes for and some things we must be naked to embrace. All of it can be life giving, can be part of a whole, deeply felt life.

I don’t know better than you

I don’t know better than you how to live your life.

I don’t know better than people I sometimes care for when they’re unwell.

I don’t know better than the rest of my own system. I couldn’t be any of my other parts better than they are.

In fact, my conscious or rational mind doesn’t know better than the rest of my mind.

If I tried to take over your life, on the basis that I know better than you how to run it and that I’d do a better job, there are two predictable outcomes – you would fight me every step of the way, overtly or covertly, desperately trying to preserve your own freedom and dignity. You would fight me even if what I trying to make you do WAS good for you, or felt helpful or needed, or would actually make your life better. Because those needs are less important than the need to be in control of your own life. It is a fundamental human need to be autonomous. The freedom to choose, even if our choices are terribly flawed. This is part of the foundation of our sense of dignity. We will be incredibly, instinctively ‘self destructive’ in situations where people are trying to take over our lives, simply to try to restore a sense of control. Rebellion is a common human response to control.

The second predictable outcome to my control would be your submission. Obedience is another common human response to authority. The more authority I have, the more likely you are to obey me. The more other people obey me, the more likely you are to obey me. The more I get you to believe that you are very, very bad at running your own life, and I could do a much better job, the more likely you are to obey me.

People express these conflicting responses – rebellion and submission, in a variety of ways. Some people, usually a minority, will rebell whatever the cost to themselves. I will see this as proof that you are out of control and need my intervention.

Some people will flick between times of rebellion and times of submission, expressing deep ambivalence and conflict about their relationship to this person in authority. I will ethos as proof of your unstable nature and inability to be consistent, proving that you need my direction.

Some people will become highly manipulative and passive aggressive, submitting openly but covertly fighting. I will construe this as you having poor boundaries, behavioural issues, and an inability to engage in normal, warm human relationships, proving the need for my management.

Others will become highly compliant and withdrawn, obeying all control and hoping that submission will stop anything worse happening to them. I will construe this as your passive nature, that you are clearly unable to direct your own life and see it as proof you need ongoing parent type support.

The nature of how we think and process our own experiences makes it challenging for us to hold this conflict in our minds. If I have taken power away from you, but also met your needs at times, you may find it impossible to openly criticise me. If I have a very hostile response to criticism, very defensive, and a lot of power to punish you, you may learn to never criticise me.

I will criticise you however, particularly if you disobey me or manage to try something for yourself which goes badly. Many things you try for yourself will go badly because mistakes is how we learn and the longer I’ve been able to keep you from making mistakes the less chance you’ve had to learn. I may also shame you for criticising, requiring you to constantly express gratitude to me for the very hard work I’ve done in helping you. You’ve been a heavy burden and very hard work at times, trying my patience, terribly ungrateful, rude, passive, and hostile. You will be constantly how inadequate you are and how much you owe me. The biggest things you owe me are gratitude and silence about anything I don’t like to hear.

You may internalise my ideas about my competence to run your life and police and suppress even your own thoughts and feelings – fighting your natural instinct to rebell and hating yourself for feeling that way. Now you have turned against yourself. You distrust your own impulses. You fight to stay in control of your feelings and urges, feeling shame about them. They are the enemy, proof that you are weak, sick, and incompetent. Further proof that I am right to direct your life.

You are also exhibiting signs of chronic disempowerment or institutionalisation. You have trouble making decisions on your own. You feel very anxious when you can’t get clear feedback that I our other authority figures are happy with you. You are incredibly vulnerable to the slightest shift in mood or sign that you are out of favour. You lack motivation and energy. You lack creativity and spark. You feel out of control, depressed, and miserable.

If you have turned against yourself strongly and effectively, you are so dissociated from your own feelings and impulses you would swear you are not unhappy. Your life and health shows the signs of profound unhappiness but you yourself insist that you are fine and that I love you and have your best interests at heart. If you were an animal, we might describe you using words such as tame, docile, or domesticated. Something essential about you has been crushed. You are incredibly uncomfortable around people who are not crushed. You tend to have an authoritative, brutal, detached relationship with anyone you are in power over.

I am exhausted and frustrated by your constant neediness. I am angry about your occasional criticism or rebellion, and your passive aggressiveness infuriates me. I may be desperately looking forward to the day when you start to run your own life and not need me anymore, or I may be dependant upon your gratitude to cope with my sense of emptiness, my chronic emotional starvation from never being real and open and vulnerable and having my own needs met.

I may not have started this process. You may have become afraid or overwhelmed and collapsed in my arms, looking for someone to follow and investing me with both the power and responsibility to direct your life. I may look like the bad guy but actually be suffering terribly, exhausted and totally confused about how to hand control back to you without you just being dead by the end of the week. I may live in terror of your irrationality, your self destructiveness, your bizarre, violent impulsiveness, your lack of self compassion or patience. When I try to leave you may harm yourself, attempt suicide, stalk me, stop eating, or destroy my reputation. Roles act as hooks. If I take over, you are likely to collapse. Equally, if you collapse, I am likely to take over.

I may be your parent, your doctor, your best friend, your partner, your shrink, your kid, your minister, your small group leader, your boss, your carer.

I may be the dominant part in your system, doing my misguided best to help us all function. I may try to take over (or be dumped with) every other role, not sharing any power or responsibly with the rest of you. I am good at some things but very bad at others. I am deeply frustrated that other parts fight me, disobey me, even hate me. I think my good intentions are enough and I don’t understand that being so intrusive is always harmful even when I’m doing it from love. The more desperate and afraid I am, the more control I take away. The more control I take away, the more my system shows the signs of disempowerment and alienation.

I may be you rational mind. Treated by your culture, your family, your shrink as the only bit of your mind that is really ‘you’, the only bit that should be in charge at all times, the only bit that can do what you need to survive and live, put in charge of every other system and function, and called to account for unconscious dreams, fears, desires, for threat systems and triggers from old wounds and pleasures, for fragmented memory structures and hallucinatory sensory input.

I confabulate stories to fill the gaps from when I was not running the show. I deny all other aspects. I claim to be the only self, the only voice, the only reality. I delete other perspectives, fight with them, silence them, and try to take over their roles. I remove instances of loss of my control from our master narrative of self. I pretend I am always aware, always online, always in control and ignore all the times we cycle into other states of awareness.

Sanity, I am assured, rests in my total dominance. Health is me being in control. No more daydreaming. No more idiosyncrasies. No more irrational fears. So I take over instead of being part, and we become less. Silenced voices fight back in rage or wither in isolation. We become less than whole. Instinctive systems are dysregulated because of my intrusive micromanagement; slow to kick in when needed, randomly intruding when not needed. Emotions are frequently ignored as ‘irrational’, cutting me off from the vast knowledge in omy unconscious mind. I have almost no intuitive capacity to understand myself or other people. I am terrified of diversity, difference, altered states, lots of control, dreams, spirituality, mystery, and human vulnerability.

Or I can recognise that I am part of a whole and step back. I can be the reflective process that helps us to learn. I can regulate the empathy that leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. I can gently challenge the irrational and bizarre thoughts and impulses that would lead us down terrifying paths, while recognising they are the flip side of our sensitivity and capacity to look for patterns. I can channel input from the unconscious and give it equal, but not more, weight with what I already think I know.

I can acknowledge the wholeness of self that is more than just me, my illusion of singleness, my illusion of conscious control. I can learn to tune in, learn to listen well.

And we can breathe, can speak in many voices, can recognise each others expertise, can work together. The brain is an argument, says one of my favourite neuroscience books (Into the Silent Land). The brain can also be a conversation, can also be a song.

So can our systems. So can our relationships, our families, our culture.

Learning through love and pain

I got some sleep! Thank the gods of small items that get caught in drawers.

And everyone who was kind to me yesterday. I am so grateful, and learning so much – or rather, relearning things we knew but have almost forgotten. How kindness can clothe us when we are naked.

The place I was in yesterday – triggered to the edge of hysteria, raw in the presence of people who were not raw. I used to live there! I remember.

Coming out of it for me yesterday was the intellectual grounding of my people, saying to me in many subtle and overt ways, that it’s okay that I’m different, okay that I’m human, okay that I’m raw, okay that I’m triggered. Over and over again. The balm of acceptance, like oil poured into the painfully self aware distress of my public hysteria. I am learning so much, less from the conference then from all of you.

What happened when I was raw to that place of screaming? I couldn’t see them as people anymore. They couldn’t see me. I would smile at strangers and their eyes would bounce right past me. Embedded in a culture dominated by the ideas of the somebodies and nobodies, I was a nobody far too heartsick to fight to be a somebody, too sickened by the fight and the process, by the shouting at each other from podiums.

I don’t even feel alive when I sleep indoors every night in my own tiny, beautiful, personal home. Out in my van under the stars I’m far from the gradual dissociating provess of a life seeking comfort. Here in this hotel, temperature controlled to a warmth that makes me eyes feel hot and my lips in the mirror this morning seems dry and slightly swollen, a soft bee stung swelling and a shade of pale skin as if I’ve been sucking out poison from a wound and a little is left in my face. Here I’m far from home.

In an online forum I’m part of, a different group of people are talking about the ways peer work is most effective – and it’s excellent and well thought through and observational and drawn on years of experience. One of their points is that it needs to be processed rather than raw. I speak to that – that my experiences have often been raw rather than processed and that’s the tip of a complex conversation I don’t have time for in this rush rush rushing, that my stuff is often much more processed then others simply because our group mind works that way, and yes, that too raw can be too vulnerable, too full of rage or too under the thumb – telling the stories of the dominant culture back to the dominant culture in a self gratifying process (that those of us outside it often call with pity or frustration or a sense of shame that these are the people representing us -) “tame peer workers”…

I know, I see the problems with that. But I also see the value in this raw process. Something can be lost in the processing. If we don’t start with raw, dense, rich with complex detail, unprocessed as much as possible, honest stories, we lose so much. Maybe that’s why I’m an artist. Truth telling us important to me and my work, and in mental health it’s something I have to fight for because they prefer “tame artists” too.

I get the need for a relationship and not a screaming argument. I get the need for processing to make our stories bearable to hear and to tell. I understand that we need to speak in the language of the people we are trying to speak to, if we want to be heard. But… But…

I’m not talking to astrophysicists. How can you be telling me that mental health workers cannot hear me when I am speaking in the language of raw, unprocessed pain and truth? How can you be telling me that they cannot bear the intensity of honest and deeply wounded humans? I hear you and I believe you and you are only putting in words what I have already seen and felt but…

This is the problem!

It’s not just something to notice and work around, it’s the heart of everything that is wrong. If I can’t speak in the language of unprocessed pain and have a mental health worker hear me and understand me and be able to bear that language and rawness, what the hell are they doing in the field of mental health?

So my tribe, you are keeping me sane. You are holding me while I scream and dig the traps and lethal ideas out of my head, and then hold me while I bleed and sob and reassure me that, this too, is human and okay. It’s how people look when we are far from home. There’s nothing wrong with me. I am an ex-cult member back in the cult, trying to hold a space for my new tribe. Trying very badly, messily, crumbling. Not well able to use the ways this culture gives respect or signals importance or the things they require for a basic sense of dignity and inclusion. I’m not very good at it.

I’m sitting here, in the front row of a session at the moment, wearing a silver velvet dress and my strong boots. Trying to find a way to not be like them but be accepted by then, to tolerate the pain in me of being among them but not become so overwhelmed with pain that I can’t see them as human anymore either – that I give up on them and all their world, leave it to the pain soaked stereotypes of emptiness, not hear anymore each individual voice with all its richness and brilliance and loss but hear only the roar of the whole culture, see only the ways that they harm and none of the ways they heal, find no value in them but run home and say with agony and bewilderment and rage “they are not human, like us”. I think of the indigenous people seeing the first white people, seeing ghosts in the mists. It’s just as difficult for me to see them as human as it is for them to see me as human.

So, I sit at a mental health conference and think of all we have learned. The knowledge I am so passionate about, the neuro psychs, the brain biologists, the people learning how to help stroke victims heal, the social scientists unpicking power and the subtleties of abuse in our most intimate and most impersonal relationships. It’s all so important and so valuable. Every thing we know about the world and ourselves is so valuable, there’s not a single tiny piece of information we don’t need. Every bit of it is essential and relates to a complex whole.

But right back down at the coal face of one human to another, of how do we connect with people in pain, how do we hear when people speak with the language of agony and broken hearted rage, how do we be human with one another, see and be seen… All the wisdom of our brilliant, disconnected, scientific culture is totally useless if we don’t know how to love each other.

So, thanks for standing with me. I’m learning a great deal. You make this possible, you learn with me, I learn with you and from you. Language connects us, culture connects us. You help me bridge the gaps, help me stay human. I hope I do the same for you.

Nameste, gratitude, blessings, prayers, and love.

Crisis Mode & Being under Pressure

I had a lovely lunch with a wonderful friend today and we were musing about my recent post Self Care and a Myth of Crisis Mode. She made an excellent point I wanted to share, which was that for her, crisis mode was being triggered, not by trauma but by being the ‘bottom line’ in a number of areas of her life at the moment. This really resonated with me and fit the pattern of a number of people I know who struggle with constantly being in crisis mode and all the distress around that experience.

Being the ‘bottom line’ is being in a place where you must function because there is no one else to pass important tasks off to or take on the role you are doing. It can be a part of trauma and crisis, for example a soldier on active duty must function and do his job well. But it can also be a part of everyday life in ways that aren’t so much about trauma as they are about being under pressure. So, having tight schedules and a demanding job where you can’t easily be replaced can put you under a lot of strain. Being a parent with children who are sick or have high needs in some way is exhausting because you are always the bottom line, and even if they are being cared for by someone else for a night, you know that if the wheels really fall off the train, you are going to get a call at 3am and you had better be able to turn up and fix it all again. There’s a kind of chilling reality of adult life going on here, that is possibly more about our fractured social networks and isolation than it is about being adult. It’s the culture we live in where each family is responsible for it’s own and asking for help outside of that family can be extremely challenging – or getting it, for that matter. I remember a few years back when I was single, I was very sick and desperately needed some support – having a friend who would offer to come over and fill a script for me, or another who kindly drove me to the doctor, or another who came down at short notice late at night to sit with me so I didn’t have to let a stranger into my house by myself when the locum called… such kindnesses were the difference between a challenging situation and a desperate one. We all need the networks and capacity to drop our bundle from time to time. In fact, know that we can drop it and things will still be okay is a big part of what helps us be more resilient! It’s a kind of foundation upon which we can stand and face the world and fulfill our responsibilities.

So, being the bottom line is about pressure. Some pressure is fine, it’s manageable, even helpful. Too much is destructive. Where that line is, is different for each of us. And some of us put ourselves under a lot more pressure than the situation warrants. I’ve talked with lovely, hyper-responsible people who are acutely suicidal and at extremely high risk who simply will not cancel something they are booked in to, because they must keep their word, must do what they’ve said they will do, and because they think they are basically a lazy or overly dramatic child who needs to be pushed into doing the right thing and not allowed time off whenever they feel like it.

Oh boy, is this me. Rose and I have had some memorable show downs where I’ve been acutely unwell – physically, or at extremely high risk emotionally and I’m still trying to get off to college or keep a work commitment of some kind – even when I’m so stressed about it I’m shaking and hysterical! In fact, the more stressed out I am, the more likely I am to not think clearly and default to my preferred stance of “it’s not that bad, I’m just a sook, and I must do whatever I was scheduled to do”. Rose, who is at that point thinking considerably clearer than I am, is the one who both demands that I take better care of myself, and gives me permission to.

I’ve been a little like an exhausted horse who’s rider is flogging it with a whip to keep it moving, except I’m both the horse and the rider in one. The more the horse collapses and staggers and foams at the mouth, the more the rider beats it and drives it on. Over time the rider becomes absolutely convinced that the only way the horse will ever be kept moving is with this driven brutality, because whenever they try stopping the horse collapses and doesn’t move at all. It takes some serious convincing to get the rider to understand that the horse wants to run, and that if they tried caring for it instead, letting it rest and feed and move at a pace it can handle, it will carry them joyously and loyally. This is the driveness I’ve described so often on this blog, and it costs me a great deal, not to mention sucks a lot of the joy out of life.

We don’t generally come up with these ideas by ourselves. Most of us put ourselves under pressure, are brutal about withholding things we need, and suspicious that we are actually just weak or lazy because at some time, in some way, someone has treated us this way, or treated themselves this way and modeled this for us. We internalise this kind of approach whether it was parenting, or teaching, or an impossible standard to live up to, or high expectations of our capacity, or low empathy for vulnerability, or the idea that austerity and self denial makes us strong. These are the voices we hear in our head, they are the inner voice we talk to ourselves with. If they were harsh, we are harsh. If they had no grace, we give ourselves none.

Sometimes it was overt trauma, situations in which we simply had to push past our limits to survive, had to endure the unendurable, face the horrific, know things we absolutely could not bear knowing. And somewhere in that we lost trust in ourselves and started to use pressure and contempt to motivate ourselves and now we are too afraid to let go of that tool even when it’s destroying us. I’ve written more about self hate as a form of motivation in

When I put myself – or others put me, under the intense pressure that says I must function no matter what it costs me, this sets me into crisis mode and makes self care impossible. If I try to do self care from within crisis mode, I do it as a task that I must perform – something to keep my shrink happy or prove to my doctor that I am a responsible patient. I am unable to actually benefit from it. I schedule in fun and try to have it and feel totally detached and find myself looking sideways at myself to see if I’m having fun yet. I sit in a hot bath and it’s not a luxurious break from my day, it’s just a tub of warm water. My body is still rigid with anxiety and becomes more so as I start to wonder why I’m not relaxing properly and why I’m even failing at this simple task. Self care become exhausting and depressing, one more thing I should be doing to keep people off my back and prove I’m being a responsible person. I’ve written more about this in

Self care that breaks me out of crisis mode feels completely different. It is felt. The body calms and unknots, not because I make it but because it is genuinely relaxing. My mind calms, the anxious tension eases, the self hate settles. I don’t have to do anything, accomplish anything, prove anything. I’m not under attack, I don’t need to prepare a defense, and I’m not under pressure to perform. I can just be, and follow my own impulses. In this place, it’s easy to do self care. It’s easy to tell what would be nice, there’s a strong pull towards a bath or the beach or a Blackadder and popcorn night, and none of it feels like work or something I can fail at.

I’ve noticed certain trends such as – everytime I’ve fallen into a sick exhausted heap and had to step back from all my passions and projects and just BE for a little while, I’ve suddenly radically improved. Everytime I’ve been given permission to be human and vulnerable and have limits and needs, I’ve suddenly found things easier. The more I’ve been coaxed and cajoled (and modelled) to take care of myself instead of pushing myself way past my limits all the time, the better I’ve functioned. Walking out of things that stress me like a really triggering talk or film took immense courage the first few times and now I can do it easily. Having to cancel on someone still eats me up inside but with coaxing from Rose I can do it when I have to. Just being given permission to stay home when I’m having a meltdown oddly enough means that I often suddenly feel up to managing the trip. Feeling past my limits and trapped in a situation where I must function is the exact set up that means I’m least able to. Chronic pressure and long term crisis mode are killers.

A shift has taken place inside me. The better I look after myself, the more I stay out of crisis mode, and the less pressure I put myself under, the more I can actually do. I was a high achieving, intelligent child of whom great things were expected. I was often able to accomplish them but at huge personal cost. Learning that I get to stop when it’s too much has taken me a lifetime because that’s not how things worked when I was a kid. I was often past my limits, exhausted and suicidal and yet things like school remained a brutal, inescapable reality I simply had to endure. Permission to be human and take care of myself have been difficult to learn. I’ve had to start by finding other people who do this themselves, and who could help me do it without putting me under the intense and impossible stress of forcing me to do it before I was ready. It’s taken courage to explore self care when I was convinced that I did not deserve it and that it would make me weak. But the place it’s taking me to is that my inner horse runs free; it runs, not because it must, but because it loves to, from a place of heart singing joy.

Self Care & a myth of Crisis Mode

There’s general agreement about self care, it’s good stuff, we should do it and so on. There’s a lot of talk about meditation and exercise and bubble baths in ways that bewilder the more adventurous of us, nauseate the more masculine, and create yearning for those who actually like these things!

If only it was that simple. For some people it is – figure out what you need and do it. For others, it goes more like figure out what you need, try to do it. Run into walls and blocks and internal obstacles. Fight them like crazy and manage to it only sometimes. Kind of hate yourself a lot and feel ashamed and confused. Get stuck. And hate everyone who tells you to ‘take care’.

Yeah, been there. Lots! Sometimes we have to spend a bit of time unpicking the things that make self care impossible. There’s many, many reasons. One of them is when we are crisis mode, self care feels wrong, even dangerous. Crisis mode is a state of high alertness and changed priorities that we use to manage extremely volatile challenging and threatening situations. It’s important and essential. We all do it and we all need to do it. It’s triggered by a sense of threat. That’s important to understand becuase often that threat is in response to an external situation of violence, homelessness, or some less tangible risk of loss such as widespread retrenchment in your workplace. Other times it’s triggered by an internal threat, or a memory of threat, or by unworkable core beliefs such as “I must be better than everyone at everything or I’m not worth anything” that make threat an inevitable, permanent part of social interactions.

Crisis mode is the thing that shifts our brain from higher functions and long term planning to immediate threat response. It’s primal. It’s the thing that makes us run toward a screaming child, react to a dog attack, drop our toothbrush and put out the fire in the kitchen. It’s flight or flight stuff and it uses our brains in a very different way. It’s triggered by the strong emotional sense of threat and fear. When people suffer some kinds of brain damage or are heavily dosed on tranquillisers or mood dampening drugs, they can be missing this response completely and struggle to react appropriately to threat. There is a sad case study of a man who continued to brush his teeth while his kitchen burned down, because this kind of brain damage was present. He heard the smoke alarms screaming and intended to respond, but without the emotional reaction kicking him into crisis mode, he stayed with his current plans for the evening which involved brushing his teeth and so on, and merely tacked ‘do something about the kitchen fire’ to the end of his mental to do list. Crisis mode dumps our previous to do list and rapidly reorganises with with a focus on threat and survival. It’s brilliant and essential.

However, like any system, things can go wrong or get stuck. Some people don’t have crisis mode activate at all when they need it. Some find it kicks in too often or for the wrong kinds of crises such as interpersonal conflicts or existential threats where a loading of adrenaline and a hyper focus on the threat is exactly the opposite of what would be helpful. There can also be issues with staying in crisis mode too long. There’s complex biology behind this about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and long term cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue and so on. But the bit I want to focus on is the clash between crisis mode and self care.

When things are very hard in a longer term way than short urgent crises such as a car accident – whether you’re homeless, suicidal, or facing horrific debts, you can get stuck in crisis mode long term. The self care side of things is actually about getting yourself out of crisis mode. It’s about relaxing, taking intense focus off the threat, calming down brain and body, and getting out of that flight/fight/freeze mode. The aim is to reduce the intense emotions that are triggering the crisis, make space for the ones that need to happen post the crises – so where terror triggers crisis, a wash out of grief, sadness, and fear following a crisis can be an essential part of moving out of crisis mode where such feelings are numbed in order to function. However, in longer term crises we can hang on to our crisis mode because we feel we need it. We can’t rest yet, stop yet, relax yet, feel things yet because it’s still happening!

Worse, when we try to, we feel weak and vulnerable and emotional. We may even radically decrease our functioning and go from being able to keep up the ‘front’ and hold up work and study and getting dressed in the morning – to falling in a heap and not being able to get out of bed or stop crying. This is a natural result of making a safe space in our lives, all the feelings we’ve pushed aside turn up. If we’ve pushed very BIG feelings aside, or been pushing them aside for a long time, we will probably feel very big feelings at this point. So we, and the people around us, get scared. We think we’re getting sick, losing control, going crazy, or falling apart. And we can’t afford to fall apart!! The crisis is still happening! So our sense of terror and threat kicks back in and we go back into crisis mode, that urgent, hypervigilent, holding-on-with-white-knuckles approach to life. And we feel incredibly strained, but at least we’re ‘strong’ again. If we can just fix the problem, then we’ll go and self care!

There’s the myth – it’s better, safer, more efficient to stay in crisis mode than to go into and out of it all the time. Self care can wait until the crises are all over.

  • Emotional Flooding – learn more about ‘feeling’ weak and how suppression of strong feelings and containment of them are different
  • Carpe Diem – exploring the way I look strong in crisis and look weak when it passes but they’re the same process at different parts of the response to life events

Welcome to major issues. This is a poor strategy for managing crises. It feels right and makes sense intuitively, but it destroys us. Our bodies and brains are not designed to be in crisis mode long term. (Not that brain and body are truly separate, but this still how people think of them) When we put them in this mode for a long time, they change. This is adaptive. Basically our body and brain go – well, I guess this person is unlucky. They are living in a really dangerous time and place. We will adapt and help them to have the kind of brain and body that can survive in a really high risk environment. We will make them hypersensitive to any hint of threat. We will give them a hair trigger to kick into adrenaline. We will change their cortisol levels to crisis mode ones all the time. We will wake them up if the tiniest noise happens. We will help them problem solve the bad things by making them dream about them over and over until they figure out how to manage them. We will keep them obsessively focused on the problem so they can fix it. We will help them be the highly sensitive, alert, focused, reactive person they clearly need to be in order to keep them alive.

Our body changes too. Our muscles stay chronically tense in what is known as ‘guarding’ where they literally try to armour us against physical harm. Chronic muscle tension has implications for blood flow, immune function, and lymphatic drainage. It is linked to chronic pain caused by chronic tension and issues with poor lactic acid drainage following exertion. We feel both wired and exhausted and in pain and numb. Our senses may become heightened as they can when a sense is lost. Like a blind person noticing tiny noises, we are deeply attuned to anything that suggests danger, noticing smells and sounds we’ve never been able to pick up before. This may destroy our usual levels of helpful dissociation, so we can no longer tune things out. People crunching foods now drives us up the wall. We can’t listen to a conversation with the radio in the background. We can’t sleep if the neighbours check their mail.

We have to let go of the idea that long term crisis mode is helpful. This is the ‘being too strong all the time’ that sets us up for chronic health and emotional problems and sometimes a huge breakdown when it suddenly fails. No one can be strong all the time without rewiring their body and brain to believe that their life is under constant threat. Those re-wirings are what we call Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or various other dissociative, psychotic, and anxiety disorders. (psychosis and crisis a topic for a different post) For people in constant danger, they are useful. For people who are under threat but not the kind that can be solved by this approach, or who are actually in intermittent crises but try to stay in crisis mode and be strong all the time just in case, these changes are extremely destructive and distressing. Even noticing that these changes are happening can make some people kick into crisis mode as they fight them and try harder to be ‘strong’. This sets off a spiral that can result in tragedy and severe impairment. Accepting that our brains and bodies are wired to survive and that we are carried along by that process, able to influence and direct it but not solely in control of it – and for very good reasons, is critical. We can’t control it because the whole point of crisis mode is to hijack our brain and body without us having to think about it and straight away convert us into crisis mode so we have the best chance of surviving. It is extremely rapid and we don’t have to try and think it into happening, or we’d all be tiger food.

Nobody wrist poem

So, if survival and functioning isn’t about being strong all the time, what is it about? There are lessons to be learned here from those who work and manage extreme environments such as the Arctic. The best model of survival is not a constant state, but a cycle. When a crisis is right now happening, respond to it. Drop everything and do what must be done! When a crisis is not happening right now, right this very moment, this second, that we can do something urgent about, then use self care and grounding to get yourself out of crisis mode as quickly as possible. It is the turbo boost on your car, you should not use it constantly. It is the cheetah’s top speed, you can only hit it once a day before you wear out or change how you function. If you don’t want the changes (PTSD) then get OUT of crisis mode at every opportunity you can. Notice how quickly you kick back into it and rely on that – if it is needed you will be able to activate again, so quickly you won’t even think about it. But get out of it. I’ve discussed ways to do this and more behind the idea in other posts:

  • Handling Hot Material – a simple approach ‘Pick it up and put it down again’
  • Survival Lessons – how do ‘professional survivors’ of extreme environments do it?
  • 5 Hours After an Assault – my partner Rose and I personally navigating a crisis, with explanations of the basic threat responses fight/flight/freeze/fold/tend-and-befriend
  • Awesome Quote – Self Care – how do other people who have come through a lot of hard stuff still manage to function?

It’s not just okay to be ‘weak’, it’s essential to your survival. It helps you recharge and build strength for those times you urgently do need to respond to life. It also kicks you out of crisis mode in your body and brain, and back into your higher functions. For simple urgent issues like ‘I’ve just fallen in the lion enclosure’, or ‘he won’t get his hand off me’, crisis mode is perfect. (By simply, I do not mean ‘easy’, nor do I mean ‘not awful’. Some of the simplest crises you could ever face are some of the most traumatic and horrific!) You will react to the threat instantly, before you can even think about it. Non essential brain and body functions are powered down. That means memory, logic, digestion, and peripheral circulation, among other things. You become designed entirely to survive – to fight, run, or freeze. To survive blood loss, lift fallen trees, scream for help, run for miles, cope with intense heat or cold or severe injury, numb and dissociate through the unendurable and un-survivable.

When your crisis is complex – as ours often are in a first world country – and longer term – problems like chronic unpredictable relationship violence, gambling addiction, a stressful workplace, or a sick child needing round the clock care – crisis mode is mostly unhelpful. Yes, the adrenaline will help you sit up all night with the sick kid, but it will also give you the jitters, stop you sleeping the rest of the week, trigger heightened alertness to sounds, cause gut problems as you try to eat normal foods with a digestive system that’s basically in ‘standby’ mode, and make it very difficult to think clearly. You need your higher brain functions to manage these issues, and they are offline in crisis mode.

So, whether you’re facing something tough now, or dealing with the fallout of it, you are best served by making crisis mode as brief a part of your response as possible. Get out of it whenever you can – even if that’s only a 10 minute break sitting in the backyard while your Mum cuddles the screaming baby, get your system out of that mode and back into your higher functions so you can think and problem solve and navigate our complex world. Crisis mode will be there again when you need it, and hopefully your time spent out of crisis mode helps you set your life up so you need it as little as possible.

Best wishes all. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling with these things. Your brain and body are supposed to work like this. It’s called adapting to your environment. You just have to understand that they read all crises the same and try to manage them with a crisis mode that’s sometimes exactly what you need, and sometimes really unhelpful. You can work with your brain and body to get the best out of them, learn to ‘speak their language’ and accept how they work – just had a bad meeting with your boss? Well that anxious I’m going to throw up feeling is crisis mode – your body is full of adrenaline, your digestions has shut down, and your muscles are ready to run or hit someone but of course you’re not allowed to do that so you’re clamping down on your crisis mode like you’re holding someone down who’s struggling with everything they’ve got. Now you’re staring at your lunch feeling wound up and spaced out and thinking about having a panic attack or punching a wall or eating all the chocolate in the vending machine because all of those options would actually help your brain and body resolve the crisis mode and settle. Or you can take a brisk walk around the block to work off the adrenaline and vent on the phone to your best friend while you do it, and that will also get you out of crisis mode, back to higher functions, able to eat your lunch, sit still, focus on something other than your boss, and use the more complicated parts of your brain to figure out what you want to do about the situation. It’s not rocket science, but knowledge is power. You have a body and brain that want you to survive. Work with them! 🙂

Follow up post:

Unplugging a little and connecting a little

We’re off again, borrowed a van and we’re camping all weekend under the stars and going to enjoy the Medieval Fair. These little get aways are doing great things for my head.

I’m watching to see what exactly seems to make the difference. One of them is being less plugged in to my online world. So when I’m home I’ve started sleeping with my phone in another room at night.

This morning I woke up and wanted to check it. There’s a kind of nervous compulsion to check up on everyone, see how the world is travelling before I start my day.

As a child, when life was bad, I used to wake in the night and sneak into the bedrooms of my family, checking to see they were still breathing. On the very bad nights I’d find a heavy stick or some kind of weapon and wait up alone in case I needed to protect them against violent home intruders.

There’s odd parallels, the wanting to check in, setting the tone for my day. Mornings without the phone there I check in with myself first. I set the tone for my day myself. Then I have a peek at my friends worlds.

This morning I woke up and wanted to check my phone. When I remembered it was in the lounge, I was annoyed for a moment. Then I remembered that the idea was to check with with myself. As I lay there I realised my neck was crinked at an uncomfortable angle causing a fair bit of pain. (mornings are always bad for fibro pain) I relaxed and settled into my pillow. The neck pain eased. I feel my energy settle back into my body. I felt relaxed and comfortable and safe. There was a moment of just me, in my own mind and body, before I got up and began the day. It was good. So that’s something I can do.

I’ve just remembered the first night I spent in a shelter for homeless women running from domestic violence. I lay under a thin blanket, on a plastic wrapped mattress, alone in a room with locks on the doors and window, my ptsd jangling me out of my mind. I could only sleep with my phone clutched in my hand – my lifeline to the outside world, my one hope in a place where I was trapped and powerless.

And that makes me think of the nights in the caravan I lived in for a year, where sleep only came at dawn, and so many nights only happened at all if I slept with my hand on the big carving knife, tucked safe under my pillow, in case he came hunting me. There’s no other way out of a caravan once someone has broken into your door.

Safety and connection has meant many things to me over the years, I guess.

Carpe Diem

Sometimes life kicks you in the face and you fall over and have to curl up and lick your wounds. Sometimes it just keeps kicking you and at some point you get up and kick back. That’s where I’m at now.

Two days ago, we sent Tamlorn for cremation. We took all your beautiful sendings with us in a box.

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This is how mothers say goodbye – on their knees.

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Yesterday we learned that our donor’s circumstances have changed and he’s no longer going to be part of our process.

Today I picked up Tamlorn’s ashes from the funeral company.

Tomorrow I’m going back in to the local welfare centre again to beg for help with these ongoing debt issues that no one ever returns calls about.

And I’m fighting back.

I’m sleeping. I’m cooking meals. I’m energised and throwing myself into life. I’ve started the new term of art college. I used the holiday to catch up on all the homework so I’m ready and focused. Things are different now I’m in second year subjects. This week I’ve actually felt like this isn’t a crazy waste of time. I’m getting some support for the kind of art that is meaningful to me, learning useful things about the history of art where I can place my own stress and ambivalence into context. I have a new sense of hope that there is a place for me and what I do in the art world, somewhere.

I am currently doing prep work for a gathering tomorrow of the potential board for the HVNSA and DI networks I’ve been care taking through my business. And I am excited! I’ve been reading a couple of books; Start Something that Matters by Blake Mycoskie, and Be a Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson. Social entrepreneur… it’s not a word I’m familiar with. I have painstakingly gathered business skills in my face painting business over the last couple of years. I am not good at marketing myself. I am good at giving things away for free to vulnerable people. But now at least, I can manage invoicing, tax, record keeping, and the basic admin of a business. And I am finding words for my passion for people, and models for what I’ve been trying to do. I feel less alone and bewildered and overwhelmed. The other board members are good people, conversations with them imbue me with hope about what we can do together. I am realising that what I most need at the moment is not to be doing this alone.

So, I’m burning with passion and my mind is clear and alert. I’m confident and imaginative and enthusiastic. I know this energy can’t last. No matter the cause, at some point the body needs to rest, the mind to recharge. That’s okay, I can do that. I’m astonished by my current state, grateful and relieved. I did not expect this. This has been an incredibly hard year. I’m determined to live fully, to embrace what I have and do what I can. I’m reaching out to country and interstate people about going and giving my talks – I’ve decided to offer some for free and ask for help to cover travel costs. I want to be out there, I want to be doing what I love, helping people. I don’t have a little baby in my arms, I may not even be able to try and get pregnant again this year while we look for and build a relationship with another donor. So I have a lot of love in my heart and there’s a lot of people out there who need a bit of love.

And when the night falls on my heart again and that flame of hope goes out… I want you to remember that one is not good and the other bad, one is not real and the other a lie. Pain, sorrow, anguish. They are as real and necessary and sane a response to my life as my current zeal. I am reminded of something I wrote a long time ago in Traumatic replay:

When awful things are happening I feel awful. I feel numb. I feel furious. I fight like hell. I feel strong. I feel helpless. I feel vindicated. And other people say things to me like “How are you still going?”, with respect.

When nothing awful is happening I still feel awful, numb, furious, but I have nothing to fight. I feel weak, helpless, stupid, pathetic, and full of self loathing. And other people say things to me like “What is wrong with you?”, with contempt.

Remember this day, tomorrow when I am broken again. They go together, the flying and the falling. This is the fire – I am forged strong, but I am also consumed and devoured by it. This is my life, ending one minute at a time. Carpe diem.