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.

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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.

Understanding Emotional Flooding

Oh, the joys. I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, but it’s large and complex. I haven’t entirely done it justice here and I’ve touched on some areas that I’ve covered in other posts in more detail so I’ve linked instead of repeating myself. A lot of us with troubles with flooding get diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and although having a word for it can help, it can also leave us feeling very powerless and different from other people, which in some ways can hurt a lot worse. I don’t think we are either powerless or even particularly different. I think we are experiencing powerful things that our culture isn’t good at handling, and often convinces us to respond to in the worst possible ways.

What do I mean by emotional flooding? That place in which you are drowning. Emotions are so intense, so deeply felt, and so long lasting that you feel like your very identity is dissolving in them. You can’t clearly remembering not feeling this way and you start to lose hope you will ever feel differently again. We have a term for this when the feelings are really good ones – mania. But for the black depths of emotional pain or the anguished hypersensitivity of the chronically triggered, we don’t have a lot of words. Which doesn’t help! Decompensation is one way of putting it, but it’s not pretty and describes the effect of it, not how it feels on the inside.

I call it flooding. It’s the opposite to numb. It’s breaching containment. It’s not just taking the lids off boxes full of strong feelings and painful things you don’t like to think about, it’s falling in and having them snap shut on you so you can’t get out again.

Flooded can be an enduring state or a temporary crisis. I’m really familiar with it because I’ve spent a lot of my life flooded. It’s the state of being without ‘skin’ described by people trying to recover from trauma. It’s the ‘highly sensitive person’ label used by those who flood easily but don’t usually identify trauma. It can be hell. Exhausting, overwhelming all your resources to cope, and rapidly getting you to the point where you hate yourself and your life. It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.

I can only really describe flooding from my own perspective and much of this may be fairly unique to me, but I’m hoping there’ll be points of recognition and useful ideas for others too.

I flood quickly under certain circumstances. The first is when I’m chronically triggered. That might be a particularly bad week where a lot of big triggers happened to line up, or it might be that I’m particularly vulnerable at the moment and triggers I could otherwise handle are setting me off. One big trigger can cue a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that make me exquisitely attuned to all other triggers around me – I lack psychological ‘skin’ and can’t buffer the world anymore. Everything gets ‘under my skin’, everything feels personal, I can’t shrug anything off, and the littlest things feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve touched on these issues before, you can read a little more about them and my coping strategies:

The opposite process can also flood me, not triggers from outside but the result of internal processes. When you’ve come through anything that causes big feelings and intense thoughts and questions, most of us learn that to get out of bed in the morning we have to contain them. We put them in a mental box (or the cellar, or walk away from the big pit, or however our mental landscape works) and go focus on the rest of our day. This is a really useful skill. However it has a couple of risks. One is that triggers can set off a really huge reaction if they breach this containment. That’s why I can go from completely fine to a panic attack or overwhelmed with tears about baby stuff at the moment. My miscarriage is fresh and I have a lot of big stuff in boxes that can flood out and overwhelm me. The second risk is that, once we’ve boxed up the big stuff, we can find that walking back towards it voluntarily takes a bit more courage than we can coax up. Worse, our culture of ‘move on and get over it’ and our warped ‘recovery oriented’ mental health supports – when they think recovery means not feeling big stuff, can punish us for opening those boxes and warp our mindset to a point where we think that being in pain is sickness, failure, or us doing something wrong.

At that point we can shift our focus from containment – a highly necessary skill! to suppression. Where containment boxes stuff up so we can focus and be safe and do day to day things until we have a safe and appropriate time to feel and think and open the box back up, suppression coats the box in concrete and drops it in a lake. We box things up with no intention of ever going back for them. When they rattle and howl and start keeping us awake at night, we concrete the lake too. The trouble with this is that this stuff has buoyancy. The deeper we push it down, the harder it pushes back up.It also contains key aspects of our self. Little bits of us gets boxed up too. The reason the stuff wants to come back up is because we need it. Like iron filings trying to reach a magnet, it tries to come home. But we have split off from it and don’t recognise it as ourselves anymore. It’s like your lost cat turning up on the doorstep in a storm, wet, covered in mud, howling like mad. We freak out and slam the door and shut the windows while it cries, growls, and starts to attack the door.

Suppressed material isn’t trying to torture you, it’s trying to finish a key part of a process that you started – reconciliation. When we never make space for it, it randomly ruptures through a thousand feet of concrete and bursts all over our life with the intensity – and sometimes the unseeing rage – of an abandoned child. When we finally get it back ‘under control’ we feel vindicated that of course this is the right way to deal with it, because it is completely irrational, intense, dangerous, and unmanageable. It is flooded. But the truth is, this is the outworking of our process.

In suppression, we often turn against ourselves with shame, rage, fear of this feeling of being out of control, and often harsh self punishment. This is what does the harm, not the flooding, but our misunderstanding of it and response to it. Intense feelings and confusing questions are a normal part of life. They are frequently but not always triggered by experiences of change, loss, or trauma – not always our own. They are not mental illness or weakness or brokenness. They are our responsibility to figure out how and when to deal with them. Being flooded is not an excuse for flooding or abusing those around us. But it’s not a bad thing, not something to be ashamed of. It’s just human. We need food and air. And sometimes we need to feel very big feelings and ask very hard questions. There’s nothing wrong with us.

Shifting from suppression and self loathing (I hate myself) back to containment is possible. When suppression has been used a lot, initially the mind fights all forms of containment. Even putting aside little feelings can become impossible because you have broken trust – your mind no longer has faith that you will come back for anything you manage to compartmentalise. In an effort of elf preservation, it tries to stop you adding anything at all to the massive, growing collection of suppressed material you already have trying to break back through into awareness. Basically it doesn’t want you to feed the volcano any more. As you start learning how to safely let out small amounts of contained stuff, without blowing up the whole volcano every time (it’s not always possible), your mind shifts gears. It gets that you’re back on board and starts working with you to contain things. You have to coax and prove that you’re trustworthy, but it can turn around surprisingly quickly. This can simply start by inviting your mind to help you put aside your reactions to a trigger until you can get home, and then promising you will make a cuppa and sit in the back yard and let the feelings and thoughts come up – or however it is you prefer to feel big things.

For those of us with multiplicity, parts can be flooded, that can be their role. We often hate the part instead of hating and dismantling the role. In fact, whole groups of parts can be flooded. While they can feel like the worst thing imaginable, and impossible to let out or connect with, they are probably what stands between you and a lot of big stuff. They flood so you can feel sane and think straight. For me, I have taken on the idea that my job isn’t to reject them but to start to figure out how to look after them. If my most likely to self harm part comes near the surface I push her away until we’re home safe, and the she can sit in the bath or write in the journal or paints inks on our skin as she needs. (Wrist poems)

Another common trigger for being flooded is approaches that treat the flooding itself is useful. Ideas around catharsis, ‘letting it all out’, the need for big ’emotional releases’, and some approaches to anxiety use flooding  because on the other side of flooding is some outcome they want. A common example is people who have a perfectionist approach to therapy or self improvement and try to ‘process’ all their feelings or triggers all the time. I explore this more in

Flooding can activate attachment and makes us bond to others nearby. This can be a very valuable experience of being safely supported and connected with when we are overwhelmed. It can also be a form of dangerous trauma bonding in which attachment figures are sometimes experienced as safe and sometimes so frightening or intrusive that we flood – and in response to that flood they shift back to being caring so we bond. Some parenting approaches teach parents to deliberately induce flooding in children using methods such as restraints, because the resulting bonding is thought to be helpful – however, most therapists argue that bonds created under such duress are problematic and that the experience of being so intruded upon and overwhelmed that you are pushed into flooding does long term harm to a child’s perceptions of safety and autonomy that the trauma bonding merely conceals for a time. When this occurs without good intentions on the part of the adult the same process may be described as ‘child grooming’.

Some approaches to phobias also deliberately flood people ‘Flooding’ is in fact another name for ‘exposure therapy‘ where someone is deliberately overwhelmed with triggers to try to break the link between the trigger and the flooded state. Forced to confront what they would far rather avoid, for some it may reprogram that link so that trigger no longer evokes panic. It can be a powerful way to reality check a broken internal alarm system – see, you were so scared, but nothing bad actually happened. For others they may simply snap from being flooded into being dissociatively numb. The way exposure therapy is timed – some therapists take patients beyond the point of hysteria, while others move extremely slowly and practice relaxation and calming skills through the process, and the way it is handled – if the patients wants it or is being forced into it, possibly impact which outcome occurs – a genuine changing of the trigger or simply a dissociative break.

We ourselves can trigger these same dynamics with rapid changes of approach to our own triggers and vulnerabilities – going from extreme avoidance to extreme confrontation of triggers is common for those recovering from trauma. It often sets off cycles of being flooded and numb. We also feel deeply frustrated that ‘no matter what we do’ we still feel out of control and overwhelmed.

We can cycle between numb, ‘normal’ and flooded. This makes us feel chaotic and crazy! We can also get stuck in a flooded or numb space. For those with multiplicity, this kind of cascade switching can be a system desperately attempting to self regulate by giving each kind of part some time out. (Multiplicity – rapid switching) The problem is that you don’t get to choose when it happens and feel horribly out of control. You also probably use all the times that you’re numb or feeling okay as ‘proof’ that you’re not ‘really’ needing extra care or having big feelings, you’re just kind of faking or being weak and need to try harder – ie need to suppress more. Self care becomes suspicious self indulgence in your mind, especially if it acts as a trigger and the mind assumes that self care means its an appropriate time to let out some big feelings. It doesn’t work, we think to ourselves. It just makes me weaker and sicker! Being mean to myself is much better, it makes me stronger.

Other people being kind to us or praising us can have the same effect – sudden flooding can be cued simply by feeling slightly emotionally safe. This can make you try to self regulate by maintaining a chronic feeling of being unsafe. Over time you exhaust as well as emotionally starve and your containment starts to fail. Flooding becomes a regular part of your life and you are at constant war with your mind to keep it at bay, using what has always worked in the past – punishment, self hate, chronic anxiety, and staying away from people who treat you well. Traumatic replay of horrible events can easily be part of this dynamic too. These approaches make complete sense but they take you nowhere good in the longer run! Bits of them here and there aren’t the end of the world on bad days, but if this is how you always approach flooding you are in for a rough time.

For me, being pushed for intimacy instead of invited into intimacy can also trigger flooding. Some situations (eg therapy with someone I don’t trust yet, or a relationship where connection is being demanded) will inevitably flood me. If we are being asked for things that are currently in our mental boxes, being contained – whether that is ‘be more vulnerable with me’ or ‘I need you to show me how you feel’, my mind will open all the boxes  if that is the only way to be obedient or to have a connection. That isn’t the end of the world unless I or the other person don’t cope with the flooding or I get stuck in it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times and ruin friendships. These days I’m a lot more careful of this dynamic. People who have empathy for your vulnerability will usually cue it just by being attentive. Those who demand it are often those who are least equipped to cope with it.

Good trauma therapists are familiar with these dynamics and don’t panic if someone floods, but they also don’t try to open all the boxes at once. I recall a great example given by Barbara Rothschild where she uses the metaphor of carefully opening a shaken bottle of fizzy drink bit at a time, so you don’t get yourself covered in drink. Here’s a talk by her about this idea with a couple of easy to understand examples like that one:

It takes some practice to learn containment again and work with your mind when you’ve been using suppression and feeling intense fear or shame about your flooding. It’s especially challenging when your social network doesn’t get these ideas and supports the suppression-and-shame approach without realising what that’s costing you. A lot of the ideas around phase-oriented trauma therapy is giving people time and support to really learn, experience, and trust this different approach before opening the really frightening boxes. Of course, you don’t need a therapist to change how you think about and respond to flooding, and many therapists will actually make this process worse. I know of one locally who would insist that any client who wept must leave the room and stand outdoor the closed door. They were not permitted back until they ‘had themselves under control’. Bad therapy frequently confuses obedience and suppression with ‘recovery’ and would make this process of turning towards yourself, tuning in to yourself, and working with instead of against how your mind is trying to work, much more difficult.

It can be done. You can normalise flooding and have compassion for yourself in this state without just being overwhelmed by it or fighting it. You can learn how to open and close boxes again – not perfectly, not always exactly the way you would like, but enough to be both human and able to function. You can find value in the intense states and learn with experience that you do pass through them. It’s not fair that some of us have a much rougher road and a lot less skin and we build up huge amounts of intense stuff to deal with. But it’s also part of a more profound experience of life. Intensity isn’t just about mania or despair or depersonalisation. For myself at least, there are also experiences of deep connection, spirituality, the profound, the sublime. I envy the undisturbed a lot less when I realise how deeply connected to my own heart I am, the passion with which I have lived my life. It is precious to me that I can feel, even that I can be stripped of name and self, that I can find myself at 3am naked on the cliffs before the void in my own soul, in a kind of utter freedom. That I can sink so deeply into love, contentment, peace. I have lived deeply, and I would not have it any other way. I have suffered, but my heart has also been made larger. The size of the cup that brings pain and bitterness to my lips is the size of the cup that brings joy. Even in pain there is something of value, something human. To be deeply moved, to know passion, to know life. To know and recognise and be able to sit with flooding in others without being swept away. It takes courage to live in hard times, to live with an open heart. It can be a thing of great beauty.

Getting by with a little help

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Grateful for friends on the other side of the world who send flowers.

Things are hard. We’re in crisis mode. Not much sleep is happening. I’m doing a lot of paperwork tracking down these debts. So far I’ve discovered we were billed for a bit over $400 we don’t owe, which is good news now that that’s been fixed, but there’s a kind of recurring error in which we’ve been over paid (not our fault) then had our rent increased and pay cut on the basis of this, then been asked to repay the over payment while the rent stays up and the pay stays cut. I’ve gone as far as I can with fixing this on phones and have to go and try to track down help in person next week.

Crisis mode means we had ice cream for dinner last night. It means we’re glad when we have good hours and we’re not surprised when they turn bad without warning. We make plans only a few hours ahead with any sense of certainty. We touch base every couple of hours, touch each other when in the same space frequently, fingers to fingers, hand to cheek. A hundred little ways of saying to each other – I’m still here, I love you, we’ll be okay.

We’re talking this weekend off and heading away from the city to hide out with a friend and our dog. I hope it helps, we sure could use a break. Friends being lovely are helping to keep us going.

Distraught

I am shattered. 2 days of intense Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) type distress. I remember this, it’s like being 14 again (when I was first diagnosed). I jump at every little sound or movement. I’m still bleeding, so much blood. It flashes in front my eyes, I see it pouring from my opened wrists for just a moment, a flicker of it pumping from the drip site in my hand. This isn’t just grief, it is trauma. I feel like I’ve staggered into another world, I’m walking wounded with the returned soldiers from a war we’re not supposed to talk about that everyone pretends isn’t happening. I feel like a ghost. I feel like I’m dead. I’m slipping sideways into that detached place where I’m not sure what the hell is wrong with me or why I can’t just cope better, where nothing matters and nothing counts.

I’m reading about women miscarrying at work and not being allowed to go home early, about partners putting on pressure to get over it, about women who were treated with sympathy after the first loss but the fourth is old news now and there’s just frustration that she needs time off again, about women being treated brutally by medical staff, denied pain relief, denied the treatment of their choice, suffering through multiple internal exams, strangers trying to pull the last debris from their womb by hand. I’m reading about women who 3 years on still have flashbacks, can’t bear to be too close to another pregnant woman, can’t see her children without pain. And no one talks about PTSD or trauma, because no one has talked to them about it. Because ‘nothing really happened, miscarriages happen all the time and most women just get on with things and don’t make such a fuss and an early loss isn’t really a baby and it’s best not to talk about, not to think about it, not to make a big deal out of it…’ So we don’t call it trauma and we don’t call it dissociation or flashbacks or triggers we just call it some hypersensitive women not coping…

I’m at the limit of coping. Small things push me into hysterical distress. I can’t go more than a few hours without feeling absolute desolation and sobbing. My voice cracks, my heart feels shattered, there’s this keening howl in my throat when I breathe in. I feel like I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m drowning. I hate reading other people’s experiences but I can’t bear to be alone in this either. Their pain, their crazy-making pain, their trauma and woundedness and hopefulness and grief and sense of being alone give mine context. This is just what it is, this is what it feels like. I get it now, and when I feel compassion for them or rage on their behalf, a little spills over for me too.

I crave sleep and rest, time in the garden, in the sunlight. Other people’s children hurt to see, their babies are a physical pain in my chest, an ache in my arms. But I love them also, I want to be near them, to follow them, if they look at me or smile I feel like my heart breaks but it is bitter-sweet, a flood of love and hope, looking over at world where the sun is shining. I don’t want to avoid them yet. Maybe after the next loss I will be in that place.

Every time I have to talk about the pregnancy in the past tense I feel a fresh wound.

I find I crave touch. I want to curl into a hug for 6 hours and not get up again until the world hurts less. I want to hide in a pillow fort, under blankets until the monsters go away.

I want to run down the streets, naked and screaming, blood streaked, and set fire to the houses of the complacent people who don’t think this is a big deal.

This morning I slept in a little then got up to go to college. I dressed and got ready then opened emails from welfare. They have made major mistakes with calculations and we owe them a lot of money. The same thing has happened with housing and we now owe a lot of backpay rent too. I called a friend in hysterics. They came round and cleaned the kitchen while I called debt departments and wrote up excel charts to try and figure out how this happened and how we are going to manage it. I spent all day in admin between bouts of hysteria. I’m exhausted to the point of trembling.

People are sending in messages of grief and support from our Invitation. I read them out loud in bed to Rose at night. We kiss goodnight through tears. I’m so glad we did this, so glad we chose to handle it this way. It’s deeply meaningful to feel we are honouring other dead babies, other families love and grief too. I have to go back to college soon, to work on artworks and all I want to do is memorialise grief. All I want to do is make trees that weep for dead babies, monuments that speak for silenced grief.

I’m trying to keep my life running. I’m scared of dropping out of college, of losing my business, my networks, my friends. I’m scared that when I climb out of this black hole and there won’t be anything left. The world is already moving on, sweeping me along, demanding attention. And I’m still here, bleeding. I’m still here.

It’s not pretty

image

Feeling sick.
Feeling angry.
Inks and poetry are my punching a wall. And music
Music lets me breathe
Especially Trent.

She shines in a world full of ugliness
She matters when everything is meaningless.
(this is the first day of my last days)

It’s not pretty, it’s life.

Still no news if the baby will live or die.

Trauma is not everything

Bear with me, all those of you who are still fighting like crazy to have trauma recognised as important, relevant, meaningful to people’s experiences and struggles. I know that for you the idea that trauma can be overstated or misapplied may seem ridiculous because in so many areas it’s still fundamentally so ignored! But the fields are not flat – in some areas trauma is the focus in a huge way, and sometimes this is unbalanced and makes life harder for people.

I was discussing this issue once with a sexual therapist who was being driven to distraction by the assumption that trauma underlies all challenges people have. People were being presumed to have been sexually abused merely on the basis of having some issue they would like to seek support from a professional like her. The gender and sexuality diverse community has laboured under this myth for many years! I still hear from friends that some doctors and psychiatrists believe that being queer in any way is a sign of sexual abuse in childhood, or means they have unresolved issues with a parent. (Who the hell doesn’t have an unresolved issue of some kind with a parent??)

Trauma being a central focus can also cause problems because of people’s natural desire to arrange things in some kind of order. People often create a hierarchy to trauma experiences and feel humiliated and mystified when their trauma history isn’t ‘bad enough’ to justify their current struggles. Context – so dull and yet so key to the story of post trauma stress – is so often forgotten. Friends, connections, and meaning play such a huge role in our response to trauma. It’s not all what happened to you, it’s also how people treated you afterwards. Some of the most undramatic stories in our lives, loneliness and loss, leave the deepest wounds. Resources that focus on trauma either exclude those needing the same support but due to anxiety or other kinds of distress, or they broaden the definition to the point where all people are traumatised and the answer to every question and result of every equation is trauma.

It’s easy to look at a misfit like me and see trauma, and trauma is a big part of my story! But it is not the only part. I was a creative oddball long before school bullies and self harm. Claiming and understanding my trauma history and how it has shaped me has been essential to understanding myself, but I also find that at times I have to reclaim myself from the overwhelming trauma narratives. My life includes these things but does not revolve around them. I am more than what has happened to me. I am more than a sad story of harm or a triumphant story of recovery. I am also a life, a human life, with all the sorrow and pain, and the confusion, and the sublime. My story is not more or less meaningful, my pain not more or less real, my joy nor more or less extraordinary. I am human, and trauma narratives can take that away from me and put me in some other box of people who are different, lesser, or special. I am not other. I am human.

I remember going to Melbourne to see the Tim Burton exhibition and reading about his childhood and early life as an artist, expecting to see a trauma story given his proclivity for the gothic misfit. There wasn’t one. He was a creative oddball who didn’t fit well – his portrayal of the blandness of suburban life are now legendary! (think Edward Scissorhands for example) Trauma is part of the story of many artists lives, but for many it’s not, and we misunderstand something about the nature of creativity and restlessness when we forget this. When we don’t recall that many artists don’t ‘fit’ at first, we turn that ‘not fitting feeling’ into something about trauma. Being an outsider is always a strange, challenging, and blessed experience whether you’re super smart, disabled, or vaguely mad. Trauma may be a result if you’re isolated or bullied, but it’s not always a cause. 

I find myself wanting to talk about how harm can happen when all our dominant narratives become about trauma. When friends struggle through extremely poorly delivered child abuse awareness training where they are told definitively that people who are sexually abused as children are damaged for the rest of their lives and never recover normal relationships or sexual intimacy, I’m so angry. And when those friends try to speak up and say – hey, that was me, and yes, it’s the most horrible thing – but don’t write off our lives! We DO have lives! And are instead told their personal experience is clouding their judgement so they are failing to appreciate the catastrophic impact, I think something is wrong.

I’ve read ‘trauma informed care’ documents that make victims of trauma sound like helpless children, or that insist that healing only happens in therapy and close connections to a traumatised person should never be attempted by someone not ‘suitably trained’. You can almost hear the void around the hurting person as everyone steps back and waits for an expert to come along. In other contexts, we call this ‘the bystander effect’. It’s not a good thing. Friendships and relationships have a language of their own that should be respected! Communities have been finding ways through trauma – well and badly, for thousands of years before we invented therapy. Therapy is one of many tools, and it does not ever replace community and a sense of belonging. (many trauma therapists know this, of course!)

I’ve sat in talks about multiplicity that were so concerned to let us know we may be triggered, we were welcome to leave partway, caring staff were on hand if we needed to talk to someone etc etc that I seriously wondered if they’d considered that I manage pap smears, nightmares, losing people I care about to death and suicide – on top of the various traumas in my more distant past. The focus on my vulnerability left me extremely angry and unseen –  my strength, my coping, my competency were all invisible in a space that marked me as a trauma survivor and permitted me to leave the room where the important educated people were discussing the difficult topics of the life and recovery of people like me.

There’s a fantastic looking conference happening later this year I would love to attend and speak at. It’s being held by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Unfortunately it’s happening the month after I’m due to deliver our baby, so I’m not going to put an abstract in. But reading the front page of info really made me want to, because its called Broken Structures, Broken Selves, and describes “The very structures given the responsibility to protect these children, broke down their basic trust in the world, and therefore their very essence – Self – so necessary for their future development.” And I so want to go there and talk about the harm we do when we constantly refer to people as broken! The number of times terms like fractured, broken, fragmented, and developmental failure turn up in books and articles about multiplicity is absurd. People are harmed when we constantly describe them this way! People are harmed when there is no concept of healthy multiplicity, non-trauma-origin multiplicity, or healthy dissociation. I KNOW there is a profound need for awareness and sensitivity to the impact of trauma, to normalise and support people especially when their only other framework is “I’m crazy!” People are harmed by trauma, yes! But when inbuilt defense mechanisms like dissociation act exactly as they are supposed to, I would argue they are a very long way from broken. It is those who harm people who are broken. That is the inhuman behaviour.

I can’t go along this time and say any of that, I’m hoping that someone will anyway, there’s a diverse group of people interested in this field and I don’t but heads with all of them! Some of us have fought so long and hard to have trauma recognised as important, we need to be careful of what happens when it does gain that recognition and becomes the dominant framework. It can be inconceivable that something so fundamentally respectful of people, something so essential and good could be misused or harm people. But such is the risk when any perspective becomes dominant. There’s more to us, to our stories, our lives, and our selves than trauma. Part of what it is to be human is to feel broken, to be aware of our own incapabilities and limits, to mourn what we could be. That story isn’t just about trauma, it doesn’t cut us off from those who lived blessed lives. We don’t have to sit on our side of the fence hating them, watching them live in the sunshine while we drag our mangled hearts through the darkness. There’s pain in all of us, loneliness, brokenness, and hope. This is the human story. It seems so deeply important to me to place trauma in that context, to – if you will – integrate it with our stories of what it is to live and love and be a breathing living collection of fears and dreams all wrapped in skin.

When sanity is lethal and madness has value

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our cultural ideas of sanity. Being sane is seen to be about living in reality, or what we call ‘the real world’. Children naturally only partly live in the real world. They experience, interpret, and believe many things that would be considered psychotic in an adult, flights of fancy such as imaginary friends. Artists are generally not considered to live in the real world much either, but for most adults it’s mandatory and something we spend a lot of time teaching our kids to do. This is linked to some pretty harmful ideas about growing up.  It’s also generally the goal for people with ‘mental illnesses’.

I don’t think we do live in the real world. We talk about it, we make assumptions about it, we share in a mass set of beliefs we call ‘reality’, and we’ve built a mental health system on the idea that not only is there a shared reality, it’s also easy to define, simple to determine who isn’t connected to it any more, and that sanity and mental health is about people believing in it again. I disagree!

I don’t believe ‘the real world’ is reality. (Of course, that’s hardly definitive. According to most of the doctors I’ve seen, I have some collection of mental illnesses. The actual collection differs from doctor to doctor, and the implied level of insanity with it, but the general consensus has certainly been that I’m no poster child for the well adjusted and sane.)

Of all my family, I have the most significant list of mental illnesses, and on paper am apparently far less in contact with reality than the rest. But it’s not difficult for me to gather evidence that suggests something else entirely! At times, I’ve been the one left standing and keeping people safe through chaos, or the one who was able to see danger coming and put things in place to deal with it, or the one who went and found what we needed to make decisions and stay alive. Crises have both harmed me and taken me out of the role of the ‘sick one’ and thinking that multiplicity was the worst thing in the world.

We don’t overtly use words like madness a lot in mental health these days, but scratch the surface and you can quickly find that the premises underlie a great many of our ideas and assumptions. We now have the rather inadequate terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’ as part of the medical model re-visioning of psychological states. They are direct stand-ins for the concepts of madness and sanity, especially in the field of psychosis, with a veneer of ideas around non-culpability and potential cure. Let’s think about them for a minute. What are they? If sane is about being in contact with reality, living in the real world, madness is seen as the opposite. Loss of contact with reality. Distress, confusion, delusions, hallucinations, bizarre beliefs and behaviour. Not living in the real world any more.

Madness and sanity are presumed to be opposite states, on a spectrum of intensity. Doctors treat the severely or moderately mentally ill in the hopes of restoring them to at least mild levels of mental health. Psychiatrists and treating registrars make calls of madness and sanity in brief interviews with often heavily medicated and highly distressed people. The results can be almost comic in their fallibility. Eleanor Longden tells the story of a time she was sectioned as psychotic when a doctor thought her mention of her upcoming work on a local radio station was a grandiose delusion. Her understandable distress at being so profoundly misjudged was taken as further evidence of her mental illness. It’s a closed loop; the normal emotional responses to being assessed as crazy are used as proof you are, in fact, crazy.

And yet, most of us share a terror of madness. It’s one of the primary reasons people seek help, and are relieved by a diagnosis – “there’s a name for it! I though I was just going mad!” We are driven mad when people think we are mad. It terrifies and distresses us and we will go to great lengths to convince people we are not. This behaviour is the same for people are psychotic or simply misunderstood, and yet in the former it is assessed as anosognosia (lack of insight) when in fact it is an intact, normal response to being seen as mad that most people will have in those circumstances. Those who embrace that they have become mad are usually, at least for a time, crushed by it. It is a state that is utterly without value, completely terrifying, and puts people into a whole new class of humans who can swiftly lose many basic rights about their lives and medical care. Having been assessed as mad, even calm, normal human behaviour is distorted through a lens that amplifies diversity, individuality, and departure from the obedient patient roles and interprets it all as further madness. (See the Rosenhan experiments) The cost to a person’s credibility is high, and can be extremely difficult to restore.

Think about what this actually means. We have a massive collection of people employed in our police department specifically to try and figure out what reality is when there’s a possibility someone has been injured or laws have been broken. We have entire complex branches of science dedicated to determining different tiny detailed aspects of the nature of the world we live in. They regularly disagree with one another and update new theories as old ones are disproved. We have an entire judiciary system structured on the understanding that knowing the truth of a situation can be extraordinarily difficult and complex. The whole history of philosophical thought examines the nature of reality and finds that even defining the concept is astonishingly challenging. It’s difficult to find any three people on the planet with completely identical beliefs about the world and their place in it.

And yet, we sit a doctor and a patient down in a room, and assume the doctor can determine reality and can pronounce madness and sanity with excellent accuracy. Wow. Who are these marvels of discernment? They are us. Doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists have similar if not higher rates of ‘mental illness’, trauma histories, job burnout, and suicide, than the rest of the human population. They contain the same qualities we find in every other person doing a job – some highly skilled and insightful, some mediocre and clock-watching, some true scum bags. And yet we, as a whole culture, invest in the illusion that not only is reality easy to define, but that these people are experts in doing so. In fact, their testimony is frequently relied upon in situations such as custody battles. The presumption that they are sane, and highly skilled at determining not only what reality is, but also sanity: who is ‘in touch’ with reality, is infrequently challenged. In many situations, merely challenging these assumptions is itself seen as evidence of madness. A considerable number of patients stress tremendously about their ‘trust issues’ when they struggle to connect with their shrinks, when in no other context would we expect people to share with a complete stranger who is not likewise vulnerable and has established no trustworthiness beyond attaining a degree. My assessment is that there’s little sanity in any of these processes.

I believe that I am, like most people, both mad and sane. I don’t find the terms mutually exclusive. As for ‘the real world’? I would go a step further and argue that this idea is partly what drives my pain and dysfunction, and that my sanity often resides in refusing to believe in it. Lets look at trauma for a moment. We as a community believe a collection of things that are not true, but that are convenient to believe. For example, here in a first world country, we often believe that if we are decent people, we will be mostly safe from harm. Many of our child raising techniques are overtly designed to create and preserve this belief in children. Our sense of security rests on an illusionary contract with the world at large. This is what a horrific trauma incident can shatter. Having upheld our end of the bargain, our sense of safety is utterly destroyed when a violent, terrifying incident reveals that the world isn’t playing by our rules. We are devastated by our loss, overwhelmed by intense grief for a world we no longer feel a part of, and given the arduous task of rebuilding a sense of security in our new reality where we can’t always stop truly horrible things from happening. It’s a deeply personal experience of the scientific process of testing a hypothesis, finding it is terribly flawed, and having to devise a new one, preferably one we can live with, and even better, in some way explain to others.

The tension for people in this situation is that it’s not uncommon for the people around them to still believe in the very illusion they’ve just had shattered. Their idea of the ‘real world’ has not been destroyed by a personal confrontation with mortality, horror, and vulnerability. Their idea of sanity is to maintain a belief system that the traumatised person can simply no longer subscribe to. The traumatised person is newly exposed to the experience of helplessness and profound injustice. Their perceptions of risk are disproportionately high as they lack the buffering of any sense of emotional security. Aware that they are partly irrational, it is easy for them to subscribe to the idea that sanity is about restoring their old beliefs, so that they can once more grasp the emotional security their friends still enjoy. The bone-deep emotional reality of their experience will fight every attempt to re-instate the old beliefs through depression, distress, and other involuntary trauma reactions. Hence the war inside someone who has been traumatised, has been sold the idea that ‘going back to the way they used to be’ is how they will become healthier, and who is now fighting their own experiences and emotions in the hopes of restoring themselves to sanity.

What we call ‘the real world’ is not only more challenging to define than we have treated it, but it’s sometime actually the problem. I had a lovely friend called Amanda who killed herself. At her funeral, a theme that came up over and over again was one of failure. Diagnosed with bipolar, Amanda crashed and burned at just the time her peers were finding their wings. Struggling with university, struggling to work, to live independently, to attain any of the goals that had been set for her, Amanda drowned in a sense of failure. As someone who’s highest educational achievement to date has been a cert 4, who lives on welfare, in public housing, a mere disability statistic, I can empathise. Of course, this view of her and I isn’t reality. The reality is, we are each important members of complex social networks, highly skilled, compassionate, and primarily ‘disabled’ not through our challenges but because we live in a post-industrial society where we must be able to work reliably at certain days and hours each week, and where our public identity and sense of personal success relies on being able to secure and maintain such work. The ‘failure’ is not ours, yet we and people like us bear a terribly burden, often mistakenly equating our skills and intelligence with our mental health and doubting that we are genuinely disabled. We are haunted by fear that really, we are just weak, lazy, or useless. ‘The real world’ is that Amanda had failed and was continuing to fail. The reality is that she was amazing and deeply important and her life was beautiful and meaningful and lived with kindness, humour, and depth, and that she is profoundly missed.

I’m not naive. I’m very familiar with the world of psychosis. I’ve tried to calm people who are distraught because of hallucinations that are terrifying them. I’m well aware that many of us have a basic, blunt instrument kind of discernment of when someone is wildly delusional or hallucinating. The poor young man terrified that his neighbours are trying to poison him, the woman convinced she can fly from the top of the 9 story car park, the new Mum terrified of her growing conviction that her infant is evil. Buddhist philosophers may debate the nature of reality but they still look both ways before crossing the road. At times this may be very simple – I know the woman cannot fly and will be hurt or killed if she tries. At other times it only seems simple – the quiet young man, well dressed, with a job, and a calm gaze, is sane. The young woman huddled under the rug, weeping and tearing out her hair is mad. What the police and the paramedics cannot know, and the woman cannot articulate, is that the young man has been emotionally torturing her for months, and that night raped her when she refused to have sex, then used her distress and prior diagnoses to have her committed and discredit any possible allegations she might bring against him later on. This sort of thing happens. It happens more than we think. And when it happens often enough, the traumatised person loses the ability to tell their story, the credibility to be believed, and sometimes even the memory of what lies beneath their ‘madness’ and pain.

There is really no greater power in the world than to be the person who determines what is real and who is sane. And yet we wield this power so thoughtlessly, so convinced that good intentions will protect the vulnerable from exploitation and the powerful from corruption. This is naivete.

Sanity is relative.

It depends on who has who locked in what cage.

-CS Lewis

Reality is determined by the powerful. The powerful are not necessarily sane, they are merely powerful. Their ideas have popular traction and become what we think of as ‘normal’ or as ‘the real world’. The ‘real world’ once told me that I was poor, white trash living in a caravan park, fallen so far from my sterling academic success and the expectations of my school and family. To dig my way out of the pit, out of the catastrophic effect this had on my identity, self esteem, and hope, I had to reject this version of reality and construct my own. I had to connect with a different idea of success and find a new way to evaluate my life. Stumbling onto this power – to define my own life, my own reality, and make my own choices, saved me. It is still saving me. While sometimes our beliefs can threaten or destroy our lives – I know people who have tried to kill themselves, kill someone else, who became homeless, refused food, and many seriously destructive behaviours because of their beliefs – our basic need to be the architect of those beliefs remains. We are harmed when we are instructed or forced to substitute someone else’s ideas about reality for our own. When we’ve had our trust in our own beliefs taken from us, we lose something critical. The loss of it can drive us further into madness, or it can flatland our life as we remain fearful of our thoughts and mind and totally dependant on outside sources of information. Collaboration with outside sources is often useful, it’s the substitution of another’s ideas for any of our own that so disempowers.

Here’s the thing; I also know of people who are considered to be entirely sane who have tried to kill themselves, or others, who work jobs they hate, see family who make them miserable, enact policies that destroy people’s lives. Many of them are people who consider themselves to live ‘in the real world’ and think that because they do not hallucinate and at times I do, that they are saner than I am.

We are all philosophers and scientists, making sense of our own lives, coming up with theories, trading them in, building new ideas. When we build the myth that reality is fixed and easy to define, and that sanity is about consensus and submission to a group belief, we take away from people their most fundamental power to make sense of their own world. It is a violence, even when done with kindness. Collaboration and relationship are where we best seem to make sense of the world. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that every person on earth believes some ideas that someone else considers to be madness. Simply imagine your most difficult family member being invested with the power to decide what is reality and who is sane, put them in the judge box, and justify your life choices and beliefs to them. There’s no way you’re going to come through stamped ‘sane’. The same is probably true of every family member or friend you have, to some degree. This is diversity.

I’m often asked to define reality. Even in my low position as a peer worker in mental health, people invest me with the power to tell them what is real. They come to me after talks and ask me if their behaviour is ‘normal’, which considering I’ve often just been describing my own so-called wildly abnormal behaviour (living as a multiple), is a curious expression of trust in my capacity to delineate between reality and madness, and an even curiouser idea that I am here to police their reality. I’ve spoken with people who have a spiritual understanding of the origin of their multiplicity (such as having a part that is the spirit of a dead family member) who’ve asked me if it’s real or not. I’ve been reported as abusive by a woman suffering with paranoia who was convinced I was hacking into her personal life to stalk her. I’ve instigated the forced hospitalisation of a person who had recently become homeless due to their unusual beliefs, and who I assessed to be at very high risk of assault or exploitation. I still consider that act of reporting to be an assault, and the person in question has never forgiven me. It was an incredibly difficult decision. I’m still uncertain about it, distressed and regretful and also far more aware of the horrific decisions like this so many people have to make on a regular basis.

It’s incredibly important to define what is real in some contexts, and almost impossible to in others. People are all both sane and mad. We all share some aspects of reality and have other experiences, quirks, passions and desires that are entirely our own unique way of being in the world. Something terrifying happens when we make social constructs ‘the real world’ and think they are reality. Reality is did you hit him or not? It is physical and measurable. It is not about the constructs that make up our ideas about ‘the real world’. It is not a flatland of emotional deprivation. It can exist alongside psychosis and dreams and surreal experiences. It is not freedom from pain. If you are human and alive, then you will sometimes suffer. You will have your heart broken, you will lose people you love, you will have dreams crushed. You will need to weep and scream and hurt. That’s a side of sanity we don’t talk much about.

So here’s a side of madness we don’t hear much about either: madness; our unique perspective and experience of life, is like fire, a great gift with destructive potential. Madness is part of reality, part of our sanity. It can protect us. Madness is disagreeing with ‘the real world’ and the way things are always done. Madness can be breaking out of roles and expectations and doing what’s actually meaningful to you. Madness can be joyful exuberance and childlike magic. Madness can be dancing in the rain, or communing with God, or sitting on the roof and watching the stars fall. It’s the sublime. It’s the things we don’t have words for. In some situations, sanity is a threat to our hope, our emotional stability, and our lives. Sometimes it’s sane to give up, to hate, to shut down, to want to die. Sometimes madness saves us.

little spark of madness

Multiplicity and Love

How do you get engaged when there’s more than one of you?

There’s a million different ways. I’ve written before about multiplicity and relationships, and also about how switching affects relationships. Some people don’t know they have multiplicity when they enter into long term relationships. Some have a single part bond – one part is engaged, the others may have reactions ranging from excitement to indifference to horror, or be entirely unaware this is happening until they come back out maybe months or years later. Some may have group bonds where many parts have relationships of various kinds with the other person.

I’ve done romantic relationships before I knew about parts. They were tremendously challenging. Things would be going brilliantly and suddenly completely derail without warning – what I now know was being caused by different parts switching and needing completely different things. Child parts would be distraught at being kissed on the mouth, wild parts would need to run in the night, the poets needed ink and solitude and contemplation and freedom to be melancholy, the researcher craves new information and sharp minds to discuss with. The experience for the partner is one of ‘consistent inconsistency’. Some days I drink my tea this way and some that. Some days I love licorice and some days hate it. Some days I sink into a hug and some days flinch. Part based roles make it challenging to engage relationship boundaries – this part remembers all the good things, that part the bad. When the former part is out they are happy, easy to get along with, generous, and malleable. When the latter is out, they are frustrated, suspicious, and desperate to repair whatever trust has been broken or boundaries violated. Hence the bounce between ‘everything is awesome’ and ‘everything is broken’.

The real challenge was in discovering that they are both right but also both a little unbalanced because of the skewed information they have to work with. For years we thought my part who recalls the painful and frightening things was simply us being ‘depressed’, and that we should ignore everything we think and feel during those times as merely being the product of mental illness and low mood. Turns out she actually had some really important points, and that without her perspective we’re really vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. On the other hand, most of her proposed solutions were drastic and destructive. We had to take her input and work on something more useful to do with it.

I’ve also tried my hand at romance once I knew about my multiplicity but wasn’t ready to share it. That was challenging in a whole different way. Concealing switching was easy because that’s how my system usually works anyway, but trying to get a partner not to take it personally or think they’d done something wrong when I needed things to be platonic for child parts, for example, was really hard for me. I found that I started to feel like a sleeper agent with a cover story. There were real feelings and people and lives around me, but a central secret about who I was disconnected me, and the constant need to conceal and the terror of being outed caused me tremendous distress.

I’ve been in romances with multiples as well as singles, guys as well as girls. They are wildly different in some ways, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as fundamentally ‘easier’, just different. I’ve found that we gravitate towards people who have access to a wide range of ‘sides of themselves’ if they’re not actually multiple. That is, what we usually mean when we talk about parts of ourselves; ‘part of me wants to study tonight, part of me wants to go hang out with my friends’. People who have found one way of being in the world and stick with it through all circumstances tend to confuse and sadden me. I can often ‘feel’ their buried parts or cut off emotions, and struggle not to interact with those sides of them. I can find myself impatiently waiting for them to reveal more of themselves – particularly when their approach to life is clearly not working for them – why don’t you switch already? Sometimes I feel like the lucky one and people with so little access to other perspectives and ways of being in the world feel like the ones who need help.

That’s not to say that these other ways can’t work! At one point I was in a relationship, as an undiagnosed multiple, with another undiagnosed multiple. When it worked it was beautiful, a synchronicity, us against the world, at last someone who functioned the way I did, needed the things I needed, saw the world the way I saw it. When it didn’t work it was agony. People find themselves in very different situations and navigate their relationships in different ways. There’s no right or wrong answer here, just different ones, and the challenge to love without harming or being harmed.

Rose is the first person I’ve been involved with as an ‘out’ multiple. I vastly prefer it! It means that the night one of my deep, very wounded parts came out and had a panic attack when Rose touched her made sense. I could explain what happened. Rose could adapt. Rose now recognises almost all of my system by sight – how we talk, walk, hold our body, the colour of our eyes. She knows our individual personal names. Even when she can’t tell who it is, she can tell the basics that she needs to know – adult/teen/child, male/female/other, romantic/platonic, reassured by touch/traumatised by touch. With that information we can both navigate the switching and build and maintain relationships between everyone. She’s met most of us who switch out, and with most has formed a strong relationship of some kind. In our case, there’s several who are romantically involved with her, then there are friends, ones who relate more as sisters, ones who only get involved occasionally, and so on. We’ve proposed as a group, and so we didn’t ask her to marry us, but to be our family, because what we’re asking for and offering is different for each of us.

There’s challenges! Everyone doesn’t always get along. Parts have different needs. It can be easy to fall into a carer/caree dynamic as that is how we are seen in the mental health world. There’s the added pressure of being treated as ‘trailblazers’ who are proving that relationships with multiple are (or are not) possible. Rather similar to the way that our relationship is seen as representative of all lesbian relationships in friendship or family circles who haven’t been directly exposed to any others. There’s the challenge of embracing Rose without writing her into my system – letting my child parts love her but not treat her as a parent (that’s our role), not catching her up in the inevitable rescue fantasies that most of us who have at some point been deeply hurt find written into our approach to the world, not seeing her as others who have hurt us when things aren’t going well.

There’s also upsides. Like the time she asks for the part who handles physical aggression when we’re walking at night and group of guys is watching us in a scary manner… and I can say to her – already here love, don’t worry, I’ve got your back. It’s late night video games with my kids, it’s climbing trees with the wild ones, it’s sharing stories of homelessness with the survivors, and having huge conversations about peer work and youth work and social work and community and mental health and power and families. It’s Rose having someone who gets her experiences with flashbacks, nightmares, body shame, and self loathing… and can make her laugh about them. It’s about us having the stamina to switch out the tired ones and make it through a week of Rose in hospital, also keeping the pets alive, easing her trauma reactions so she doesn’t wind up sectioned as well, being there through severe pain, and putting all our needs on hold until it’s over. It’s about the contradictions that make up all people, writ large; the edible glitter on cupcakes and the goth nightclubs, the gardener and the naked body painter in a psychotic whirl, the person who takes lizards off the road and nurses orphaned kittens and the one who burns with rage when Rose is being hurt.

As I keep saying, multiplicity is normal human function, writ large. It’s a dance, between adult and child, light and dark, male and female, the apparently functional and the apparently wounded, the ones who fit in and the ones who don’t fit anywhere. We dance together, sometimes she needs me to make her laugh and my cheeky imp turns up and turns the house upside down. Sometimes I need her to hold me and tell me “don’t worry love, everyone gets to see your charismatic ones. I’m privileged to know the ones who don’t stand up in front of crowds”.

There’s days she cares for me but she’s not my carer. There’s times she feels deep empathy for me, but she’s not with me because she feels sorry for me. There’s needs she has that I’m good at meeting, but we’re not together to exploit my capacity. There’s ways in which we’re similar and also big differences. Navigating multiplicity is a key aspect of every day and every part of our relationship, and in another sense, it’s irrelevant. Once you get used to kids turning up in the lolly aisle at the supermarket and know not to be scared and wander around hand in hand talking about the virtues of kinder surprises vs gummi bears, knowing that I’ll switch back to an adult in time to drive home, it’s just not that big a deal. Once you’ve learned what helps in a bad night, then swinging into action to rub my back and listen empathetically as some wounded soul howls or flashbacks or recounts a nightmare is just part of our life. Trauma is part of our world, some times a big part to manage, sometimes so small it’s barely there, but it’s just something to live with. It’s not a source of shame or fighting or horror, we make plans around it just like we would if I was still in a wheelchair. We don’t compete about who is in the most pain, we don’t treat my experiences or my multiplicity as worse or more important or more amazing than Rose’s experiences of trauma and loss and triumph. She is neither healthier, nor sicker, nor luckier, nor less creative, than we are.

We’re both just people, frail humans, with capacity for light and dark, with frustrating and enduring weaknesses, with amazing strengths. We work to keep our power in balance, to love each other, to own our own stuff, and to make a great life together. Just like anyone else. Love is love.

Phobias ain’t phobias hey

Post op pain is a bitch. The ENT was kind enough to warn me that the procedures I’ve had done tend do two pain spikes, around days 3 and 7. Forwarned is forearmed, it helps a lot if you know to expect it and aren’t panicking that something has gone wrong. Mornings and late night are my worst times, which is usually the case for any of my conditions. Peak functioning and lowest pain is afternoons, best time for visitors, appointments, eating, and uncomfortable procedures. I’m have to drown myself on a regular basis with salt gargles, sinus rinses, and sinus sprays. This is the ickiest post op I’ve ever done, I spit blood and drip pus and generally ooze. It’s truly delightful.

I’m concentrating on staying out of trauma memories as much as I can. The difference when they’re triggered is huge, my whole perspective shifts and I feel physical pain more keenly through the lens of helpless misery. I also struggle with body memories such as feeling drips and needle pain that isn’t current, I radiate distress so people are stressed and alarmed around me, and I can’t access most of my skills to manage the situation because I’m so overwhelmed by emotional pain. Humour is currently my ally! Nothing breaks the state more effectively at the moment. As I deliberately look for something absurd to focus on, I can feel myself back swimming away from a dark vortex, and color returns to the world. I don’t understand it all yet but I’m trying to pay attention and not the details so I can unpick it later because there’s something very powerful in this.

My capacity to manage the needle phobia has run out for now, sadly. This op was my first time using fentonil for pain relief, and I should be getting as blood test done to see how my liver coped with it. Unfortunately the hospital needed my bed and moved me on without follow up, so yesterday Rose took me to my GP clinic. I can be really difficult to draw blood from, phobia aside my veins are good at hiding. After several harrowing minutes on each arm the GP gave up and I’ll have to drink lots and try again on Monday. Unfortunately this means we don’t know how my liver is going so taking any codine is an unknown risk. Hence high pain levels. The techniques I used to manage the drips in hospital just didn’t have traction, like they hadn’t recharged. My hands dripped with sweat and I shook. But it was brief (ish) and I recovered pretty quickly.

When I’m back on my feet I’m going to a hypnotherapist to try and make some sense of this. There’s a lot of needles in my future! On the plus side, the progress I have made will give up somewhere to start I think. I had a really, really bad reaction to a blood test as month ago and clicked that I don’t think I do have a true phobia, rather blood tests and needles seem to trigger a massive trauma reaction complete with flashbacks. That might explain why the phobia approaches haven’t been working for me. In hospital I used visualisations based on attachment needs to great effect, and found that whenever pain spiked I could concentrate and determine what were current sensations and what were memories to be brushed away.

Anyway. So yeah, stuff. I’m taking notes and I’ll follow up later. For now I’m distracting myself with a Buffy marathon and stopping my jaw seizing by chewing licorice bullets. Tonks is being a crazy moth hunter and stalking the unit with gusto. Zoe is a total couch potato who will snuggle with any discarded clothes, socks, or, if she can find him first, my stuffed lion toy. Good company!

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