January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Every once in awhile, sometimes with more frequency that either of us would like, Husband and I have terrible fights. Over the eighteen years we have known each other, these fights have taken on a pattern, almost a ritual of giving and taking hurtful words and escalating emotional intensity. If it weren’t for the fact that we are both in recovery and both working to improve the condition of our lives, including the emotional condition, our marriage would probably not have survived.
These fights generally last two or three days, with long periods of leaving each other alone interspersed with efforts to re-connect. For whatever reason, after two or three days the tornado has spent itself and we carefully start talking to each other, hugging, and telling each other we love each other. With each iteration of these fights, I am forced to go through my own growing and grieving pains.
What sets us off is immaterial. What is important is how I get triggered by Husband’s emotional and mental states, and how frustrated he gets when he needs understanding and comfort, that I am thrown into a panic and completely unavailable. When he gets frustrated he gets mean, condescending, invalidating, and disrespectful. When he gets frustrated and I realize every effort I make to ‘fix’ the situation is only making it worse, I withdraw, hurt and angry at him for causing all this trouble. Then, when I am angry enough, instead of weeping and gnashing, I go on the attack, accusing him of causing all the trouble and telling him his behaviour is unacceptable. I feel righteous, indignant, and royally pissed for the way he is treating me.
He is looking at me with dagger eyes and I am defiant. There is nothing wrong with me that won’t be fixed by him changing. Al-anon, anyone?
This time, during our extended period of ‘alone-time’ I furiously wrote down everything that I was saying to myself because I was unable to give him what he wanted to be happy with me, to be content with his relationship with me. This is what I wrote:
I am feeling angry. I am feeling afraid. I am feeling desperate. I am feeling distressed. I am feeling hopeless. I am feeling hurt. I am feeling attacked. I am feeling put down. I am the problem. I am stupid. I am slow. I am selfish. I am self-centred. It is all my fault. it is up to me to fix this. It is all up to me. I deserve to be treated like this because I am worthless. I don’t belong. I am not loved. I am not safe. This is all my fault. People are horrible. I am treated unjustly. I set unreasonable boundaries for myself. I feel diminished. I feel invalidated. It is hopeless. There is noting I can do but it is up to me to fix this. I am stuck. I am trapped. I feel manipulated. I feel dismissed. I feel attacked. I feel put down. None of this is making any sense. Why can’t I just do this. It is all myself. I am treated like an idiot. Attacked. Put down. Terrified. Panicking. There is no way out. There is nothing I can do…
This continued, allowing myself to repeat any statement that came into my mind. At the same time as I was writing this down, my jaw was trembling and I had tears streaming down my face. I could barely breathe. I felt excruciating emotional pain. I didn’t stop, I just let it continue to spew across the page until there was nothing left to write.
In the aftermath, I thought about what I could do to bring myself back from the bleak contradictory beliefs: 1) it is all up to me to fix this; and 2) I can’t fix this because I am wholly inadequate for the task. I remembered photos I had taken the last time I was pulling myself out of a deep emotional flashback. I had gone to the neighbourhood where I grew up. There was a creek running behind our house, and all through my childhood I had gone to that creek to play, to watch the water levels change with the seasons, to retreat from the insanity of my childhood home.
The creek is still there, as are the familiar shapes of rocks and boulders, vine maple trees and ferns, and ancient hollow cedar stumps. I decided to see if I could make a drawing from the photos I took, something for me to focus on, and draw me out of my painful state of mind and emotional exhaustion. I selected a photo, and then zoomed in on the image until I had reduced the complexity of the scene to one manageable fragment. I used a pencil on my sketchbook page to render a version of the photograph into shapes, composition and variations of light and dark tone.
As I built up the layers of scribbles a phrase came to mind, ‘recognizable features’. I realized the coursing water through the mossy rocks, the curling swirls of fresh mountain rain winding over, under and around glacial boulders, were as familiar to me as my hands scratching images with a pencil. These were recognizable features and in their familiarity I found comfort. I thought about my fight with Husband and noticed that when he is so angry with me that he stares at me with those dull, thunderous eyes, that I do not recognize his features. He is a stranger to me, and in that strangeness, I panic.
As I examined the statements that had coursed out of my brain onto the page in a rapid torrent, I realized these were the things I told myself as a child when I faced the perplexing and terrifying reality of my mother’s mental illness. My mother was a loving woman, who cared deeply for her children, all of us. However, she was stricken with debilitating postpartum depression when my youngest brother was born, her sixth child in seven years. I was four years old at the time. My mother was one of the five percent of women who suffer post partum depression and go on to develop a full-blown psychiatric disorder. It wasn’t until I was ten that my mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This diagnosis was a consequence of her attacking a paper boy and throwing a rock through the neighbour’s window. As child, my mother had gone from a source of comfort and security, to a person of unrecognizable features. Even when she was sitting in front of me, I did not recognize the dull blank blackness in her eyes, her sallow, flat complexion. She was there in body, but emotionally, and later, mentally, I could not reach her, I could not recognize her features.
As I worked through the drawing I was able to see the impossibility of the position I was in, as a child, and how I felt trapped. I was able to see how Husband’s legitimate need for support and understanding, escalating into a fury of frustration, was not the same thing, but the cues of comportment and composure were familiar enough to bring up those long buried feelings. In this sense, his bleak despondence of being misunderstood were recognizable features that awakened that lumbering monster inside me. I was able to see how my childish response, to believe I could somehow change the course of my family history, while I was utterly unprepared, and unsupported, to do so, was an extremely painful condition. That painful condition had never been properly excised, and so, when current conditions were properly attuned, the wraith of anger, frustration, grief and pain would rise up once again and thud me into a form of wakeful coma.
But this time the pencil drew me through it, giving me a way to put the whole experience, past and present, into words. It allowed me to draw comfort from the familiar setting of the creek bed and the rushing winter water, while giving that young girl, and this old lady, the strength we needed to withstand the onslaught, to let it rage past us, through us, and over us.
Here is the drawing – nothing special, but the beginning of something:
Mindful writing practice to re-conceptualize painful memories and traumatic triggers #mentalhealth #addition #alcoholism #posttraumaticstress
January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have been practicing several new cognitive techniques that are helping me feel better on a day to day basis. These techniques address the autopoietic aspect of my experience. That is, auto – self, and poetic – creating, autopoietic speaks to the idea that we are not exactly autonomous within our environmental conditions, rather, we are autopoietic, we can respond to our environmental conditions, although we are never wholly separable from them.
I have suffered for most of my life from the idea that I was an autonomous person, because I believed that meant I was supposed to have the will, or inner fortitude, to transcend my environmental conditions and the fact that I seemed to be subordinate to them was an indication of a fatal character flaw rather than an accurate representation of the reality of my experience. As an autopoietic person, I am empowered to respond to my environmental conditions. I don’t have to change them, I can become skilled at assessing what they are, and then determining by best course of action based on that assessment. Given that environmental conditions are dynamic, and constantly changing, this means that I am in a continuous process of mindfully ‘reading’ my environmental conditions and sorting through a realm of possibilities for what my next steps will be.
My best friend introduced me to a new book, “The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination: Letting Go of Anxious and Depressive Thoughts“, by Sameet M. Kumar. I started writing for twenty minutes on a daily basis, as much as I could remember to do it. I also started using mindfulness to practice meditation. What I noticed is that when I practice a simple inventory taking process by naming sensory perceptions – what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, as they are occurring – this cognitive process supersedes my habit of anxious rumination and displaces troublesome thought clusters. I am noticing I can implement this technique at any time, in any place and it helps me cope with troublesome triggers into unwanted mental and emotional states.
I made myself a little database app for my iPhone to track the relationship between observations of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. What I noticed is that one sensory perception, especially in the words or deeds of others, can trigger unwanted thoughts that contribute to unwanted feelings. I also noticed that observations of sensory perceptions seem to trigger unwanted feelings that tag unwanted thoughts that I use to explain my uncomfortable feelings. The other thing I noticed about this tag-team effect of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings, was that they quickly became self-referential. It only took one sensory perception to trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and escalating anxious feelings. Depending on how hungry, tired, or lonely I was feeling to begin with, this exponential increase also ‘trigger stacked’ on top of previous cycles of unwanted thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand how a seemingly minor perturbation in my field of perception could turn into a full blown panic attack or rageful frame of mind in the ‘blink of an eye’.
These observations, thoughts and feelings have led me to practice mindful writing exercises. These exercises start with observations of my immediate surroundings, simple descriptions of what I hear, what I see, what I smell, taste, or feel (sensory perceptions on my skin). For example, right now I hear the percussion of rain falling on the street and sidewalk, I hear water running down gutter downspouts, I hear the splash of car tires on a distant, busy street. I hear a plane flying overhead, diminishing as it travels out of range. I hear voices of pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. I hear the slight sighing snore of my big dog sleeping nearby. I see the wet head of my golden coloured shepherd cross curled up in his favourite chair after our morning walk. I see him shift slightly to make himself more comfortable and hear him exhale a big sigh as he settles back to sleep.
In the chair next to him I see one crumpled ear of our fifteen year old fox terrier, wrapped in one of his favourite sleeping bags. I see him shudder slightly in his sleep. He is going deaf and blind so he has become quite attached to my physical body, always wanting to know where it is and only completely relaxing when he knows I am close by.
I am sitting in my living room, in a house built in 1906. It is a little drafty where I am sitting because I am surrounded by five bay windows and the cold damp air slides off the glass and touches my fingertips, my earlobes and my feet. The light is cold, grey, and dull, it is midday in early January and the sunlight is weak and watery at best on this northern latitude. At present the rain is falling in thick wet drops. Earlier this morning there were a few sodden flakes of snow mixed in.
This process of description engages my creativity, language, writing, and sense of connection. These faculties take precedence over reliving unpleasant memories from the past that trigger feelings of righteous indignation, sadness and unrequited love, or indulging in anxious rumination about the future and everything I can imagine going wrong as a pre-emptive strike against possible bad feelings in the future.
What I am noticing about this writing is that it is also leading me back in time, to examine conditions from my childhood and earlier decades of my life. These examinations are not following the same angst-ridden re-hashing of upsetting memories and hurt feelings, but rather, going back as a journalist recording observations from a time gone by. Somehow, by describing the scenes as if I were hovering over the scene and describing details and transitions, I am able to conceive them as events separable from me, even though I only remember them because I was immersed in them at the time. Now, as I use my new observational skills to describe past environmental conditions and evolving circumstances, I can ‘see’ them in a new way, and understand them beyond the injurious, trauma inducing events that have so dominated my life up to now. I no longer have to bury them, compartmentalize them, force them out of my thoughts. I can actually handle them, and start to see the players, my family members, with some of the compassion I apply to my reactive aggressive shepherd, and my deaf and blind fox terrier.
Wow. Could I possibly come to forgive my family members for the painful circumstances of our emergence and the roles they play in perpetuating hurtful family culture?
I do have hope today.