Friday, December 9, 2011


Dr. Oz says that shame stifles emotion.

I can see how that is true-- instead of feeling what you're feeling, you feel shame for feeling it. The shame swallows or eclipses the anger or the pride or the contentment or whatever it was that you were feeling before the shame spiral pulled you under. It also makes you distance yourself from others, stifling intimacy and preventing you from connecting with others.

I'm not sure that's entirely what she means. I'm still trying to get my head around this. Anyone have a good handle on shame that they want to share in the comments?

In my research I'm seeing a lot of things that do make sense, under this definition. People who struggle with shame tend to behave in in some predictable ways, according to Mark Sorensen, PhD:

withdrawal:  we hide, avoid situations, become inhibited.
attack self:  we take control of the process of feeling shamed by putting ourselves down.
attack other:  by being critical and judgmental of others we raise ourselves up by putting others down.
disavowal:  we can deny we even feel bad if we can "get rid of" the feeling by abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, compulsive sexuality, over-investing in work, fitness or a hobby, or any behavior that provides a "lift" to counteract the "down" that shame creates. 

Um, yeah. Been there, done a few of those. This morning, even. I'd say that "Withdrawal" has become the organizing principle of my life over the past few years, in fact.

But a lot of us feel shame about all kinds of things. It's not specific to PTSD. It turns out, though,  that there is a connection between the two, and it might be deeper-- more of a chicken-or-the-egg question-- than we think.

I found two studies, here and here, that discuss the role of shame in PTSD.

The first citation above shows (admittedly scant but measurable) evidence that there is a positive correlation between shame-prone people and PTSD symptom severity. The second suggests that PTSD is, in fact, a shame disorder. 

While this might seem, at first, to fly in the face of the claim that PTSD is a biological response, I think it's more complementary-- if you are shame-prone, once your neo-cortex kicks in and begins to derail your trauma response, you've got some well-built, highly-functioning mechanisms standing by, ready to take in this new information and turn it into something for you to feel badly about. Your symptoms end up more severe than they might otherwise have done because your natural impulse to find shame makes it even more difficult to process this stuff in an objective manner.

And I think that's where it gets ugly, and hard to separate the external from the internal. If you're shame prone, PTSD symptoms can fit into a structure that's already there, to some degree. 

At a party recently, some friends were asking me about this blog and my experiences, and someone asked if I was very different now than I would have been if the accident hadn't happened. 

I laughed it off, saying that my normal personality was sort of like "PTSD-lite."

Meaning: I was an introvert. I was shame-prone. I was a perfectionist and hard on myself. I had a need for control. I tended to avoid conflict. Those are all things I remember about myself in the years before the accident, although to a much lower degree than they present now.

But in reading these studies, I think those characteristics might be exactly why my PTSD reaction has been as severe as it has. PTSD preys on that stuff. Those are the attributes that make PTSD what it is-- isolation, avoidance of stimuli and emotion, shame, fear, control.

These days, in my "PTSD-heavy" existence, they're all still there, only magnified. Particularly the avoidance and the introversion (which get along so nicely and like to skip down lonely roads together, hand in hand). 

Although I can still present well to the outside world a lot of the time, on the inside, it's pretty much just me and the Unibomber out here at the end of the spectrum. We have matching cabins in the woods together (well, I say "together." Really, he gets his side of the mountain and I get mine. We have never actually met and neither of us--introverted to the core-- has a problem with that). 

And as for avoidance and withdrawal, well... I am not agoraphobic or anything. But I can maybe see it from here. Or at least understand it. My avoidance centers more around people and relationships than places. I can go anywhere alone. It's when I have social responsibilities to others that I freeze up.

One big clue, for me, that this stuff is quite a bit more exaggerated now in daily practice than it might otherwise have been comes from the most unlikely of places: Facebook.

I like it.

I mean, it's inherently evil, a horseman of the apocalypse, a symbol of all that is wrong with our society and all of that, sure, yes, no argument. 

But I like getting to see what's going on with my friends, and even a lot of my acquaintances, and I like posting little anecdotes about things my kids say, and I get immense satisfaction from the high numbers of "likes" and comments I get on them.

In many ways, Facebook fulfills every social instinct I have, and I am often surprised when people say it's been so long since we've hung out, because I know what they had for breakfast that morning or that they had a stressful week at work or some other intimate detail that, to me, is more than enough to keep me feeling connected. Actual physical, verbal interaction seems unnecessary at that point-- probably because it causes me so much stress. It's easier to just read updates and be done.

But I can feel another part of me that still craves real connection with others, and Facebook might facilitate that better for me, particularly, because I know how to connect through writing much better than I do through conversation. So I post things and get pleasure from seeing them read and appreciated. I notice how many people like my comments. I take advantage of the opportunity to offer support and encouragement to people I'd never otherwise talk to, because I am good at supporting and encouraging but terrible at approaching and conversing. 

Facebook lets me avoid what I don't like and get straight to the good part. For that, despite all indications of cultural doom, I am grateful.

Without it, I'd never have started this blog.

So I'm still in there, somewhere, anxious, well-insulated and with my fingers in my ears going "La la la la la," but in there. And, it appears, I'm making surreptitious attempts to break free. 

The extremes at which I live now aren't natural, but in a strange way, at its root, a lot of this stuff was natural to me. If science knew then what it knows now, perhaps they could have seen it coming.

My little shame-hungry, control-freak self never had a chance.

(Note: The holidays are taxing my already-limited posting schedule. I try to post every Saturday for now, and will try to post more frequently in the future. I had to skip last week in favor of Christmas shopping and a haircut, and will skip next week because of the holiday. In related news, I have a freshly-shorn fauxhawk and some seriously awesome toddler gifts. If I'm going to have PTSD, god damn it, I will at least have it with cool hair and well-kitted kids! But I'll be back to regular posts in January. Happy holidays, all!)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

In Which I Share Too Much Information

If the thought of reading about me naked with another person makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now. 

I will be naked in this post. 

I feel a little weird about telling you this story, but it's so essential to the process that I'm just going to forge ahead and tell you anyway.

Right then. Off we go.

The classic image most people have of PTSD is of the grizzled Vietnam vet hearing a car backfire and being transported back in time, seeing, smelling, feeling the jungle around him, the rifle in his hands, the terror in his throat. Flashbacks. Hallucinations. A tenuous grip on reality under the shadow of an ever-present imaginary threat.

That stuff actually happens, even to people who weren't soldiers, who never saw the horrors of war, who aren't living on the street in a cardboard box. 

Mine happened in a frat house at a fancy private college in Southern California. I was naked at the time. 

I was 20 years old, messing around with my boyfriend (who I remember fondly and to whom I remain indebted for the events about to occur) in his bedroom at the fraternity house where he lived. We were madly in love, had spent an achingly romantic summer writing endless letters to each other while he was working a summer job in his hometown and staying with his parents, and I was working at a camp on an island a two-hour drive and a four-hour boat ride away.

We were fumbling in the dark, exploring each others' bodies, whispering the grand, silly things you whisper when you're young and a naked body next to yours is the height of freedom and rebellion and power: We could get married. We could leave school and backpack across Europe and never come home. We could write poetry and live in France and grow our own vegetables and sleep on trains and see art and make art and make love and be like this, like this, forever.

It was actually sort of innocent, what we were doing, and then all of a sudden it wasn't, it was hotter, better, more, and I realized I was getting there, I was going to...maybe... I couldn't quite be sure but it really seemed all of a sudden like I was going to have my first-ever actual orgasm with someone else in the room.

I had that moment of clarity, this is happening, this is really going to happen right now, and I well and truly went for it. Closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and... let go.

The light glows orange behind my closed eyelids. I am slumped forward and to the left, my head resting against something solid. I can't open my eyes. I can't raise my head. The orange light is everywhere, flashing, intense. 

"Just sit tight, we'll get you out." A deep voice, a stranger's voice, calm and strong above the orange buzz. It is orange inside my head now, inside and out, everything is orange. 

"Don't try to move. We'll get you out. We're going to get you out. Just sit tight. Sit tight."

I don't know who is speaking or if he's talking to me. Sitting tight seems like a good idea. I float  away on an orange sea, waiting, waiting-- 

Jolt. My eyes flew open and I was not where I expected to be, the dark surprising, the room unfamiliar. I must have already been crying or screaming by then because that sweet boy was crouched beside me, trying to get his arms around me, weeping, terrified. 

I was shaking, flailing, protesting, my heart pounding out of my chest. The calm I'd felt in the orange light was gone, replaced by something that made no sense: scream, run, get away. It was the most afraid I'd ever felt.

It wasn't a hallucination, or not exactly. It was a memory, my first moment of consciousness after the impact, surfacing for the first time in a moment of abandon. I knew it without doubt. It was a piece of the puzzle clicking into place. That was real. That happened.

And for all intents and purposes, it had just happened again. And had scared the living shit out of my boyfriend, who was now sobbing into my shoulder and trying to get me to stop trembling.

It took a few hours.

In the days that followed, an idea took shape: there are things my body knows that it is keeping from me. It could release that knowledge at any time. I am surrounded by a minefield and I will have to pass through it to get to any strong emotion, anything outside of this new "monotone" existence I've been living. All roads out of here lead through that minefield. If I want out, I have to deal with that first.

I didn't know what "dealing with that first" would entail, but I knew I absolutely, positively did not want to do it. 

So I didn't. 

I pitched a tent in the center of that minefield and set up shop there. I narrowed my boundaries. I closed off options. I stopped trying for highs and lows and started getting used to sort-of-medium.

Not on purpose, but it's what I did.

Lest you fear for my sex life, I managed to find a way around the blockage there. My body is withholding but it's on my side, at least. Who knows how I did it, or how deeply compromised my understanding of pleasure is within the fearful perimeters I set that night in the frat house, but I've done all right in that department in the intervening years.

To a certain extent, my mind whispers. I bet there's more and better. I bet you don't know the half of it. 

Well if that's true, man oh man. How do the rest of you people function? And in the likely scenario that it is at least somewhat true, it certainly adds incentive to work this shit out and soon, no?

So. In case you haven't noticed, my explanation for that experience-- the way it felt, undeniably, at the time-- is pretty much a textbook example of Peter Levine's understanding of PTSD. My body was stuck in the loop of the unresolved trauma and couldn't function naturally without triggering the traumatic response. 

This is exactly what happens when a war vet hits the deck in response to a loud noise-- the reptilian brain, still in survival mode, interprets such stimuli as threats and acts accordingly. Fight, run, freeze, says the brain, and the body does what it's told. Someone stuck in a war- or attack-induced loop often sticks at fight and run, and in the civilian world that often looks like beat, shout, self-destruct. 

Car accident victims, on the other hand, often stick at freeze. Fight and run got ruled out early on in that fleeting moment of approaching headlights, so freeze was all there was to do. Post-impact, freeze looks like I am fearful, I am passive, I can't control what happens to me, I don't have a voice.

What's really insidious about these trauma-response loops is that they don't feel like responses to anything. They feel like the kind of person you are. "I am a person who can't sustain relationships," or "I am a person who is full of rage," or "I am a person who can't fight back," or "I am a person who is overwhelmed by the simplest of things." They become the story you tell yourself about who you are, and they control you through their cheapest, ugliest weapon: shame.

Most of us with these response loops inside of us have no idea they're there. We don't know our reptilian brains are on high alert, that things outside of our limits of tolerance, wherever they may be, are causing us to go into life-or-death mode, to lash out or shut down or whatever it is we do to flatten out that line again and get ourselves equalized. 

We just feel like the kind of person who can't quite get it together like everyone else, in one way or another. And that feels shameful.

I will talk more about this in my next post. For now, I'll take a break. Writing this entry has triggered my PTSD in a big way. My body is numb and tingling from ankle to abdomen and now my arms are getting in on the act, my heart is racing, and my hands are trembling to the point that the typos are becoming a nuisance.

Oh yes, that minefield is still there, and it's grown over the years.

I'm not so afraid of it anymore, though. 

Turns out, I do have a voice, after all.