Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Mental Reboot

Well, hello there, fine folks! How is everyone doing today?

I've got some loose ends to tie up, a (seriously cool) resource to pass along, and some new threads to pick up and follow for a while. This will be a slightly disjointed post, with all of that to accomplish, but we're at another turning point, so turn we must.

First, some final words about T and coke, and more words about how that all fits within the context of PTSR, according to the experts, and according to me... an expert of a sort, myself.

In a comment on the last post, a friend said that he presumed that abusers didn't consciously intend to abuse, and wondered what went on in their minds-- we see so much about victims of abuse and how they end up there, but much less about abusers and what leads them to do what they do.

(By the way, do you read the comments on this blog? You should. I have some BRILLIANT regular commenters who bring all sorts of insight and perspective to the discussion, and I have to say that some of my own best insights often happen in my replies to them, illuminated as I am by their awesomeness. So. A plug for comment-stalking. Do it. And join in, while you're at it!).

Anyway. I'm glad this issue was raised, because it's important. I think the commenter is right in that most people probably don't actively intend to spend their days ruining someone else's life, but I have two things to say about that: 

First of all, it doesn't matter what their intentions are. Damage is damage, however it was intended, and taking their "intentions," both real and imagined, into account and forgiving behavior on that basis is a key component of the abuser/abusee dynamic. 

That is, quite literally, how it works.

Secondly, at least in my case, it wasn't true that T was unaware of what he was doing. I wasn't going to tell this story because it seemed, frankly, unbelievable, but I will tell it now to prove my point: you can't know or take responsibility for the intentions of others; you can only draw boundaries for yourself over what is acceptable and what isn't.

About a month after we broke up, T and I met for lunch in a park, presumably for some sort of relationship post-mortem. It was casual, pleasant, non-threatening. Fine. And then, T surprised me.

"I just want you to know," he said, "that this was a wonderful relationship for me. I feel better about myself now than I did when I met you. You did everything you could to build me up and support me, and it worked. In fact, nothing that went wrong was your fault. You were a great girlfriend. You did everything right in this relationship."

I knew that. What I didn't know was this:

"The only thing you did wrong," T said, "was put up with the way I treated you."

I actually felt sad for him then, and tried to let him off the hook. "Well, did you do it on purpose?" I asked him, trying to give him an out, trying to make it easier for him, even then.

He looked at me, and actually scoffed. "Oh, yeah," he said. 

Oh. Oh. Of all the things T ever said to me, I think that hurt the most.

So sure, sometimes abusers are sad, broken people doing the best they can and failing.

And sometimes, they are just fucking sadists.

Either way, it is not anyone else's responsibility to endure abuse without regard for their own well being, regardless of the intentions behind that abuse. It is not. Your. Problem. To solve.

So, that happened. And in a way, I'm glad, because it officially marked the end of any residual sympathy I may have had for T, and the beginning of my realization that I had, in fact, been in an abusive relationship and would probably need to deal with that. In that way, I suppose it planted my feet firmly on the road out of hell.

And it also freed me from any ethical quandaries years later, when it came time to write this all down in this blog: I've been leaving others out of this, for the most part, and trying to stick to things that are only about me. Should I keep this story to myself, too, out of consideration for the parties involved?

 Not on your life, pal. In fact, you're lucky I didn't use your real name.

The week after T moved out, I went grocery shopping. I found myself standing in the cookie aisle, staring at the Chips Ahoy and the Nutter Butters, the two kinds of cookies we'd always had in the house-- T's favorites-- trying to decide which to get. 

I don't know how long I stood there. More than five minutes. Maybe more than 10. Back and forth, back and forth. Which to get? This or that? It had to be right. Which was right? I was anxious, frustrated, paralyzed. Unable to decide, unable to act. Which. Fucking. Cookies?

I wish I could convey the way I felt, standing there in the cookie aisle. It was a test; it was always a test. Cookies weren't just cookies, they were proof that I was capable, or that I wasn't, depending on T's mood. These again? I wanted the other kind.  They were a testament to my devotion. They were evidence that I still had some control over the outcome. 

They were everything. The cookies were everything. It was as if my entire life had lead up to this moment, and the cookies I chose would mean the difference between keeping it together and falling apart for good.

And then, like a lightning bolt from above, it hit me: I don't like cookies!

In the movie version of this moment, you would have seen exactly what happened next in real life: I lost my breath and doubled over, hands on my knees, gasping. It was as if I'd opened my eyes for the first time in years, only to find myself floating in outer space, a million miles from home. The full force of it, how far I'd fallen away from myself, hit me in that moment as it never had before or has since, and I could barely keep my feet beneath me.

I don't like cookies. I don't like cookies. I don't ever have to buy cookies again.

I made a lot of decisions over the next few years; decisions that affected only me, decisions that changed my life and helped me regain my footing, decisions that made me feel powerful, independent, effective, fulfilled.

The sweetest decision of all, though, was made in the cookie aisle of the supermarket on that fateful day. My palms were sweating, my knees were shaking, but my heart was suddenly, unfathomably light as I turned my back on those cookies and walked away. 

That was me. I did that. Wherever I'd been, however long it would take me to come back, I was there in that moment, right there.

And I wasn't going to be buying any goddamned cookies. NOT THIS DAY!


So, what do the experts have to say about this? Let's start with Levine
"The perception of threat in the presence of undischarged arousal (trauma energy) creates a self-perpetuating cycle...This characteristic is precisely why trauma is  resistant to most forms of treatment. For some people, this self-perpetuating cycle keeps their symptoms stable. Others develop one or a variety of additional behaviors or predispositions (all of which may be considered trauma symptoms) to help the nervous system keep the situation under control."
So our bodies learn, after trauma, to keep us in trauma mode-- Fight! Flight! Freeze! All the time!-- because it keeps us from having to relive the experience and process the fear or sadness or anger or whatever other feelings would come (and, eventually, GO) if we let them.

Dr. Oz thinks this is how T slipped in under my radar. I was looking for a distraction from my own inner turmoil, and I found one in him. Processing the negative feelings he provoked in me would have meant breaking down the dam and letting all those other feelings in too, so I kept it all at bay and let T pile his baggage right in top of mine. 

That makes sense to me. It certainly explains what was otherwise a pretty extreme departure from my normal relationship dynamic. I'd been holding things off for too long by then, and didn't know anymore how to do anything else.

And sometimes, especially if we've been doing this for a long time and our PTSR is advanced, we need a little help maintaining the status quo. So we start to avoid things. Not only things that stress us out, but things that might stress us out. 

And then, as the boundaries of our tolerance shrink (as I've shown you a bunch of times in the diagrams in these posts ), more and more things threaten to upset the balance, so have to do less, avoid more, and try other measures to keep things steady.

This is where people start to do things like drink a lot, or take drugs, or over-eat comfort foods. Anything to keep the feelings at bay.

You might even be able to tell, according to Diane Poole Heller, where in your nervous system the trapped trauma energy lies by the methods you choose to self-medicate.
"If it is in the sympathetic nervous system, making you feel "wired" or hypervigilant, you are likely to turn to "comfort foods" that contain high levels of carbohydrates and fat (i.e. pasta, bread, or ice cream). You may turn to alcohol or sleeping pills for their calming effect. On the other hand, if you are feeling shutdown or lethargic from energy trapped in the parasympathetic system, you are likely to choose high-sugar foods, caffeine, or amphetamines for their stimulating effect."

Stick around long enough, and you can sample from both ends of the table in the PTSR smorgasbord. I started out trying to balance my parasympathetic overload with cocaine, and soon moved on to balancing the opposite swing of the pendulum with food.

Knowing the extreme amount of pleasure I can get from eating a donut or letting a huge cup of coffee cool off just enough that I can pound the whole thing in 30 seconds, just to feel the shakes, I'd say I haven't moved far beyond either stage.

Except, no, that isn't true. I've made great progress, in fact. I'll probably never be able to give up my uppers, but I use caffeine now, not amphetamines, and I'm happy with that.

And as for the donuts, well, I've mostly given those up, too. Since I first started planning the posts about T and drugs, back in May, I've lost about 22 pounds. 

I started doing Weight Watchers-- the structure and the math of it appeal to me-- and it's really helped me change the way I eat. What's more, it's made my habit of emotional eating very clear to me, and I am, slowly but surely, creating new habits in its place. 

I'm trying to create a sustainable way of living and eating and coping, now, because that extra weight has been holding me back from the healing I'm seeking through this therapy and this blog. I think that in a very real way, the weight has kept me connected to T. I thought, when I first began to work with a therapist about that relationship, that the weight would just melt away as I excised whatever demons T had left behind in my psyche, and when that didn't happen, I thought it meant I hadn't yet escaped his influence over my life.

This turned out to be partially true-- the weight did mean something held an influence over me that I couldn't shake, but it wasn't T. It was that car accident, that trauma that has never gone away. Somehow, that's easier to live with. Trauma is a big deal, and while it sucks, it certainly makes sense that it would have a lasting impact-- and one I can't blame myself for in any way. With T, it's not as easy to shirk all responsibility, and it was the ultimate humiliation to think that his influence was so lasting.

So in the race between T and trauma as the most powerful negative influence in my life, trauma wins. And T gets relegated to the place he deserves: a remote one. Firmly in the past.

I still like the idea of the weight as a metaphor, a physical representation of the burden I've been carrying. That burden is getting lighter, through this work, and I'm getting lighter too, literally, as I shed the fear and the anxiety and the pounds that have kept me victimized.

I don't want to be a victim. Not anymore.

Whew. This post has gotten longer than I expected, and I still have a few more things to discuss. I'm going to ask you to tune in next time for those. And I'm going to make every attempt to get back to at least a weekly writing schedule, and more often than that as my schedule opens up (read: my 3-year old twins start going to preschool a couple of days a week!).

Now that these dark stories have been told, I'd like to return to some more real-time blogging about how the recovery is going. There are some interesting things happening, and synchronicity still seems to be working in my favor as incredibly prescient and useful things keep popping up in my path.

For instance, that great resource I told you about. I'm going to leave it as a hint for now, and use the next few days to explore it more fully before I tell you about it next week. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, let's all take this opportunity to check in with ourselves and the influences we allow in our lives. Are there any that are more damaging than supporting? Have we let a boundary fall that has made us weaker instead of stronger? Are there people or substances or forces at work to make us shine less brightly, censor our honest thoughts and feelings, or be anything less than our authentic selves?

If so: what are we going to do about it? Are we going to keep buying the cookies, or are we going to walk away, sure of our direction, and choose a different path?

Or maybe just a different dessert? Who's up for ice cream non-fat frozen yogurt? 



  1. Your anecdote about the supermarket is amazing.  The day may come when we get out our wallets for the anemic Chips Ahoy with their greasy, waxy chips; their unyielding, cement-like base; their hydrogenated soybean oil and their gross artificial flavors (is that supposed to be vanilla? it tastes more like lima bean), but it is *surely* not this day.  

    Also, go you for the weight loss.  It feels good, doesn't it?  I lost a chunk of weight a few years ago.  It's still gone, and with it the added risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular problems, backaches, etc.  Eating healthier is one of the most beautiful things you can do for yourself.  It's also a valuable gift to your kids, because they get a healthier Mom and information on good eating habits that they'll be able to use themselves as they get older.  

    I'm glad you raise the issue of T knowing perfectly well what he was doing.  Woah.  Very powerful.  Have you ever read "The Sociopath Next Door"?  I read it once when I was trying to understand why somebody I knew was behaving the way she was.  Surprise!  Some people have no consciences.  It's not at all clear why they have no consciences, but the differences in the way regular people and sociopaths react to moral situations are measurable.  Sociopaths aren't motivated by ethical considerations; they're motivated by game playing.  They like power, and they like being clever, and they like figuring out just how far they can go without being stopped.  T may be such a person.  Incidentally, the author's main piece of advice on interacting with sociopaths was:  don't. Extricate yourself from the situation if at all possible.  These people aren't motivated to treat you well, and nothing you do will change who they are.  I'm fairly certain the author would high-five you for getting out.  

  2. It strikes me that the person who wonders how does an abuser end up that way is likely an abuser themselves.  Either currently or in the past.  Just throwing it out there...

  3. Elizabeth Graham11 February, 2013 21:35

    I found your final conversation with T completely believable.  There are ABSOLUTELY people out there that will push you as far and hard as they can and will blame you for not pushing back.  "You should never have let me get away with that, what's wrong with you?"  Ugh.  It's just another variation on the "I was doing it for your own good" line.  And, yes, trust, these people are miserable and hate themselves... but giving them anything other than an adios will not make things better.  

    I hope that the person who asked about understanding the abuser was simply an empathetic person who wanted to understand people better, but I think you're right-- wanting to understand an abuser leads to justifying their behavior and risking getting pulled in.  It's best to cut them off for your (and their, not that you should care) own good.