Saturday, October 27, 2012

Progress: The Numbers Are In!

At the moment, I am sitting on a comfy lounge chair beside a fountain in the courtyard of a luxury hotel in lovely Sonoma, CA. The sun is shining, it's cool here in the shade, I've had some delicious coffee and a charcuterie-and-cheese board, and I figure now is the perfect time to take a survey on my mental health.

You thought.... what? I was going to sunbathe?

After last week's post, I thought I'd retake the trauma symptom survey in my copy of Crash Course: a Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery by Diane Poole Heller, and do a side-by-side comparison between my scores today and my scores when I first took it a year ago.

It has been instructive, friends. And the news is good.

There are 100 items in the survey, each a common symptom of trauma and PTSR. You are asked to rate yourself on a scale from 0-5, with '0' meaning 'no difficulty or no negative impact on my life,' and '5' meaning 'extreme difficulty or a high level of interference in my life.'

The symptoms are things like:

  • Feeling of helplessness/powerlessness
  • Feeling out of control
  • Flashbacks to the incident
  • Lethargy, exhaustion, chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling disconnected or "not here"

I didn't look at last year's scores until after I'd finished.

I first took the survey on 9/20/2011. At that time, I marked 30 items with a score of '5.'

Today, I had one.

Wow. I did not expect to see that big a difference!

A few more items of interest:

  • 57 scores dropped by at least one point. That means that most of the symptoms I was experiencing last year have gotten better (I had a few scores of '0' then and now, so some symptoms don't apply to me).
  • 30 scores stayed the same.
  • 13 scores went up by at least one point.
I won't bore you with a lot of detail here. I'll just tell you about the symptoms that have improved the most, and the ones that have gotten worse, and I'll tell you why I think that is.

The big drops were in my scores for feeling out of control; feeling powerless; feeling alienated and like no one could understand; as well as feeling anxious, shamed, disinterested in life, and physically weak and heavy. I had my biggest drop for "overeating."

The overeating/weak-and-heavy scores are easy to explain: I told you a while back that I started doing Weight Watchers in May. Since then, I've lost about 30 pounds and have become much more aware of how (and when and why) I eat, and have made some changes that are easy to maintain and will likely stay with me for the rest of my life. It's been incredibly positive and much, much less difficult than I thought it would be.

I've got more pounds to shed, but the difference is pretty obvious at this point and it feels great. I'm within spitting distance of the weight on my driver's license (ha!). I've dropped two sizes. I've lost three belt notches, several inches, a few rolls, and a chin.

I should post some before-and-after pictures. Or before-and-during pictures. Maybe next week!

The biggest outcome of all of this, even more than the weight, is the feeling of control it's given me. It's hard to feel like a victim when you've taken charge of yourself in such a tangible, measurable way. And the physical changes may also be affecting some of the other symptoms, like depression and anxiety. I think this is only going to become more dramatic in the coming months.

Even more interesting are the scores that went up.

Almost all of them have to do with emotions: Feeling angry, irritable, sensitive, emotionally flooded. All negative in the moment, but overall, it's a clear indication that feelings are breaking through. 

A year ago, I wasn't feeling much of anything. Today, I might be a lot more likely to bite your head off, but from where I'm sitting, that's progress.

I saw my biggest jumps in two areas: first, feeling 'disconnected,' or 'outside myself.' I think that's a matter of perspective more than an actual increase in the symptom. Over the past year, it's become very clear to me how far removed I am from my emotional center, and for how long it's been happening. I didn't know how much I was missing before, and now I do, and that makes the gap all the more obvious.

So the symptom hasn't grown, but my awareness of its impact has. Progress. Progress!

The other big jump was in a symptom I'm not sure I'm interpreting correctly: "Bonding with others through trauma."

I suspect they mean feeding each others' victimization, somehow. It seems to mean something negative in this context.

I took it to mean something much more positive and validating. Freeing, even: the idea that telling your story to others brings support and encouragement and empathy and connection. 

My score took a big jump in that category. Know why?

I first took the survey on September 20th of last year. Guess what I did on September 21st?

I posted my very first entry to this blog, and officially declared myself Kate: The Girl Who Lived.

I'd be willing to bet that the connection I've made with all of you through writing this blog is what has fueled my progress in all the other areas. My therapy is great, and it's working, but it has become part of the support system for the work I do here, on the screen, for and with and on the shoulders of the people who read it and respond to it and share their thoughts with me about it.

This writing is something I never thought I'd be able to do, and that is something that had far greater implications for me than just not being able to journal about my therapy. I'd spent most of my adulthood as a thwarted writer. A broken dream. I'd stopped hoping I'd be able to turn it around someday. I'd become quite certain, in fact, that I wouldn't.

Now, the landscape looks very different. I still haven't quite gotten my head around the fact that I'm doing this, I'm making this happen, I'm creating a new dream about what I might do. But it's true. Believe it or not.

I retook that survey today on a whim, because I couldn't think of anything else to write about. I didn't expect such a clear, sharp difference between last year and today. I had no idea the change was so comprehensive. It really gives me hope that I can go further, do more, continue the growth that began with the launch of this blog.

I appreciate all of you who have stuck with me this far. Let's see how far we can go from here, shall we?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Minding the Gap

Sometimes I wonder if I'm making all of this up.

Maybe this is how everybody is. Maybe this is just what feeling feels like.

Then I think, well, if you have to ask, the answer is probably no. 

And then I think it's just the healing part that I'm making up. I have broadened my PTSR vocabulary considerably and can say a lot of fancy things, but inside I haven't felt much change at all.

But then I write a really positive blog post (most of my blog posts are essentially positive, actually. I do like an overarching message and an uplifting metaphor and a nice pretty bow on the end), and I think, wait a minute, I couldn't have written that if I didn't feel it at least a little bit. It has to be coming from some well of internal truth, right?

And then I think, I'm a pretty smart girl. I can speak very convincingly about a lot of things, from my head. And I've developed a crack-proof facade of normality over the years that has persuaded a lot of people-- myself included-- that there wasn't a major element missing from the equation. So being able to talk about it is hardly proof that I'm actually feeling it.

I do know what feeling-- the major kind-- looks like, on me.

First of all, regardless of the type of emotion it is, I am bawling my eyes out. Uncontrollably, ridiculously, sometimes alarmingly so. A few cases in point:

  • During a crazy career blowup a few years ago. I won't go into the details (and it was eventually resolved in spectacular, satisfying, Hollywood-ending fashion), but suffice it to say my husband was afraid of me for a few hours. I was howling like a trapped animal.
  • At my wedding (although nervousness at being on stage, literally and figuratively, kept me from letting it show most of the time). (I did a good job, didn't I? Fooled you!) (Except for that moment when the bride and groom were making thank you speeches at the reception and Mark said some lovely things and then handed me the microphone and I croaked, "Thank you" and handed it back to him and everyone stared at me, open-mouthed, like I'd just grown a second head, while I stood there reeling that I'd been able to muster a single syllable.) 
  • At every major milestone during my pregnancy and the birth of my daughters. I don't even know how to describe it. Hysteria. Everything at once. My barbaric yawp, perhaps.
          I freaked out a lot of doctors. Doctors. 

Secondly, in these big emotional moments, I know I'm not just talking my fancy words because I have no words. Every one of these moments is marked by an uncharacteristic and utterly complete lack of language.

I had not talked myself into it. I could not talk myself out of it. I could not explain to the people around me what I was thinking-- I think because what I was mostly doing was feeling, and I don't know that language anymore.

It was as if the articulate part of my brain had to shut off in order for the emotional part to turn on  (and yes, I know, there's a lesson in there. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.). It's a binary switch. One or the other: language center or emotional center. 

Like a house with a faulty electrical system, I can't have too many things running at once. 

The point is, I know what 'genuinely emotional' looks like, and I know that most of the time, I'm not anywhere near it.

On the other hand, I'm no robot. I am motivated to act every day by love and kindness and compassion and frustration and anger and all the same things that motivate everyone else. That stuff is instinctive, most of the time, and doesn't necessarily need to pass through your language center to be real.

So I think maybe it's not that I'm not having these emotions, it's that I am not experiencing them with my conscious mind. I'm not processing them through my usual processing center. That stuff all gets handled down in the basement somewhere. No windows, leaky pipes, flickering lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. That place. I don't go there.

I'm not having the emotional experience of my emotions. But my body carries on just fine without me.

Oh man. I remember my husband saying this exact thing to me a few years ago, when he came to the same conclusion during some therapy he was doing. He had been working for a while on getting in touch with his own feelings, and one day he told me, "I've figured something out. I think I actually am having emotions, I just haven't ever known what to call them, so I couldn't identify them for what they are."

Shockingly to me now, I almost laughed at the time. I thought, Of course you're having emotions! Everyone has emotions! How could you not know that?

Um. That was my head talking. My head, as has been established, thinks it knows a few things.

If my heart had been consulted, it would have said, Wait a minute, you can know about this stuff?! How do we make that happen? Because seriously, you are an idiot when it comes to what's actually going on in here.

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I think my heart did win that battle in a small, subtle way. If I had to name a moment that this whole journey really began, the moment I began to realize things were not as they seemed and something was wrong, somewhere, that would be the one:

The moment my husband said he'd become aware of something that had been happening all along and was only now learning the language to name it, and revealed to me that such a disconnect could exist in one seemingly self-aware, articulate brain.

He was right, that marvelous, emotionally-competent man. My fancy-talking brain may not have recognized myself in that statement, but my body sure did. And it's been endeavoring to let me know ever since.

Okay, all right, I admit it: I believe. This is happening, and I'm healing, and sure, the horse might be following the cart in some of these soaring blog posts, but like an onion being peeled, layer by layer, I'm getting there bit by bit.

See, I told you I liked a pretty bow at the end.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Singing the Body Electric

I was on Facebook earlier today and came across a post by my niece, who is 19 years old.

Like me.

'"It hurts to become,"' her status said.

It was a quote I recognized but didn't. I didn't know who had said it this way, in these words, in  language that spoke to this girl, but I knew the sentiment exactly. And I knew who had first captured this particular nuance for me-- the exquisite edge of metamorphosis, laid bare on the page.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
“I wept because I could not believe anymore and I love to believe. I can still love passionately without believing. That means I love humanly. I wept because from now on I will weep less. I wept because I have lost my pain and I am not yet accustomed to its absence.”

I was 19 then, in real years. 19 is when metamorphosis stops being something that is happening to you forcibly, too fast or too slow or against your will or in spite of it, and starts to become something you're doing, with pleasure and pain and purpose.

Or it is, if you're lucky. 19 is a magical time.

I shared these quotes with my niece, who understood them at once, of course, in the way that 19-year olds can-- better than the rest of us because they are right there in it-- and she shared with me the source of her quote: Andrea Gibson, "I Sing The Body Electric, Especially When My Power's Out," which I will now pass along to you.

Because WHOA!!!


She says, "I said to the sun, 'Tell me about the Big Bang.'/ The sun said, 'It hurts to become.'"


Yep, that's the one. Metamorphosis: the kind that hurts coming and going, the kind that wakes you up to the fact that avoiding what's painful isn't really the point. 

I remember that. I also remember feeling it the way Anais Nin described: no longer feeling as raw and innocent in the world, and mourning that self even as I welcomed my new-found worldliness. 

I remember knowing that even though they had been so hard to get through, those youthful sorrows, the loss of them was the end of something I'd never have again, and that thing had been precious even though I hadn't known it at the time.

It was the first time I ever noticed that I was leaving part of myself behind, and it was heartbreaking, and it was wonderful, and it was terrible and right and true.

She says, "My mouth is a fire escape/ the words coming out cannot care that they are naked."


This is my struggle now, the metamorphosis I'm striving for. One of them, anyway. This one is about the freedom to write. To Say my Things. To let go of judgment and self-censorship and restraint, and just write what is true.

I have been at this point before. I am back here now. This time, I hope to make it through.

She says, "There is something burning in here/ when it burns, I hold my own shell to my ear."


This is the way, she seems to be telling me. 

When it happens, and it's always happening, this is how I do it.

I listen. I listen to what my body is telling me. I listen to what my body already knows; what is carried in the rush of the blood in my veins; what is already true, somewhere inside; what has always been true and is waiting for permission to rise to the surface and become what the world sees.

Metamorphosis is less about transforming into something new than I thought it was at 19, and more about becoming what has been inside you all along.

In that way, I have always been what I have and will become. I have always been whole and damaged and near death and alive, alive.

What will it look like to unfurl and bloom, a friend asked in the comments after last week's post. How will it manifest itself?

I think it will look a lot like it looks now: struggling to listen to the power within and to say without fear what is true.

It strikes me suddenly that unfurling and blooming is a continuous process, and it will never really be over. I hope that someday soon I will trade my present challenges and sorrows for different ones, and mourn their passing from a different vantage point.

And I will see more from there, and know more and feel more and understand more, and that will help me take on the metamorphosis to follow. And the one after that. And the next, and the next, and the next.

I think maybe it won't be that I suddenly reach a new plateau, and everything will be different and I'll be a new person and everything will suddenly make sense. I've been hoping for that. I've been thinking that was the way this had to go to be considered a success.

I think it's more likely to be an ongoing evolution; the continuous process of becoming who I've always been. I am changing now, trying to change, trying to leave some things behind and embrace some new ones and move further down the path and be somewhere else, late to arrive or not, who knows, but somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere new. That's the only way it's ever been done.

In which case, the future will probably look a lot like the past, and a lot like right now. Searching, learning, leaping. At 19, I felt that exquisite edge and got interrupted mid-launch. 

Now I'm back here again, experiencing it without some of the innocent romance of the first time around, perhaps, but fortified by the wisdom of my years and ready for the flight.

Andrea Gibson says:

Some days, I call my arms wings
Well my head is in the clouds, it will take me a few more years 
to learn that flying is not pushing away the ground, but safety 
isn't always safe
You can find one in every gun. I am aiming to do better.
I have always been capable of this. I will always be on the brink of a better understanding of myself. Metamorphosis is constant, if you allow it. Launching and re-launching, each time landing somewhere new and more and better than before, because of what you've brought with you and what you've left behind.

I stepped off the ledge at 19, and I think am only now coming in for a landing. And with that landing comes another ledge. It's not the landing that really matters, after all, but whether or not you're willing to take the leap.

I was. I did. I am. I will be.

Safety isn't always safe. I am aiming to do better.