Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Sum of My Parts

A request:

If you haven't already, will you sign up as a follower of my blog?

It won't get you spammed or even reveal your identity if you don't want it to. I don't think you even get emails telling you when I've updated. It will only put my blog and any others you follow on a dashboard for easier access.

I want to know who's out there. And because I hope to turn this into a book someday, I want increase my followers-- more followers are, among other things, proof that people are interested in reading about PTSR recovery-- and the more I have, the more I am likely to accumulate. Weird law of blogging.

And on that note, please feel free to spread the word and link to anything here (or to quote me with full citation and links to this blog) and leave your thoughts in the comments. You are part of this thing, after all.

Thank you! And welcome to the party!

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Oz and I had another one of those conversations that was similar to a hundred other conversations we've had but suddenly, that night, hit me in a whole new way, and I had a completely different understanding of it than I was capable of having before.

So many of the things I've come to understand over the last 18 months have come to me in layers rather than all at once. It's bizarre. Dr. Oz has lots of visual aids-- graphs, lists, pictures, hand-outs. Most of them, I've been looking at once a week for over a year, and every once in a while, that familiar jumble of words and images will suddenly click into place in my head and make sense in a way it never did until that moment, no matter that I could draw it myself with my eyes closed.

That feels like a sign of progress to me. Growth of this kind is slow, but sure.

Wait, let's pause for a public service announcement: this actually raises an issue for readers of this blog who might be experiencing similar struggles: there are layers to gain in your understanding of this stuff. Your layers won't look like mine. Your epiphanies will be different ones. So if this blog resonates with you, consider it your first layer-- but only the first of many.

And then, please, find yourself a Dr. Oz and gain yourself some more. It's worth it.

Okay, back to the conversation.

We were talking about my panic attacks-- the ones I told you about where I feel like I can't draw a full breath and I start to freak out that I'm going to suffocate.

I've been having those frequently for the past few months, and have had them intermittently for the past 15 years or so. It's clear to me now that they are psycho-somatic, and that they are, in fact, panic attacks, and that they are a result of the PTSR. I think they result from my brain's sense of control being threatened. The progress I've been making in therapy is lowering a lot of walls, and there are still parts of me that are unhappy about that. 

They've been doing just fine, thank you very much, and don't need no stinking progress.

So the softening of emotional restrictions is somehow triggering the tightening of physical ones. Gotta keep it all together, you know, one way or another. If the lungs get compressed in the process, well. Breathing is boring.

So that's neat. I mean clear, precise, obvious. Clean. The certainty appeals to me. I can work with that.

What I have also discovered is that I am wrapped up so fucking tightly that I can clamp down on a panic attack and render it a mere annoyance. Often significant annoyance, I admit, and increasingly so lately, as whatever part controls the clamp loses its control over the rest of me, but still.

I was actually complaining to Dr. Oz that I can't even have a freaking panic attack like a normal person. Why can't I just hyperventilate and collapse and get some xanax and get on with things, like they do in the movies? Wouldn't it be easier to just know that this was what was happening, to get confirmation of it from certified sources, and then follow the steps to making them stop?

This seems like the opposite of what I should be hoping for, doesn't it? But I can't help it: I crave the release. I want to just FREAK OUT, just once, and get it over with.

If my ability to endure a constant state of panic to the extent that my breathing is restricted for months at a time is any indication, that is never, ever going to happen.

I think that desire to lose my shit might be the "fight" or "flight" instincts trying to assert themselves in my lizard brain. Something's trying to break out. But everybody is an independent contractor in there, and nobody's talking to me about anything. I've been relegated to the sidelines, somehow.

Well. That's a little off track from where I'm going.

I told Dr. Oz that the panic attacks were bugging me again, and she gave me a handout from one of her colleagues, Janina Fisher, Ph.D., who knows a thing or two about trauma and created most of the visual aids Dr. Oz uses in our sessions.

She said, "Let's take that panic and assign it to a part, and then step back from it from a moment. The panic isn't all of you, it's just a small part of you. What is that part feeling? Where does it live? What does it need from you right now?"

I admit, I hear stuff like this, and I go straight to Gestalt therapy and screaming at an empty chair, and my inner cynic starts flapping her hands, going, Whoa whoa whoa, ease up on the weird stuff, lady. Not going there.

But instead of forcing me to have a conversation with myself out loud, she went on to say that we could perhaps break out a few different "parts," and get a little distance from them and examine them and see what it is they need that I can address with my inner "Wise Adult", in the hope of maybe diminishing those needs and neutralizing and integrating the parts back into the whole.

If that makes any sense. 

She started listing possible parts: 
  • The panicked/phobic part
  • The ashamed part
  • The withdrawn part
  • The thinker/control part

She threw that last one in there casually. I'd been complaining that my intellectual part refused to allow the panic to just have its moment-- that I was seriously watching myself refuse to give into panic because it was just too inconvenient and I didn't have time to bother with such nonsense.

Oh. Cliiiiiiiick.

I've talked before about my inner thinker. The scientist. The pedant. The robot. The part that's left once the emotion has been removed, and keeps things under considerable control. 

It's the part that defines me to the rest of the world, really. The reason I have garnered the nickname "Professor." The reason I've morphed in recent years from an INFP into an INTP on the Meyers-Briggs scale. 

The very nerdy me I tend to think of as "me."

Dr. Oz put that part on the list. Right there under "Phobic" and "Withdrawn."

Holy shit.

"But the Thinker is the part that's been holding everything together," I said.

"Yes," replied Dr. Oz. "And she can stop, now. Let the Wise Adult talk to her and find out what she needs, and help her let go of all that control."

Whoa. The Thinker is not the Wise Adult. 

The Thinker is not the Wise Adult.

I... But...That's...I did not know that. I never would have thought of that. She sounds so... you know... convincing.

"Well," said the brilliant Dr. Oz, "That's been her job, right?"

I think I just sat there in stunned silence for a few minutes. Several cogs clicked into place, some hamsters started running and wheels started turning. OMG.

"There are probably some other parts in there, too. Parts that represent all the different stages of the fight-or-flight response. The Thinker is "Fight." The Phobic and Withdrawal is "Flight." The Shame is "Freeze." There's probably some Neediness in there too, to represent the submit/attach aspect."

"Neediness gets shut down right away," I said. "There's none of that allowed."

"So it gets suppressed by the Thinker. That's how the Thinker maintains control."


I don't blame you if you can't quite buy all of this on one read-through. I certainly couldn't have thought of it this way a year ago. It's taken many layers to get to the point where this makes perfect sense to me, and seems like the clear path through whatever comes next.

"So, what comes next?" I asked.

"Well, we start looking at these parts separately, and talking to them through the Wise Adult. We find out what they need and how we can reintegrate them."

But first, I guess, I have to find this alleged Wise Adult. Dr. Oz insists she's in there. She's the one who kept me moving forward, building the life I have in spite of myself. She's the reason I'm married, the reason I'm a mom, the reason I'm not a raving lunatic on the street corner, screaming at the sky. She's the reason I've carried on. 

I've thought the Thinker was her, all this time, and would never have questioned it, but this whole weird thing strikes me as absolutely true, and seeing the Thinker on the same list as the Phobic has helped me understand how limited and damaged both parts are, on their own. Neither represents the whole, emotional self that exists behind all this pandemonium. It was sort of miraculous to see the Thinker reduced to that level; as something to overcome and integrate  rather than submit to. One of those lightning-bolt epiphanies you know in your gut to be true.

So. After all this work trying to stop dissociating, it turns out that dividing myself up into parcels to deal with one by one is the way to go. And so I will.

Because, you know: we want to live. All of us. Thinking, Phobic, Withdrawn, Needy, Emotional, Integrated Me. 

It's a party in here. Who's bringing cake?

1 comment:

  1. OK, I admit, when you had a link to "screaming at an empty chair," I thought we were going straight to Clint Eastwood at the RNC.  Does anyone know what he was doing?  It looked like performance art, but maybe it was just Gestalt.  

    The thing that sings for me here is this exchange:

    The Thinker is not the Wise Adult.

    You:  I ... But ... That's ... I did not know that.  I never would have thought of that.  She sounds so ... you know ... convincing.  

    Brilliant Dr. Oz:  "That's been her job, right?"

    Since you're already referencing BBC Sherlock here ("Breathing is boring"), let me just say:  the Thinker is Sherlock.  The Wise Adult is John.  They work together, but they are not the same.  The Thinker is brilliant but emotionally limited, and she needs the Wise Adult to help her become fully integrated into the world.  Similarly, the Wise Adult benefits from intellectual insights provided by the Thinker.

    Yes.  BBC Sherlock is a love story about two different aspects of human personality:  brain and heart.  Each is useless without the other.  That's what fanfic, in all its beautiful, cheesy, smutty glory, is trying to tell us.