Saturday, January 26, 2013

Climbing the Ladder

I don't know if you heard, but I went viral last week.

That essay I wrote back in September got picked up by a bunch of Patch sites around the country and got, as of this writing, 135,000 159,000 163,000 Facebook shares, which makes it "the most socially viral article in Patch history." 

Knock me over with a feather!

(To put this in perspective: the editor told me she once wrote a post that got 6000 Facebook shares, and they couldn't believe it. They've rarely seen that kind of action. So their response to my post's popularity is... enthusiastic, let's say.)

It's been surreal and exciting and terrifying and validating. All of those things at once. And perhaps most surprising of all, I find myself a lot more comfortable with the combination than I would ever have been a year or two ago. I'm a lot more comfortable with it than I was even a few months ago, when I nearly ended up in the emergency room with a panic attack over the (relatively mild, in retrospect) attention that piece got when it was first published.

I've developed a thicker skin since then-- something one does, in such situations, if one wants to remain sane. But to me, this feels bigger than that. "Thicker skin" doesn't quite cover it.

I feel, to my surprise and delight, less afraid of fear.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll understand the significance of that statement. Here is something scary, something the Ministry of Vigilancequite literally lives to spot and trigger a major freak-out over, and yet here I am, not freaking out. Not triggered. Channeling the fear into exhilaration and purpose. Feeling pretty damn sure of myself and my point of view.

ME!  Imagine!

Nowhere was this made more clear to me than in the interview I did with one of the Patch editors:

It's weird, watching this video of myself. For one thing, I look and sound really different than I thought I would-- this is much more like watching a stranger than like watching myself. And then there's the usual voice in my head saying, Wow, are you really that dorky? Is that a speech impediment? Can that scar in the middle of your forehead and your weird head-tilt be any more obvious? Seriously, you allowed someone to film you on that bad of a hair day? Could you not muster anything more snazzy than your ubiquitous black t-shirt?

But here's something new: right along side that voice is another voice, speaking just as loudly, saying, Wow. Look at YOU! You sound... confident! Well-spoken! Like you know what you're doing! Like you've got it all under control!

You sound... like a grown-up!

And as luck (or maybe all this goddamn therapy) will have it, that second voice was the one in my head before the interview. She refused to allow me to get too nervous or filled with self-doubt. She kept the butterflies in my stomach on the "excited, not terrified" end of the spectrum. And she sat on my shoulder and got me through that interview with shocking ease, black t-shirt and Harry Potter scar notwithstanding.

So even before I saw the tape, I barely recognized myself. That is a "me" I would like very much to get used to. She knows what time it is, that one. She is comfortable and confident, just as she is.

So the connection between the content of that essay (letting your children learn by trying and failing and trying again, so that they gain resilience and coping skills and confidence in their abilities, rather than doing everything for them to somehow prevent them from the slightest discomfort in life) and my own PTSR was probably inevitable, right?

I've read hundreds of comments from parents around the country, most expressing support and agreement, but a still-sizable number expressing shock, outrage, and less-than-charitable opinions of me and my choices. 

One theme that my husband noticed in the more critical comments is that many people seem to believe that it's wrong to let their kids feel frustration or disappointment, and that if they're not intimately involved in every breathing second of their kids' lives and fully engaged with them at all times, their kids will feel abandoned, unloved, and resentful, and they will learn that the world is a cold, unfeeling place where no one can be trusted and no one will help you if you need it.

I wish I were exaggerating that. I'm practically quoting some commenters verbatim.

My husband's response to this was that people seem to feel compelled to parent in a way that prevents themselves from having to feel uncomfortable feelings.

I think that's true for most of us, at least some of the time. We feel guilty when we have to say "no" to our kids. We feel heartbroken when we see them disappointed. We feel fear that something could happen to them, or that they will be afraid themselves. 

It can be very tempting to give in to those fears and do too much for your kids as a result. To prevent them from feeling bad, you tell yourself, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's allowed you to avoid feeling bad, yourself.

I know I've done it. I suspect most people do at some point, even if they, like me, know it's not doing anyone any favors in the long run.

But then I stop and ask myself: what's so bad about feeling bad?

This is the question of the moment, for me. It's the central question of my own work. What's so bad about feeling bad? Why is it the end of the world to feel fear or nervousness or disappointment or a lack of control?

Here is the answer: It's NOT. It's NOT the end of the world. As a matter of fact, facing those emotions, as well as their counterparts-- confidence, joy, excitement, exhilaration-- that IS the world. It's LIFE, is what it is. 

The ability to cope with all of those things, to take them in process them and feel them and let them push you forward, that's living. That's what it's all about.

And as you know: I WANT TO LIVE.

So I find myself in the position of trying to create for my children something that I am only now learning to create for myself: the ability to live a life that isn't shaped by fears, both real and imagined.

I've spent the last 20 years trying to avoid facing difficult feelings, and I can tell you first-hand that this is a limiting, self-defeating, suffocating way to live.

Despite the insistence of the Ministry of Vigilance™, there are not nightmares around every corner. Every step is not moving me closer to swiftly impending death. Every scenario is not worst-case scenario. The headlights are not still coming around that corner on my side of the road.

It's over. I survived.

I lived. I am alive. And everything is okay.

I want my kids to feel that. Everything is okay. Falling isn't dying. Or failing. It's just an opportunity to pick yourself up and try again, armed with a bit more knowledge and experience than you had the last time around. It's a chance to do it over, a newly-earned step ahead of your former self.

It's life. It's living. It's learning. It's being where you are and feeling what you feel, and not being afraid of whatever that might be, because no matter what it is, you can use it to your advantage.

I don't want to teach my kids that the world is scary and every move could be their last. I don't want them to think that I don't trust them to learn from their own mistakes and achieve without someone having to do everything for them. I want them to trust and believe in themselves.

And despite what some of my detractors seem to think, I do realize that the best way to teach them this isn't actually by making them climb the ladder to the slide without my assistance.

It's by refusing to let the fear of uncomfortable feelings limit my own life any longer.

I want to live. I want my kids to live. And nothing, not PTSR, not a challenge on the playground, nothing is going to get in our way.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Welcome, New Readers!

A lot of folks are stopping by this blog for the first time, after reading my essay on Alameda Patch, which has gone viral!

Welcome to all of you. I hope you find a good read here. If I may recommend: this blog is best read from the beginning, because it's a linear story about a major, terrible event in my life and everything that has happened since.

If you start with the first post and move forward, it will make a LOT more sense.

I also invite you to join this blog as a follower (no spam or emails of any kind; just easier access to new posts from your very own Blogger dashboard). You can do this by clicking the link in the right side bar.

I'm grateful to all of you who have come by to check out the blog and stayed to read. And, of course, to my regular readers, without whom I'd simply be yelling into the wind.

Come on in, and make yourselves at home!

PS: We've all had an absolutely horrendous week with the flu over here, so I missed posting on Saturday. Everyone is now on the mend, so I'll get a new post up as soon as possible. As you may have guessed, there are exciting things to report!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lydia, Oh Lydia

I am thinking of getting a tattoo.

I do not currently have any tattoos. I have never considered getting a tattoo before. I've always placed tattoos rather firmly in the "not at all my thing" camp.

It's not an aesthetic choice, per se. I admire cool tattoos and have a secret, very un-serious  quarter-sleeve fantasy. It's my indecision, really, that has prevented me from considering any actual ink. I can't decide what I want for lunch. How can I possibly settle on something as permanent and enduring as a tattoo?

But I've been thinking lately that I might want to do that. I feel like I'm coming back to myself in so many ways-- I'm writing, I'm learning, I'm moving forward in my therapy, I've dropped 34 pounds and counting, I just started Pilates this week and am seeing a path toward better physical shape. Good stuff is happening. And I'm finding myself with a lot of enticingly blank slates to fill.

Example: I have just about shrunk out of all of my clothes. None of the stuff from the regular rotation of the past couple of years fits at all anymore, and even the few things I've bought since I started losing weight are beginning to sag. My first two pairs of skinny jeans are officially too baggy to wear. 

(Side note: skinny jeans! The sweet reward for the apple-shaped woman! I'll continue to keep my midsection shrouded in mystery, thank you, but down below, my legs are... well, sort of bangin', as the kids say. Skinny jeans were made for me, as it turns out. Who knew?! 

Lovely pear-shaped women, enjoy your a-line skirts and tiny-waisted torsos. I no longer begrudge you your excellent good fortune. Because I have my skinny legs tucked into some killer boots and I'm willing to walk proudly amongst you once again. (Not that I shouldn't have been all along, I realize, but I wasn't. Leaving aside the obvious rants about conforming to societal beauty norms for a moment: I look better, I feel better, and I am more healthy as a result of the inner and outer work I've been doing. I'm okay with that.))

Anyway. I'm holding off on a full wardrobe replacement until I'm closer to my goal weight, and that's far enough away that I expect to drop another couple of sizes before I get there. But I do need some interim stuff. And I am realizing how dull and boring my wardrobe has been for the past... decade or more.

I am not, by nature, a conservative dresser. Not that you'd know this, looking in my closet. There are a lot of black t-shirts and boring jeans in there. A lot of fade-into-the-background stuff. A lot of I'm-sorry-you-have-to-look-at-me-in-this-condition-so-I'll-try-to-minimize-the-horror stuff. That right there was an unspoken organizing principle for my recent wardrobe.

Oh, the things we do to ourselves!

So I'm looking around and thinking, I used to be sort of rock-and-roll. I used to be daring, with a definite edge. I used to be cool, in fact. And I'd like to be cool again. I'd like a little more pizzazz. And how the hell do I go about finding it?

I find that I don't know how to shop anymore. I don't know how to develop a signature style (other than my ubiquitous jeans and black shirts). I've got a lot more options than I did before, and I will even admit that I look young for my age and can get away with more than one might expect for a 41-year old woman. And the spirit is willing and the flesh is tired of being shrouded in baggy boredom.

So: blank slate. Mama needs some new clothes. My youngest sister, Liz, is on standby, more than willing to come Shopping (capital S) with me when the time comes. Exciting. Intimidating. Rejuvenating!

And that brings me back to the other idea that's been whispering itself to me: a tattoo. I think I want one. And I have no idea what I want it to look like.

I want something small and simple. I am drawn to words, of course, and also to delicate line drawings. An image seems less likely to resonate deeply with me than a word or words, but I'm open to either or to both. 

I also really like white tattoos and think I might do that if I can be convinced it won't look too much like scar tissue on my extremely fair skin, so we're talking about something pretty subtle, here. As for placement, I am --surprisingly-- drawn to my inner left forearm, up near my elbow. No idea why. But I'm going with it-- there's a certain intuitive click to that spot, so I'm not going to question it. I suspect all of my decisions about this tattoo will confirm themselves that way.

The transformation that I've been discussing in this blog is the driving force behind this, of course, and I want the tattoo to represent it in some way. I've considered the lightning bolt avatar I use here, but I like the idea of that more than I like the thought of an actual lightning bolt tattoo. Unless I can find a really, really cool image. And maybe a word or two to go with?

"The Girl Who Lived" is interesting, although, again, I think I like the theory more than the fact of it. It's a bit cumbersome.

I don't know, you guys. This is hard. So I am officially asking you for help.

What tattoo should I get?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Ministry of Vigilance™

Hello! I trust your holiday was fun-filled and festive? Hopefully with booze and good food and friends and family (not necessarily in that order, but if that's the way you need it, you're certainly not alone in this world).

My holiday was lovely, although we were on the road for a long time and that began to take its toll on the small fries among us, after a while. But we got to hang out with my family and see the girls' first snowfall and help my youngest sister find her wedding gown and have an epic beer-and-cheese tasting extravaganza and watch my gloriously awesome husband play a gig at the House of Blues in Hollywood and spend a wild night sans-kids with my favorite cousin and his fantastic fiance in an amazing house in Laurel Canyon, just off the Sunset Strip.

So. All told, it more than compensated for the tricky back from sleeping in strange beds for two weeks.

Anyway, happy 2013 to you and yours. May it lead you exactly where you need to go.

I did have some interesting insights on my trip that I've been anxious to write about here. I found myself highly triggered a lot of the time from all the driving I did, which, surprisingly, is not something I'm usually conscious of.

I think I've written about it here before: I have definitely become more aware of of the fact that I DO get triggered by driving, although I manage very effectively to ignore it most of the time. It has only recently occurred to me that it's probably not normal to constantly expect the cars in front of you to explode or fly into the air or suddenly flip over without provocation or come to a sudden, screeching halt in the middle of the freeway.

Is it?

I am not actively panicked behind the wheel, but I've realized in the past 18 months that there is a whole department in my brain devoted to the business of constant horizon-scanning, freak-accident-anticipating, and defensive-maneuver-and/or-escape-route-planning whenever I am driving anywhere.

And I mean that: Whenever. I am driving. Anywhere. 

It has somehow escaped my notice (for, um, 20 years) that my hands actually ache from gripping the steering wheel so hard if I'm driving for more than a few minutes. My neck and back get stiff with tension from holding myself so anxiously in my seat.

That part of my brain that's always on the lookout (let's call it the Ministry of Vigilance, shall we?) sends a constant barrage of messages through my nervous system: 


To give you some idea of how deeply buried the Ministry of Vigilance™ has been, in the whole first year of my therapy I thought that I had somehow escaped one of the biggest symptoms and indicators of PTSR: hyper-vigilance.

Not me, I thought. I'm not paranoid.

Well. Well.

I had noticed-- and remarked upon in this very blog-- that my neck has the classic hyper-vigilant backwards bend, thrusting my head permanently forward (as well as off-kilter from my accident-related optical nerve damage-- it's a miracle I don't just fall over). I had noticed that. And so have quite a few chiropractors and x-ray technicians and other experts in fields that know such things.

But still! No paranoid, me! Not this girl! Not my bag, baby!

Ahem. So. It may, by now, come as no surprise to you that the discovery of the Ministry of Vigilance™ came as a big surprise to me. 

This is a testament to my--if I may say so myself-- fairly fucking extraordinary ability to avoid, deny, and ignore all things PTSR-related that go in inside my mind and body. I am so good at it, I can avoid noticing it while I am actually doing it. I can ignore it while I am suffering the physical effects of it. I can deny it even with radiographic evidence that I have seen with my own eyes. 

So on our extended trip over the holidays, I drove a LOT. First of all, the trip to my parents' house is around 400 miles each way, and we took a few extra side trips that added another 300 or so, and I drove everyone around the day we went wedding dress shopping and put on about 300 miles that day alone. My husband drove some of the time, of course, but I probably drove over 800 of those miles myself.

Lots of time to face the music, then. 

Becoming aware of my white-knuckle driving has not made it go away. It has, if anything, made it worse, because now that I'm aware I'm doing it, I am also intercepting some of those messages from the Ministry of Vigilance™. They are broadcasting loud and clear, those guys. They don't stop for anything.

So I'm now aware, uncomfortably so, of the undercurrent of panic sparking along my nerves and synapses. The nightmare scenarios that fuel my paranoia are no longer unconscious. I now engage with them a bit, which makes them a lot more vivid, let me tell you. I now get sudden waves of panic just thinking about driving, sometimes. No wheels required.

You'd think this would make me afraid to drive. And I guess it does, in a way. But this is one of those times where my compartmentalizing works in my favor-- I am still able to refuse it complete mastery over my mind and will. I am still able to get behind the wheel. I'm from Southern California, god damn it. That is what we do: Drive. Cars. Everywhere.

But I noticed it. I noticed it more on this trip than ever before. Remember, my parents live in the mountains, where my accident occurred. The highway to get to their mountaintop town is 12 miles long and rises about 4000 feet in elevation. There are places along the way where the outside lane is separated from a 1000-foot drop by a 3-foot high guardrail and a puff of fog.

My palms are sweating as I type this.

Remember also: I grew up there. I learned to drive on that highway-- it was literally the first real road I ever drove on as a 15-year old with a learner's permit. I raced up and down it thousands of times, before AND after the accident, with nary a thought of the cliffs and chasms. 

So it's notable, this panic, these sweating palms. It's Something New. It's an uncomfortable awareness that I don't like at all.

And yet. it's also an undeniable (even for me! Take that!) sign of Progress, capital-P, and that's not a bad thing. It even feels like more-than-adequate compensation.

After all, if I've learned nothing else, I know for certain that the road out of here goes through, not around, the difficult stuff. It skirts the cliffs. It braves the rapids. It takes the bridges and tunnels without regard for the wind or the dark.

And so, it is written, shall I.

One other thing I noticed on this trip, the thing that actually gives me a handle for managing this new, uncomfortable awareness of panic, is that while all of this chaos is going on in my brain and body, nobody in the car has any idea.

This is not about the people in the car, all of whom are brilliant and insightful and empathic (not to mention extremely good-looking), but about my insistence on Keeping A Lid On It™, which I am also really, really good at doing (see "avoid, ignore, deny," above). (See also "pulled self out of a panic attack by sheer force of will simply because calling an ambulance would have been a huge pain in the ass.") I am the master of the Calm Facade. So much so that I fall for the facade myself and believe my every, normal-normal-not-panicking word.

It's because of the Control thing, that internal part that Dr. Oz pointed out to me a few weeks back. The rational-sounding, authoritative-seeming voice that has, yes, enabled me to Keep A Lid On It™ so well, for better as well as for worse, all these years.

The voice I thought was my inner Wise Adult. But which is not. Sooooo not.

Controlly Kate™ (okay, I'll calm down with the ™ thing. I just find it hilarious. This is nerd humor, people) doesn't want anyone to know about the white knuckles or the panic because she... well, I'm not sure exactly. A combination of things:

1. Doesn't want to appear insane
2. Doesn't want to appear dangerous
3. (okay, fine) Doesn't want to appear vulnerable
4. Doesn't want to make anyone feel guilty for not driving
5. Doesn't want anyone else to actually drive**
6. Doesn't want to have to think too hard about the white knuckles and therefore deal with the panic so uses the above to avoid doing so

**This is an important and illogical truth. Controlly Kate wants to drive, although panicking all the while. I am not a panicky passenger. Well. I am a far less-panicky passenger than I am a driver. When I am a passenger, I am not longing to drive, nor am I freaking out about the driving of whoever is behind the wheel. But once I get behind the wheel, Controlly Kate informs me that there will be no relinquishing of the keys today. That's it. I'm in. Period.

I don't really understand that little quirk, except that it seems like a bit of misfired control freaking. But getting a good look at it has been useful to me this week for two reasons.

First: when I told Dr. Oz about it, she reminded me that my new awareness of the Control part-- and the Panic part-- means I can use those opportunities to let the Wise Adult step in and talk them off the ledge. 

Which would be easier if I were better at locating the Wise Adult in those moments. But Dr. Oz gave me a little trick: when I find myself in panic or control mode, pretend it's my daughter in that situation. What would I say to her?

"I know you're afraid right now, but I'm here with you. I will help you through this. I wasn't there before, but I'm here now and I know what to do. If it gets too scary, we can pull over. I know how to drive and I won't let anything happen to us."

"Make the Wise Adult bigger than the Control part for that moment," said Dr. Oz. "It's difficult to do, at first. It takes practice. But keep trying. Make her voice bigger. Let the other parts step back and let the Wise Adult take over. Eventually, the Wise Adult will be bigger, and the Control and the Panic can fade away. They were there for a reason, to help you through a difficult time so you could survive, but they're not needed anymore. It's time to let them go. Little by little. The Wise Adult is here now, and she knows what to do. Let them go."

It sounds silly, writing it out like this, but it actually works to calm that irrational part of my brain like nothing else ever has. When the Wise Adult talks, the Ministry of Vigilance listens.

Second: thinking about all of this, and how I snap automatically into Calm Facade mode when I get triggered, made me realize how essential not talking about it has been to the development and power of my PTSR. Not talking about it has allowed it to fester and thrive and poison my life. Not talking about it has been its strongest weapon against me.

And it's cut me off from other people. And it's cut me off from myself. And it's kept me under its control. And it's changed the way I think and feel and breathe and move and dream and grow and connect.

But no more. I began the cure before I'd even diagnosed that particular disease. This blog marks the end of that voiceless reign of terror. This connection I'm building with myself, with you, with the rest of the world means I'm slowly learning how to talk about it. Little by little, I've already started to let those other parts go.

And that is how I win.

I want to LIVE!