Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The A-HA Moment?

Just when I thought the major moments of revelation were over and I'd probably never have the huge epiphany that would turn everything on its head that I'd been hoping for, I went ahead and had it.

It wasn't quite the revival-tent, cripple-casting-away-her-crutches moment I'd envisioned, but I'll be damned if it doesn't feel like I've finally got the key in my hand that is going to unlock this mess.

First, let me back up and say that while I know there's no such thing as a magic bullet, especially for something as complex and pervasive as PTSR, I do think it's possible to line things up and construct the scene just so, so that you can hit a whole lot of targets at once if you have a bit of luck and your aim is true.

So let's just say, for these past two years, I've been lining up my bull's eyes and tirelessly, relentlessly perfecting my shot. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Last week, I had what began as a familiar and frustrating conversation with my husband and ended as one of the biggest leaps in understanding about my condition that I've ever had. Maybe THE biggest. From the outside, it probably looks like a smallish shift in perspective, but from where I'm sitting, it feels like the difference between thinking and doing. Like going from passive to active.

Like I've not only opened the door to the closet I've been trapped in, but also turned on the light in the hallway that leads the hell out of here.

Here is what happened: 

As happens in any relationship, my husband and I sometimes disagree.  I suggest something, he says no, or I have an idea, and he doesn't like it. This happens the other way around, too, of course, but when it happens like that-- him disagreeing with me-- I tend to react in a way that seems unreasonable, even to me.

First, I become a) filled with rage and b) immediately reminded of T and the way he used to undermine my enthusiasm and tear me down, just for kicks.

A few seconds later, the rational voice inside of me suggests that perhaps I have overreacted a bit, since my husband is NOTHING like T, nor are his motives, and his desire to go to a different restaurant than I want to go to does not, in fact, rise to the level of international incident.

Somewhere in there, I realize that I am having horrible thoughts about my husband that he doesn't deserve, and am confused about why it keeps happening, so I clam up and put up the walls. 

This does nothing to resolve my emotional reaction, nor does it hide from my husband the fact that I just freaked out and shut down during what seemed, to him, like a relatively unimportant conversation.

What it does do, though, is make me less likely to make a suggestion next time, just to avoid the whole nasty business (as we avoiders are wont to do). Over time, this has meant that I have withdrawn quite a bit, and even more so during these last two years of therapy, when everything has seemed closer to the surface and more fragile than before.

So when my husband gently points out to me that I have withdrawn quite a bit, I have this same type of reaction, but worse. Rinse. Repeat.

So last week, we were talking about something trivial-- what, I can't even remember-- and I found myself following that same, familiar route of unreason in my head: Why do you always say no to everything I suggest? Why are you condescending to me? Why do I bother saying anything? I'm not asking for your permission, I'm a grown woman!

And then: Wait, stop, this isn't T, it's not the same thing, he's not really doing that, where is this coming from?

And then, something new occurred to me: I'm reacting to him as if he's inflicting the same trauma on me that T did.

And even better: Why would I react that way? Not because I'm annoyed, but because I'm TRIGGERED. And therefore, everything that happens after that is not happening for the reasons I thought, and is not following the path I expect.

In other words, I wasn't having the interaction I thought I was having. And I never have been.

Holy. Shit.

Right then, I stopped what I was doing and tried a few of the grounding techniques Dr. Oz has taught me-- little things that bring your Thinking Brain back online and take control away from the Lizard Brain, which has hijacked your limbic system and is taking you through the fight-or-flight response:

  • Plant your feet on the floor, squeeze your hands, bring yourself fully into your body to remind yourself that you are here, not there, and the trauma is past, not present.
  • Breathe deeply to reengage your focus on the present.
  • Make a pool of saliva in your mouth. Your body stops doing things like this when it goes into fight-or-flight, because it shuts down all extraneous operations in order to devote all resources to finding an escape route (I mean, seriously stop and think about that one for a second. You have to admit: that is pretty freaking cool!). So by reengaging that process, you are forcing your functioning brain back online.
These things, I did. Right then and there. And you know what? The rage and confusion dissipated immediately.

Right away, I thought, holy shit, I wonder how often I'm dissociating like this, thinking I'm just irritated or upset, when I'm actually following a whole different game plan and have had no idea? Am I even having a genuine emotional reaction at all, or am I just responding primitively to perceived threats that now apparently exist even in the most benign conversations? 

How much of what I experience day to day is actually real?

How far into the fog do I actually live? How disengaged with the world have I become without noticing? Am I ever engaged anymore? 

WHAT THE FUCK?! Why have I not seen this until now?!

I took this little revelation to Dr. Oz the following evening. She agreed with me: this is happening A LOT more than I'd ever realized.

"It makes sense," she said. "It's not just certain types of engagement that trigger you anymore. Sometimes, just engaging at all is the trigger."

Wow. Well. The series of clicks that occurred then as things from the past several years suddenly fell into place in my head and made perfect, terrible sense was so loud, you probably heard it from where you are and just thought it was the wind or something.

So many things I've said to Dr. Oz or to others were suddenly explained so clearly:

"I used to really love to debate-- I was on a few debate teams in high school and used to debate issues with my best friend in college, just for fun. Now, I rarely speak my opinion and am very hesitant to take an opposing point of view." Nope, I was just getting triggered by the proximity of "debating" to "arguing" and disengaging from the discussion instinctively instead of understanding the error rationally.

"I am just getting more and more introverted as I get older. Sometimes I think I've gone too far, and have become socially phobic." Well, I have, and it's not because I'm introverted, it's because I'm triggered, so my Lizard Brain has compelled me to disengage and retreat.

"My memory/energy/stamina/ability to cope has become so much weaker in the past few years. It must be because of Mommy Brain or the fact that i'm exhausted from raising two preschoolers." Nope, it's because I live in an almost-constant state of fight-or-flight, and my brain isn't recording the normal things it should and is dedicating a disproportionate amount of energy to escaping the scene, which is not just furthering my disengagement but is actually, physically taxing far beyond what one would expect from normal, day-to-day living.

"I feel like I'm hardly ever just 'having a conversation' or 'experiencing a moment.' I'm always having a meta-experience instead. I'm watching myself have a conversation, or watching myself have an experience, but rarely actually doing those things authentically without a layer  or ten in between." Yes, because I'm rarely not triggered, so most of the time, I'm watching that stuff in the rear-view as I disengage, disengage, retreat, retreat, get the hell out of there.


In that moment, I realized that as much progress as I've made in my understanding of all of this, I had vastly-- vastly-- underestimated the number and frequency of the triggers in my life. I thought I knew what they were: moments of fear or extreme stress, moments of panic, moments of recall. 

It turns out that the list of non-triggered moments is probably about that long, and everything else-- everything else-- falls into the category of threat, to some primitive part of my brain.

This might seem obvious to you, but it didn't to me. I thought I'd had trouble engaging with the world because of the things that trigger me. It turns out that engaging with the world is the trigger. 

I've been on the lookout for the wrong enemy, all this time. Once again, I've attributed my troubles to the symptoms and not the cause.

You might be wondering, at this point, how I'm responding to all of this. 

Well, on the one hand, it appears that my problem is actually a LOT worse than I thought.

On the other hand, I feel like I suddenly, clearly know what I'm truly dealing with, and what's more, it is now a HELL of a lot easier to identify those moments where Dr. Oz's grounding techniques might be helpful:

Always. All the time. They are now my first response to every negative, uneasy, or ambivalent reaction to everything. 

I have decided, for the time being, not to trust my responses to anything. I don't know if they're real, or if the event that prompted them was what I thought it was. I no longer think, "I'm irritated/upset/uncomfortable right now because I don't like it when _____ happens." 

I think, "I am triggered right now, and I need to remind my body that I'm here and I'm alive."

And you know what? It's working.

In case you're wondering how that last disagreement with my husband turned out, it went like this: 

I didn't say anything at the time of my epiphany, but took it to Dr. Oz instead to check my thinking. After our session, I went home and told my husband everything I'd realized, and that I hoped it would help both of us to communicate with each other better-- he'd know I wasn't reacting to him, I'd know he understood why I was stopping to regroup myself every five minutes, and neither of us would have to avoid uncomfortable discussions for fear of misunderstandings.

And my husband, of course, responded like the champion he is: with unconditional support and love and encouragement.

Because apparently, despite my Lizard Brain's best efforts to fuck everything up forever, I still know how to pick 'em, ladies and gentlemen. And when I picked that man, I said yes to my own salvation.

I said earlier that I felt like I'd shifted from passive to active in a way I hadn't felt until now, and the reason is this: it suddenly seems, for the first time, like what I'm doing here is not figuring out what is happening to me and trying to make it stop, but rather, figuring out how my brain works and using that knowledge to create a solution that works better.

Does that make sense? I thought I'd gone from victim to champion or defense to offense before, when I started this whole thing, and in one way I had. But now I feel like I've done that on a deeper level. 

I've finally figured out that resolving this thing isn't about turning a sick brain well by making the bad things stop happening. It's about using the way my brain works now--because this is the way my brain WORKS now, not just the way it DOESN'T work-- and making it work for me instead of against me.

It's not about avoiding the triggers, or trying to disarm them. It's about teaching myself how to cope with them when they come.

Because they're going to come. And they're going to keep coming. And I am going to continue to be triggered by them when they do. And I swear to god, it wasn't until now that I truly realized that that is not the part that's under my control.

What I need to do is not teach myself not to get triggered, but teach myself how to recognize my body's reaction and retrain my brain to get itself back on track again when the inevitable triggering happens, instead of disengaging, retreating, and floating off into oblivion.

I thought I was supposed to stop it before it happened. I've been fighting it instead of accepting it and working with it, which is why I haven't made any noticeable progress in decreasing my constant overwhelm.

So, yay. This is me, triggered all the time. It's not the exception to the norm, it is the norm. I'm not on the lookout for times when I go into fight-or-flight mode, I'm on the constant duty of trying to bring myself out of it.

It turns out that even now, after all this time, I still have more to learn. Those layers, they just keep coming. I am one hell of a tightly-furled little onion, me.

But thanks to all of you who read these posts and share your thoughts, and to my husband, and to a certain group of Sherlock fanfiction writers, I'm still here, peeling away, digging down deep through those protective little shells to find the treasure in the middle.

I know it's in there somewhere. There's always a treasure, isn't there?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

It's Elementary, Part II

** See It's Elementary, Dear Readers for the first part of this story.

And somewhere in there, though I didn't know it yet, something inside me woke up.

At the time I started writing those workshop-level comments, I had been in therapy for about a year, and in the previous few months had begun to uncover the PTSR symptoms that had been controlling my life for twenty years. 

I'd been talking with Dr. Oz for a long time about writing a blog about my recovery. She had recommended that I start a journal to track my symptoms and focus my thoughts, and I had avoided it and avoided it, because writing had become, for me, so laden with baggage.

I felt I couldn't relax enough, or be honest enough, or be spontaneous or authentic enough to write in that way. I felt I was too self-conscious, too unfocused, too paralyzed to write at all. I was too afraid to try.

But writing those fanfiction reviews was transporting me somewhere I hadn't been in a long, long time. It was bizarre-- I'd write a review, and then go back the next day and read it and be astonished at the voice I heard there. In those reviews, I sounded... confident. Authoritative. Comfortable. Intelligent. Engaged. Alive.

I'd look back at those reviews and see someone funny and incisive and completely in command. And not recognize my current self at all. Most of the time, I couldn't even recall writing them; it was as if they sprang from some other source, and I was reading them for the first time along with everyone else. At the same time, I'd look at those words, in that voice, and I'd have the growing suspicion that I was seeing the person I always thought of as The Real Me.

I'd just been The Fake Me for too long to recognize her at first.

Something else started to happen, too as I wrote those reviews.

I started to get noticed by the authors themselves, and I started to hear back from them.

As the nature of my comments changed, so did the nature of the replies. Instead of a single line of thanks, I'd get a paragraph or two. I'd get questions. I'd get requests for input and advice. I'd get engaged in higher-level conversations about storytelling and craft.

And I started to remember: I know this stuff. I pursued a lengthy education in this stuff. I am capable here, in a way so natural to me that I was doing it almost unconsciously; the ideas slipping past my carefully-monitored barricades and sneaking out into the world before my self-conscious paralysis infected them and rendered them silent. It was happening almost against my will, as if the floodgates had opened somewhere and I no longer had the ability to hold back the surge.

And for the first time in over a decade, I felt... inspired. I remembered what it felt like to be part of that symbiotic process of reading and writing: taking ideas and words and turns of phrase in and putting them back out into the world again, transformed. I felt the singular thrill of that creative spark: Make more of this. What happens next? What would happen if?

So I did two things: First, I kept reading those stories and writing those reviews. 

And then I started this blog.

The whole Sherlock thing is actually far more relevant to this story than you might expect. In addition to inspiring fanfiction that was reawakening my writer's mind and reengaging my writer's heart, this particular story (and the BBC's treatment of it, specifically) invited the kind of writing that offered an enormous amount of insight into the very issues I was struggling with in my therapy.

I hope you've seen Sherlock by now, but if you haven't, it won't be spoiling anything to say that its characters are flawed in ways that were--are--very relevant to me:

Sherlock is an overly-intellectual, emotionally detached misanthrope (a "high-functioning sociopath! Do your research!" he would chide me right now). He's big on thinking, not so big on feeling, our detective.

And John Watson? John is an army doctor, freshly invalided home from Afghanistan after being shot in action.

And he's being encouraged by his therapist to write a blog to help him recover from PTSD.

From this foundation, hundreds of writers were creating thousands of stories about these two men and how they navigated those circumstances. A lot of the stories delve deeply into Sherlock's emotional detachment and development, or John's PTSD and how he copes. There are hundreds of different takes on what it means to struggle against your own brain and how one might learn to overcome one's nature when it no longer serves.

And before you discount that as trivial, consider this: a disproportionate number of Sherlock fanfiction writers are psychologists, professors, doctors, professional writers, librarians, academics of all stripes, women of science and letters. There are descriptions of PTSD in some of those stories that are heart-breakingly poignant; there are passages about Sherlock's emotional ineptitude that are profoundly insightful and cast his behavior in a whole new light.

I read some of these stories-- many of them, in fact-- and I learn about myself in ways I'd never manage on my own.

Before I go any further, a word about fanfiction: it has a reputation for being hack work, or the product of moony teen fangirl fever dreams, or full of pornographic scenes pairing male characters from well-known movies and TV shows (known as "slash"). 

I'd say it's rarely the first, often the second (and what's wrong with that?), and, if you're lucky, a really great version of the third. 

And about that: I enjoy a good sex scene just as much as the next girl, for the obvious reasons, but I enjoy them even more than the next girl for another reason: I think they're really, really difficult to write well, falling so easily, as they usually do, into cliche and hyperbole and melodrama. Well-written erotica, where the writing and the sexiness work equally well, is a bit of a unicorn in the literary world, if you consider the volume of erotic writing that's out there. So I have great admiration for writers who manage to do it well, and there are quite a few of them in the Sherlock fandom.

So sure, there's an erotic element in a lot of it. Straight-up porn in some. But it's being written mostly by women, and that means that more often than not, some sort of relationship dynamic is addressed, and that's where the real inner lives of these characters is spelled out in such a marvelous, revealing, instructive way for a fan of stories and storytelling like me, who is looking not only for answers to the question of what would happen if? but also to the question, what is happening to me?

So here I was, a storyteller and fanfiction native, stumbling across an ever-expanding treasure trove of stories about my current story-du-jour that contained enormously helpful insights into my own emotional development, and I'd been inspired to re-enter the writing world and make tentative efforts to communicate with other writers, and I'd begun to do some writing of my own in a blog that would help me recover from a crippling mental condition and possibly give me a new purpose in life, and in addition to all of this I was also reading some of the best writing I'd seen in years, which was keeping the magic alive for me in a visceral way. 

It just... suited me. Right down to the ground. All I could think was, "These are my people. I have found my tribe."

This was where I found myself two years ago, as my blogging began to gain some momentum and I was daring to think of myself as having a regular writing practice for the first time in my adult life.

And in the midst of all of this, I made a personal connection with one of the writers I'd been following and reviewing (hi, A!), and she began, in turn, to follow my blog. She was funny, whip-smart, and easy to talk to, and our mutual admiration society quickly blossomed into a real-life friendship, which I cherish to this day.

The Sherlock fandom was more than just a side note, for me. It was more than mere entertainment. It wasn't just a hobby or a distraction or a lurid excuse to read porn in the middle of the afternoon.

In these stories, in this community of writers, of daydreamers, of women of intelligence and insight, I had discovered things I never thought I'd have again, or never hoped to find at all, and especially not in one place: creative inspiration; professional instruction; mutual, intellectual admiration and respect; supportive, empathetic friendship; and the motivation to get myself to a coffee shop every Saturday and sit down and open my laptop and put my fingers to the keys and write.

Because of those women, I have been able to create and maintain this blog.

Because of those women, I have learned new ways to think about my emotional development and my PTSR, and my healing has been more profound as a result.

Because of those women, I have responded to the question, "What do you do?" in a way I never quite believed I'd ever have the audacity to do: 

"I am a writer."

The domino effect of all of this has been profound, and there are signs of it everywhere. It's pretty pervasive. 

Dr. Oz, for example, likes to refer to my overly-intellectual, non-emotional, default self (known to my readers here as Controlly Kate™) as "Sherlock." It's funny now, and it's true, and I see the parallel very clearly, but not so long ago, it was a surprise to me that there was any similarity at all.

I was once on a walk with my husband, way back at the beginning of this journey, discussing my progress in therapy and some new insights I'd had, and I commented that I had always thought of myself as the "John" in my relationships-- the solid, stalwart, grounding presence-- but that in light of my new awareness of my emotional detachment, I was beginning to wonder if I was actually the "Sherlock."

"Of course you're the Sherlock," he replied.

I looked at him, startled, unsure of how to take that comment.

He laughed. "I mean, did you think I was the Sherlock?" 

He had a point, there. "Okay, no, but maybe I just thought we were two Johns." 

And when I said it, I knew that was wrong, that it didn't work that way, that the great partnerships work not only because of the things you share but because of the ways you complement and complete each other. The strength of each partner is all the greater when balanced by the strength of the other.

I'd always been more than willing to cover someone else's blind spots, but had never before considered that someone might be just as willing to cover mine.

"I don't like that I didn't know that," I said. "I feel like I'm suddenly seeing myself for the first time, and I'm not who I thought I was. I don't want that to happen to you, too, where you look at me one day and I'm suddenly this crazy stranger you've never seen before."

"Baby," said my husband-- my forthright protector, my devoted partner, my John-- "don't you worry about that. You are becoming the person I've always known you were, behind those walls. You aren't turning into someone else, you're becoming more yourself, and I'm not surprised at all. I know exactly who you are."

And because of this man, who has not only given me the freedom and encouragement to enter this battle, but has stood behind me when necessary and shoved me forward into the next step...

and because of the women writing stories about beloved characters that inspire me to look within, to work harder, to heal, to learn, to write...

I finally have an idea of exactly who I might be, too.

Thanks for your patience during our home purchase and move. We're settled in the new house now and unpacking and painting and planning new projects. My writing schedule should be resuming once again over the next week or two, and I'll be back in fighting writing form. 

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chaos To Calm: An Adventure Tale (or: There And Back Again). Plus: New Blog Features!

Hi there!

Moving is coming along nicely, but we have a lot to do between now and next Thursday, when the actual movers come. The Big Day.

So I'm not going to be able to write the second half of last week's post on Saturday. I'll get right back to it once we're in the new place.

Instead, I'll leave you with a couple of new features-- one of which might be of particular interest to my returning readers-- and a short medium-sized update about something Dr. Oz told me the other day that was a huge relief to hear.

First: I've added a quick-jump link to the very first post of this blog in the upper left corner of the home page, so you can find the beginning of the story without having to wade through the archive lists.

Second: I've added a Follow By Email button in the right sidebar so you can be notified whenever I post! Just enter your email address and hit "send." Your information will not be used for anything other than updates for this blog. Promise.

I was telling Dr. Oz about The Fog the other day, and how disorienting and frustrating it is to have things completely disappear from my memory as if they never existed, especially when I need to focus on details as I've had to do during this house-buying process.

"It doesn't make any sense," I said. "I was a professional person. I managed a team of people and a huge roster of students and a great deal of detailed information. I have the ability to do this. So it's scary to see this happening to me now. I feel like I'm going crazy, or like there's something wrong with my brain that won't allow me to retain information anymore."

"This is a trauma response," said the wise Dr. Oz. "You're being triggered by the major, life-changing things that are happening right now, and your body is doing what it has trained itself to do when it's triggered: it's going into fight-or-flight mode.

When that happens, the blood leaves the brain and goes to the extremities to facilitate movement, so you can run if you need to. Your thinking brain shuts down and stops processing  information that isn't essential to survival, so that you can focus your energy and attention on eluding the threat.

So you're not remembering these things because your brain is not recording them. It is an actual, physiological, neurological change that happens when your primitive brain is triggered."


Well. Holy shit.

That makes perfect sense. I've talked about this before: one of the signs that you've experienced a Capital-T Trauma is that everything happened in slow motion. This is because your brain has shifted from general-processing mode to hyper-vigilant, scan-for-threat-and-safety mode. You are no longer tracking time the way you normally do; your brain is completely focused on biological survival and is seeking only what is essential for escape.

In my case, years and years on, the kinds of threats I experience are not life-and-death, but they do upset my carefully-maintained equilibrium and my primitive brain reacts the same way. It finds a way for me to escape the scene. It isn't a physical escape, but it's an escape all the same: back into the world of disengagement.

Calm, smooth, regulated peace. My body wants that feeling a lot more than it wants stress. So when those stressful moments occur, when I need to keep track of a million things and make phone calls and wire money and pack up a household around two pre-schoolers and step into a new identity as a home-owner and all that it entails, my brain responds to the upset apple cart by shutting down its recording feature and pulling me out of the chaos and into the calm.

It's not entirely unpleasant, if I'm being honest. Being able to compartmentalize as thoroughly as I can is quite an asset during escrow. Smooth sailing! No worries here!

But it's not the same as living, not really. Stress is good, sometimes. Big, positive changes are meant to shake things up, and that can be exciting and motivating and fun.

I'm still straddling that line between my typical reactions and the reactions I'd like, at least theoretically, to have. Meaning that I'm still having the same reactions, but since I'm aware of them and aware of the alternative, I have a bit more influence on my lizard brain and can keep things from going too far. 

I'm staying as engaged as I can, and it's keeping me more in the game than I used to be. I'm not on the field yet. Or on the bench. Or even in the bleachers, some of the time. But I am in the stadium now. Every time I learn something new to help me mitigate the instinctive responses of my lizard brain, I take another step closer to the action.

(I was going to belabor the sports metaphor a bit longer and talk about someday getting a turn at the plate, but I think I'll spare you that. I've done quite enough for one paragraph.) 

The point is, it was a relief to hear that The Fog is a real, physiological response, because that means I can learn to prevent it. 

And also that I'm not losing my mind. So. Yay me.

And now I'm off to look at more paint chips, the mental cataloging of which apparently serves no threat to my lizard brain, because I could tell you a few things about how Pebble Gray, Aged Teak, Sweet Mandarin, and Pot of Cream in various finishes are going to look in my house, with nary a wisp of fog in sight.