Saturday, February 15, 2014


Okay. Back to write the rest of the story.

I've been thinking about it, and I think the reason this is so difficult to write is not so much that these memories are so painful-- they're not; they're so time-worn and familiar that they don't have sharp edges anymore-- but that I've been doing a lot of work in this area and I've been deeply triggered along this particular wavelength (shame, self-worth, fear of achievement and praise, fear of no achievement or praise), so every word is like an electric shock to the system.

It's like... imagine this first-grade experience is at one end of the wire, and I've just grabbed hold of the other end, so now everything in between is swinging around like a jump-rope.

Yeah, that. That exactly.

In fact, that can be said for a lot of this therapeutic work. It ain't a bowl of cherries, or a field of wheat, or whatever metaphor you use to signify a period of contemplative growth.

(Would you use a bowl of cherries for that? That would be weird, I think. You figurative cherry people. Weirdos.)

I've realized lately that this therapeutic work has become my more-than-full-time job. It is what I do. What I am always doing, 24/7. Everything is done relative to this work. Everything. It is never not present. 

It's a can't-put-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube sort of thing, only not funny. Or minty-fresh.

Remember that post, last year, with the picture of the woman holding the door closed on the closet bursting with junk?

Yeah, I guess I opened the door. Somewhere along the way, I just flung it open. I don't really know when it happened. 

I thought it would be different than this. I thought there would be a movie-like epiphany; maybe a sudden, shocking flashback to the accident where I relive the whole thing and get to release all of the trauma energy the right way, and then everything would just settle down and start to adjust back to something more closely resembling normal.

I mean, I didn't really think about it, but I guess if I were forced to describe what opening that door would be like, I'd say it would have to involve a major accident-related flashback.

Turns out, no. Turns out, I'm just standing here in a pile of junk, holding the ends to a lot of jump ropes, and a lot more of those ropes than I would have thought seem to disappear into a tunnel in the back wall of the closet that I didn't know was there.


So I just feel triggered all the time now, and I get ramped up to body-numbing, vision-narrowing, breath-constricting, mouth-drying, full-on fight-or-flight-response-style triggered by more things every week. 

Sometimes the things are obvious, in that you might expect a car accident victim with PTSD to get freaked out by them, and sometimes they're not.

Here's an example of the first:

I was watching the Olympics the other night with my sister and bro-in-law, the adorable newlyweds (I'll get tired of calling them that at some point, but Not This Day).

We were watching Alpine Skiing, the Women's Downhill event, one that already freaks me out a little because it's so fast and dangerous-looking and I'm jumpy about such things (because... duh).

And if you saw the event, you know what happens next. Alexandra Coletti of Monaco crashed hard on the big turn.

Until that happened, I'd never connected my jumpiness at watching these events to my PTSD (um... duh is right). But when I saw that crash, there was no room for doubt. My body tensed and braced, my mouth went dry, the "cold fire" started up everywhere, my arms went numb from the tips of my pinkies to my shoulders, my vision got dark and cloudy around the edges and narrowed to a bright, focused center.

I couldn't watch the rest. I probably won't ever watch that kind of competition again. I'm getting the cold fire just writing about it.

But it makes sense, that response. You can easily connect that to the car accident. You can see how A led to B, there.

Here's an example of getting majorly triggered and not being able to connect it to the accident, but to something that happened way, waaaay before the accident did, and was just cemented into my fight-or-flight response by a car on the wrong side of the highway one night.

This is the story you came here to read:

I'd actually uncovered the whole shame/migraine/first grade teacher link with Dr. Oz a few weeks ago in therapy. We'd just scraped the tip of the iceberg at the end of the session one week, and then really dug into it the next week, and by then I'd realized that this was a Really Big Deal.

Getting to the root of the shame thing, for me, feels like an essential piece to this PTSD puzzle. The fact that the headaches also spring from there makes it all the more important to push myself to get in there and try to unravel that tightly wrapped little knot. 

It feels like the beginning of everything, that time in my life. I don't know why, but it does.

So I was already walking around half-triggered over it, sort of crackling with electricity. It's an uncomfortable state to be in-- raw, vulnerable, weird. But I've never felt this close to the source f things before, so I was trying hard to stay in that place.

Two days after that big therapy session, I went to pick up my 4-year old daughters from preschool. I was waiting outside for the doors to open and the line of kids to pour out, as usual. My girls always burst into huge smiles when they see me and yell, "MAMAAAAAA," and run to me and give me what we call in our house a "Mommy Sandwich," which consists of my face as the filling and their kisses on my cheeks-- one twin on each side-- as the bread.


So, smiles, yells, Mommy Sandwich, and then they handed me their daily worksheets, where they practice tracing and then writing a letter or a number and then doing a couple of activities involving that letter or number. Each child does the worksheet one-on-one with a teacher.

(To protect their identities, I'll refer to my children by the names on their favorite Superhero t-shirts)

Supergirl, who is a natural performer and pleaser when it comes to academic skills and usually thrilled to show me her work, handed me her worksheet with a frown and said, for the first time in her entire life, "I am really, really bad at eights. I can't do eights very well."

I was stunned. "What?" I said.

Batgirl, who likes to march to the beat of her own drummer but who still manages to get there in the end and who is also very proud of her work, handed me her worksheet. "My eights are really bad too. I don't know how to make eights."

"Who told you that?" I asked.

And they said their teacher's name.


(that was me, speechless for a minute)

As you might imagine, I had quite a few things going on in my head right then. 

In the next 10 seconds, I had to do a bit of prioritizing:
  1. I'd been crouching down to their level for Mommy Sandwiching and worksheet viewing. I went ahead and let my knees hit the deck, and then just sat right down on the ground for some physical stability.
  2. I bit my tongue on pressing for details about what, exactly, was said and by whom. More on that in a minute.
  3. I put the worksheets down, put my arms around my smart, hilarious, kind, beautiful daughters, and I hugged them and said, "I think you did a FANTASTIC job on those eights. Eights are tricky, and nobody knows how to do them the first time they try them, so you're off to a great start. Now all we have to do is practice them together at home, and pretty soon, you'll be EXPERTS at making eights!"
  4. When they looked at me and repeated that they didn't know how to make eights, I looked right back at them and said, firmly, "I will help you. Don't be afraid. I will be with you, and I will show you how to make eights, and we will make eights together."
And that seemed to be enough for them to get on with. They skipped off to run around with their friends as everyone wandered toward their cars, and I sat there, arms numb, vision narrowed, muscles buzzing, halfway to panic, triggered as all hell.

What the actual FUCK?!

I had to get away from the school and calm down, get my body back under control, so I could think about all of this rationally. So I collected my munchkins and we went home.

I fed them lunch, and they were droopy and over-tired, so I put them down for a (rare and wonderful) nap, which they actually took.

And I sat on the couch and folded laundry and but on some mindless television. The American Idol auditions, in fact: something dumb and non-taxing, but which occasionally provokes an emotional response in me through some manipulative back story. The perfect outlet for the emotionally-crippled, who tend to take our tears where we can find them.

I found some there, that day. Only once they started, they were hard to stop. A little desperate, those tears. A little scary. Something big seemed to be threatening to happen. 

It's happening, I found myself thinking, wildly. It's happening.

...What's happening? the Sherlock part of my brain barged in and asked. What's going on here?! Have I authorized this?!

Oh. Hmmmm. Tears immediately ceased. Trying to analyze what was happening seemed to be the quickest way to stop it from happening.

A few minutes later, it happened again.

It's happening, I thought, so quietly, so as not to intrude. It's happening. I reached for, and found, a mantra supplied by Dr. Oz at my last therapy session as she spoke to the 6-year old girl within me: All of your feelings are welcome here. All of your feelings are welcome here.

I didn't really know what feelings I was having or what was trying to release itself from me just then, but I thought I'd offer some words of encouragement anyway and just facilitate the release instead of try to clarify what, precisely, was going on here, since that seemed to be part of the problem, maybe from the very beginning.

All of your feelings are welcome here.

All of your feelings are welcome here.

It's happening.

And then... it faded and stopped. And all the other contestants after that were idiots without moving back stories and no more tears were forthcoming.

But a little something happened, I like to think. A little movement occurred. Something. Somehow. 

My husband came down from his office around then to see how things were going, and I told him what had happened with the tears, and he asked what I was feeling.

"I'm not," I said.

"No, I mean, what feelings is this bringing up for you?"

"I'm not having feelings," I said. "I'm having an emotional reaction."

He looked at me. "Um."

"Yes, I realize that those technically mean the same thing."

Raised eyebrow.

"They do not necessarily mean the same thing for me. My body is having the reaction. My intellectual brain is not involved, and if my intellectual brain tries to get involved, it makes the reaction stop, so I'm just staying out of it and letting the reaction happen without trying to figure out what's causing it, you know?"

"Ah," he said. "Got it."

He does, too. He totally understands. The poor guy.

So, that happened. I got majorly triggered by a 2014 mini-repeat of the 1977 incident that I was just discussing in therapy and which might be at the heart of all that ails me.

Everything is so close to the surface now, so easily overcharged and electrified. The lizard brain is as activated as ever, but at the same time, I'm learning how to soothe it more and more directly every time it happens.

I realized that although my intellectual brain and emotional brain are still not really on speaking terms, the intellectual brain is now able to allow the emotional brain to have its say once in a while without enforcing a smackdown. That seems like progress of the first order.

And as for what happened with Supergirl and Batgirl and their teacher, I am not making any rash judgements. I think that a thousand things could have happened to give my girls that impression, and the likelihood that this teacher (who I know and like and have been able to observe in the classroom) said something that mean to them-- especially just to be cruel) is extremely low. 

I know that they are stepping up the rules and the standards in the classroom to prepare the kids for kindergarten, so they may be getting more direct feedback than they've had before. I think they may interpret less-than-stellar-praise negatively. I think that regardless of what was said, the message they got was potentially damaging, but that I have an enormous amount of power in diffusing the impact of that message and turning into a positive learning opportunity for my kids.

So I have. For them, and for me, too. We're all in this together, we smart girls who find ourselves faced with an unexpected challenge:

They weren't superstars at making eights. We've been talking about how, when you're a smart girl, it can be really scary to not be good at something. You feel like you have to always be good at everything and never make any mistakes.

But guess what? EVERYBODY makes mistakes. NOBODY is good at everything. NOBODY does everything right all the time. In fact, if nobody every made a mistake, there would never be any reason to learn anything. A mistake isn't a bad thing, it means you get a chance to try again, and maybe try a different way, and learn something new. 

A mistake doesn't mean you're bad or wrong, it just means you're learning. And it takes a lot more courage to learn than it does to just be right all the time.

I tell my girls that I am so, so proud of them for all the wonderful things they know how to do, but I am even more proud when I see them trying something they don't know how to do so well yet. Because that's when I know that they're not just smart, they're brave and wise, and even though they're only four years old, I already admire them for their courage.

Failing is scary. Learning is hard.

But with just a little courage, by next week, we're gonna be making eights like we were born making 'em.

And after that, they'll know I've got their backs, and they won't need to be afraid of whatever comes next. 

Reading? Bring it.

Minute Tests? We've got your number.

My girls will be fearless. They have 36 years' worth of preparation up their sleeves. They're going to destroy you.

And if I cheer a little too loudly from the sidelines, well, I can't really help it. 

I'm not having a feeling, per se. It's just this pesky emotional reaction.

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