Tag Archive | PTSD

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—triggers, PTSD, and healing

Last weekend my seven year old son arrived home from a sleepover with his sister and began telling me all that he had done.  He was happy.  I was feeling quite happy and I was enjoying his narrative when suddenly, amidst all of the other happy chatter he announced, “Oh, Rufus is missing.”  Rufus was my cat and he was what is termed in our family as a “kitty supreme.”  I watched him be born, the runt of the litter and ugly as sin, and he grew into a magnificently gorgeous cat with a disposition to match.  I loved him very much and I suddenly felt utterly shattered.  When we moved to Montana, he went to one of my older sons for safe keeping. When that son graduated college, and began a job in DC, he could not have a cat and left Rufus with his father.  Soon after, I got out of prison and wanted my Rufus back, but my first husband had now become too attached to him to let him go.  Rufus was now also declawed and was kept indoors.  Rufus loved the great outdoors more than most anything else.  Rufus had escaped his confines and was now gone.

Clearing the road of your past takes work.

Upon hearing that Rufus was missing, my mood plummeted instantly.  I went into a frenzy of trying to get more information from one of my adult kids but with no results.  I was upset with the way my son had delivered the news–he had the smallest of smiles on his face at the time–and that bothered me terribly.  I stepped outside to clear my head and make sense of the extremity of my feelings.   I was a jumble of feelings and I needed to sort them out sooner rather than later.  The first thing I realized was that I was reacting to something bigger than the bad news my son had told me, and his poor delivery.  He is seven years old, after all.  He has not yet mastered the fine art of sharing upsetting news.   It was at that point that I realized that as upset as I was about the loss of dear, sweet, gorgeous, Rufus, I had been triggered and there it was in a nutshell.  I was reacting to a past trauma that he been reactivated by the news of Rufus.  PSTD is a bitch like that.  Just when I think I have got it all dealt with, managed, and under control, something comes out of no where and socks me in the gut, leaving me gasping for air, and shaking my head hard trying to erase a memory I no longer want.

But there it was, the memory of an incident from almost four years ago, and one that disturbed me beyond words at the time, but horrifies me even more now.  We were still living in the “blue house”–the house of horrors.  There had been a bad storm that had knocked down many of my then husband’s Jerry rigged fences made of pallets held together with wire.  We had over 50 farm animals and they were loose and the fences needed to be put back up quickly.  I do not remember if my son was yet four or not, but it was sometime in November.  My husband and I were already sleeping in separate bedrooms, and I was already trying to find a way to leave him.  I do not remember what my son and I had done while he fixed fences.  I do not remember if this was the storm that knocked the power out for two days, forcing me to go to my first husband’s house to bake the seven layers for my son’s rainbow birthday cake.  I just do not remember.

What I do remember is going up to my husband’s bedroom with our little boy to wake him up.  He, my husband, began to talk about all the work of fixing the fences as he lay in bed.  On he prattled as I sat listening, and then with absolutely no change in facial expression, tone of voice, and without any words at all that might have prepared me, he began listing off names of animals.  I cannot remember how many names he recited, but it felt like ten or so.  Because of the look on his face, and the emotionless way in which he was talking, I remember feeling myself relax, certain that he was going to tell me they were all fine and back in the pens.

So, he listed the names with an almost cheerful expression, and I let down my guard, and when he finished the list of names he said in a matter of fact manner, “All dead.”  Yes, our little boy heard every word.  Yes, I freaked out.  Yes, I loved those animals very much.  Yes, I was utterly crushed and my reaction to the death of the animals obscured, for that time, the more disturbing fact which was that my husband smiled as he told me, and he did not care enough to prepare me for the horrible news, nor did he care that our little boy heard every word.  I have learned since that sociopaths are like that.  They do not care about anyone, or anything, but themselves.

Two or three weeks later I would be arrested for driving to the grocery store without a license.  I got pulled over because his car was not inspected.  While I was a complete idiot to drive without a license with my past arrest record, I now fully believe the car had not been inspected on purpose.  A month after that, I went to court thinking I would have a fine to pay only to find out that, because of a minimum mandatory sentencing law I knew nothing about, I was now facing up to five years in prison.  Later that night, he came into my room.  I did not want him anywhere near me.  He got into bed with me and leaned over me and said, “I am so sorry you have to go to prison.  I just want to hold you.”  He had a smirk on his face…a knowing smirk.  It was the smirk of someone who had accomplished a long hoped for goal.

Of course, I erased that smirk from my mind almost immediately, but it never left. It was over two years later, with the help of a trauma specialist, while I spent my six months in prison, that I spoke out loud of the smirk and realized I had been set up.  I can accept that now with a grace that comes from God, fully knowing that it was that arrest that got me out of that marriage, and that it was in prison where God blessed me beyond imagination, and gave me my calling.  It is a gift that I cherish, even when that smirk flashes into my head.

As awful as all of what I have described sounds, and it was awful, there is plenty of good, and hope to be found among all of this.  In the past, when triggered, it might have taken me days to figure out what I was reacting to, or more often, overreacting, and it might have taken me days to recover.  From start to finish, this PTSD trigger event was recognized, felt, figured out, and resolved within about an hour.   While I remained sad about Rufus, and am still sad, I was able to settle back into an optimistic mood and we have a good evening.  That is progress.  That progress is the fruit of some very hard work towards healing from a lifetime of trauma.  It was hard work, but at times like these, I am reminded of just how important, worthwhile, and life-giving the work of resolving trauma is.  It brings with it freedom that is far more glorious than my release from prison was, because while I was in prison, I came to see that I was finally free for the first time in my life.

Rufus—my kitty supreme…

The effects of the trauma in my life had manifest itself in many ways over the years, and had looked like many things.  There is a huge link between trauma and substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and misdiagnosed mental health issues like bipolar disorder.  PTSD can come out in many forms and can mimic many things.  All of those things are prisons that confine and define us inaccurately.  PTSD can be healed with hard work, commitment, and the courage and desire to truly be free.  Triggers still happen, but they will no longer consume.  The experiences are integrated, and I move on, and I heal a bit more.  I thrive.  Today, I thrive in a way I never though possible.  If you are a trauma survivor, I encourage you to work to heal it all no matter how long it takes, or how much it hurts. I encourage you to become free.  I encourage you to thrive, not merely survive.

The truth about women and addiction.

In the early 1980’s I was working as a nurse, fresh out of college, and found myself caring for a couple of patients whose illnesses totally baffled the doctors. One day while I was caring for one of these very sick gentlemen, and doctor informed me that they thought they might “have that AIDS that everyone is talking about all over the news.” We were all terrified. I look at the years that followed the appearance of AIDS, then HIV/AIDS—first the fear and condemnation, then the research and education, and 30 years later, as a society, we view HIV/AIDS with compassion, and through totally different eyes.

And yet, in the same 30 years, while we know much more about drug and alcohol addiction, there is still an incredible stigma attached, especially for women who suffer from addictions. We still cast stones and make harsh judgments rather than working to increase public knowledge, as well as increasing funding for treatment. Instead, funding is drying up, and beds in rehabs and treatment centers are disappearing for women in need of help for drug and alcohol addiction, but who cannot afford to pay for it themselves. When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction and how we view women addicts, we are still living in the Dark Ages. After all, women are supposed to be good wives and mothers, not addicts and alcoholics.

When we take a closer look at drug and alcohol abuse, we can see that women differ from men in many areas. To begin, it is estimated that 20 million girls and women in the United States abuse drugs and alcohol. Women get drunk or high faster than men, and it takes less of whatever substance is being used for a woman to get drunk or high. Also, because a woman’s body contains less water and more fat than a man’s, combined with the hormonal and psychological differences that exist between men and women, women are twice as likely than men to become addicted to drugs and alcohol and in a much shorter period of time.

Women also get sicker faster, developing things such as cirrhosis much sooner. This is a triple whammy for women who drink or use drugs. It is also estimated that 90% of women who need treatment for drugs and alcohol do not get it. In many cases, this is probably because they are afraid of how they will look if they admit they have a drug or alcohol problem. Women still want to be viewed as ladies, and a drunk or an addict is not a lady.

Women drink and use drugs for different reasons than men, too. Women drink to self medicate from depression, or psychological pain. In America, one in every four women has been a victim of sexual abuse of some sort, and most of the abuse occurs before the woman reaches the age of 30. Women who have survived sexual abuse are six time more likely to suffer from PTSD, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. I was sexually abused at the age of 5, and again in my early teen years, and raped at age 18.

Women use substances to relieve stress, feel better about themselves, and even as a means to lose weight. Women do not drink or drug for the fun of it, and speaking very personally, once a woman is addicted to alcohol or drugs, there is absolutely no fun in the use of the drug of choice. Mine was alcohol, and it was hell, and it became a vicious cycle of guilt and shame. We drink or drug because we feel bad about ourselves, and as our addiction begins to ruins our families and our lives, we use more because of the shame of being a bad mother, or a drunken wife, or just not being a lady, in control and functioning.

Alcohol and drug addiction are fatal, progressive diseases, like diabetes, or heart disease, except there are no magic medications to take to control the progression of the disease. Annually, 80,000 people die from alcohol addiction, and another 60,000 die from drugs. It is not lack of will, or caring more about a high or a drink than family, friends, and work, that keeps women using. It is lack of treatment and support.

And while, getting clean and sober is great when it happens, staying clean and sober is not easy, and just being off of drugs and alcohol is not enough. Unless the woman addict gets to the core issue of why she drinks or drugs—gets to the bottom of that essential pain, and works to vanquish it, long-term sobriety becomes even harder. And all of this has to happen while we are raising children and having careers, and in the face of a society that views women alcoholics and addicts with little more than disdain and disgust.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have been sober for 5 years, but not without three rehab experiences, a 6 month stay in a half way house, several incarceration experiences, more relapses than can be counted, a great deal of therapy to get to essence of my pain, and the continued hard work to complete the healing process. By all rights, I should be dead many times over. I have a family that loves me deeply and friends who have stood by me and cheered me on. I almost lost all it all. I am so blessed that I did not.

At the same time, I very deeply know what the stigma of the female alcoholic or addict looks like because I have seen it first hand, and it is ugly and mean. I also know what it is like to live with the seemingly impossible-to-bear guilt and shame that goes along with being a woman alcoholic and a wife and a mother. It is the type of pain that at times feels bottomless and beyond healing. Just when you’ve peeled away a layer, and healed it, another layer of shame is just beneath, bursting forth with more pain, either to be faced and healed, or to run from.

I choose the pain and healing. But, my sobriety tomorrow is no more guaranteed for me than it is more any other alcoholic or addict. I have a disease that I will have to treat the rest of my life, and it is a disease that does not care if you are rich or poor, well-educated or not, a talented and beautiful celebrity, or an average wife and soccer mom. I treat my disease every day with what works for me, which faith and devotion to God, prayer, attentiveness to my needs and temperament, and a lot of self-care.

It’s time to come out of the Dark Ages and work towards a real understanding of drug and alcohol addiction, especially in women, and it’s time we got rid of the shame and stigma, and replaced with help and compassion. We managed to do just that with HIV/AIDS. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we cannot do the same for women suffering and dying from drug and alcohol addiction. Perhaps it is time that we who are women alcoholic and addicts came out of the shadows and spoke our truths out loud for all to hear.

Maybe it is time to stop being anonymous, and to be visible instead—to fight for acceptance, understanding, and increased public knowledge. Maybe then the stigma will vanish. Maybe then we can do something to stop beautiful women addicts and alcoholics from hiding in shame rather than getting help. Maybe then we can stop women suffering from addiction from dying tragic deaths each and every day.

 

The Dawn of Reckoning–I never wanted a neat life.

The other day I wrote a post about radical acceptance.  In it I make mention of my messy life in contrast to those people with the neat and tidy lives.  After I had gotten done writing the post, it hit me.  I do not think that I ever truly wanted a neat, tidy, conventional life.  I didn’t know that until last week, but I know it now completely.  This is not to say that I wanted all of what I got in life; abuse as a child and an adult, PTSD, alcoholism, jail stays, rehabs, and prison, but in some way, all of those experiences have lead to to this extraordinary realization.  Those experiences helped me recognize in myself what others did not recognized in me as a child, or appreciated, namely my parents, and the schools of my day.  I am gifted, and probably always have been, but my gifts run towards the creative, more than the logical.

Parents and schools in the 60’s and 70’s valued logic.  It’s not that I am without the intellect to go with the creativity, my IQ is in the gifted range, but my grades did not show that, and any markers from testing while in school were ignored.  For example, I was found to be reading at the college level when I was in the 5th grade, but not a thing was done with that information.  My creativity was apparent from an early age, but it was seen as a flaw, not a gift.  I clearly recall overhearing my mother tell her friends about my school conference in the 5th grade.  It must have been less than stellar, and I remember her say, in a tone that was less than pleased, “But the teacher says she’s *very creative…*  I thank God that today’s school recognize, and try to nurture all kinds of gifts, and I bear no anger towards my parents, or the schools that I attended.  It was the times.  People only knew what they knew.

That I am gifted, the realization of that, was a gift that I received while I was in prison, from two different women who came into the reentry center to do counseling and programming.  That each, never having spoken to the other, would put forth the same notion to me–the notion of my giftedness—and its ability to intimidate others who don’t understand it, parents, spouses, and friends, was something that took me a while to wrap my head around.  I am still working on it, in truth.

I believe there are a lot of adults out in the world who are gifted, and like me, never knew it.  A gifted adult who has no idea that  she is gifted is likely to have a harder road in life than others.  This goes back to Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities and his Theory of Positive Disintegration.  Adults who are gifted have certain characteristics that set them apart from the crowd.  These include differences in the way they process information, high levels of creativity, high sensitivity, both internally focused, and externally.  Gifted adults are intense, idealistic, and they are perfectionists.  They have a unique sense of humor that of everyone gets.  They are internally focused, they are self-determined, and they hate injustice, and lack of integrity, and lack of moral character.  They see things globally, and they do not fit well into traditional roles, or careers.  Often, they do not feel they fit in anywhere.

Well, what do you know!  That sounds like me!  Gifted adults often need help realizing that the way they are is okay, and some help to fully realize their potential.  A good therapist who understands giftedness can help a lot.  This site offers a lot of insights 😉  It is so important to realize that while you may be different, you are not flawed, and that you have great potential.  That takes time, as I have mentioned.  As you might imagine, gifted adults are apt of have messy looking lives.  This will be especially true of those who have suffered from trauma as children.  It takes a lot of hard work for a gifted adult with PTSD, substance abuse issues, or other mental health issues, to get to the core of their genuine self.  Too much has come along to override it.

My first husband is a true genius intellectually.  Yet, as one of our son’s says, he has the emotional intelligence of a 4 year old, and he’s got not a drop of creativity, nor much of a sense of humor.  He is rigid and logical in his thinking.  He’s exactly what you’d want in a surgeon, which is what he does for a living.  There are a lot of geniuses in the world who may not be particularly gifted, or as well suited for their careers.  Imagine a psychiatrist who has no compassion for people with mental health issues, and disdain for people with addiction problems.  That’s not a good match, and the genius who lacks gifts can do more harm than good.  A pure genius who meets a person who is truly gifted is likely to become aware of their shortcomings, and unfortunately, may even work to control, tear down, or defeat the gifted person.  I’ve had this happen to me, and I have seen it happen to others, almost always gifted women.

Now we come back to my discovery that I never wanted a neat life, though I certainly gave it a try, as well as going in the exact opposite direction.  I wanted to study music and theater, to which my parents said no.  It was too hard a life, which is true enough.  So then, I wanted to be a doctor, but since I also very much wanted a family, I was told to be a nurse, which is what I did.  Then I got married, and had the children I so longed for, and who were and are the light of my life.  I entertained, and sat on boards,  I worked for charities and ran for the school board, and I drank myself to sleep every night.  I was miserable.  Not with my children, or being a mother, but because all of my creativity and intuition has been so dismissed, and berated, and tied up, and bashed, that I gave up.  My second marriage to an unconventional man was far worse, because he is so disordered.  Of course, I couldn’t/wouldn’t see that at the time.

As I was growing up, the woman who had the greatest influence on me was my great aunt, Stella.  She’d been married once, for a very short time, and she had no children.  She had a head full of gorgeous, curly hair that she often tied back with a ribbon, bow off to the top side of her head.  She had a lovely smile, complete with a Lauren Bacall gap in the front.  She had been an Art History professor at The University of Washington, and she had traveled to Africa in the 1950’s.  Much of her artwork was inspired by what she saw in Africa.  To a child, she was a little scary.  She said whatever was on her mind, but she was kind.  Her house was magical, with an attic filled with treasures.  Visiting her was better than Disneyland.

As an adult, I moved to Seattle, and lived in the University district, as she did, and I’d often go over to visit for a day, or overnight.  She’d make me a tuna sandwich and we’d smoke True cigarettes and talk.  She took me on drives all over, and while her driving was more than a little scary, she told me all about the history of Seattle.  In the evening, she’d pour us each a glass of concord grape wine, and we’d talk some more.  She was clearly a happy woman, truly eccentric, genuine as can be,and very well loved.  She was adored by her neighbors, mostly college grad students, and at 90 years old, she died, not from old age, but from falling on a patch of ice on her way home from one of their Christmas parties, to which she was always invited.

I have a head full of curly hair, and I had the Lauren Bacall gap, but braces fixed that.  I am far more domesticated than my Aunt Stella, but like her, I am happiest when I am creating, be it writing, cooking, knitting, sewing, or making something spectacular out of something ordinary.   I am artistic, but no artist.   I am not my mother, though I know she didn’t live the life she wanted, and I am not a conventional person.  I don’t think I’ll ever care about balancing a checkbook to the penny, or calling whoever for quotes, or having a neat and tidy refrigerator.  I don’t care a whole lot about money, but I do know life is easier with a little around.  I am more my Aunt Stella than anyone else.  I got side tracked somehow.  Thank God she did not.  I believe we are all gifted in some way.  It is just a matter of finding that gift, and then letting it soar. I think it’s time for me to go buy some ribbon for my hair in celebration of my discovery, and my messy, happy, creative life.

Addiction versus Narcissism and Sociopathy

Yesterday, I read a post on a blog where the poster was speaking of people with substance abuse issues in what I consider to be a very narrow view.  Basically, what he reduced a person with an addiction was to “an addictive personality,” nothing more, nothing less.  Taking it further, the poster went on to say that addictive personalities have life-long, deep seated character problems, blame the world for their problems, and fail to take personal responsibility for their behavior.  That these comments were made my a retired psychiatrist, not just some man off the street, is even more disturbing.  While it is true that someone deep in their addiction will generally deflect responsibility onto someone, or something else, once recovery begins, so does acceptance of one’s own personal responsibility in poor choices, bad behaviors, and so forth.

However, to reduce addiction to a character defect, and to claim all addicts and alcoholics are merely addictive personalities does a severe disservice to those living in addiction, and those who have triumphed over their addiction.  Experience has taught me, both  intensely personal, and from extensive observation of others, that addiction is never that simple.  I believe this is especially true for women, because it is most often women who are subject to childhood trauma and sexual abuse, and these women are then are left to somehow pick up the pieces from those experiences without an instruction manual.

Childhood trauma and abuse lead to PTSD and, over a lifetime, PTSD can look like many, many things.  This is well documented in psychiatric world.  PTSD can lead to eating disorders, self harm, substance abuse, and repeated poor choices in life.  PTSD at various times in life can come out as depression, anger, and anxiety.  It can look like bipolar disorder, and is often misdiagnosed and treated as such.  Until the PTSD is faced, treated, and defeated, it can look and behave like so many things that are only red herrings.  Of course, childhood trauma and abuse that leads to substance abuse, or other self defeating behaviors, does not factor in any genetic components, also so important to acknowledge.  That a child who lives in an alcoholic home is more apt to be traumatized as a child goes without saying, and certainly in this case, you have trauma mixed neatly with unfortunate genetics.

It was while I was prison that I first became acquainted with the ACES Study.  ACES is an acronym for adverse childhood experiences study.  Adverse childhood experiences are, simply, put traumatic experience which occurred before the age of 18.  What I learned was among my fellow female inmates, nearly 100% of these women had an ACES score of over 6, with 10 being the highest possible score.  Statistics on women in prison who have suffered childhood abuse and trauma are generally quoted at being of 60% to 90%.  I tend to believe the 90%.  Since women in prison are almost always there for drug and alcohol related crimes, what does this tell us?   It tell me that these women, myself included, we not born flawed, nor defective, nor are we merely addictive personalities.  We are women who have been hurt, and hurt again, and then hurt some more, and we coped with that pain the best way we knew how, as faulty and personally destructive as was that coping mechanism.  Of course, when we are drinking or drugging, we are a perfect candidate for an abuser looking for an easy target to prey on, and the cycle continues, and gets worse.

But, alcoholism, addiction, and PTSD are all very treatable.   People do get better and go on to live healthy, productive, lives.  Some people go beyond getting better.  They move on to become authentic.  That brings me to my favored personality development theory, Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration.  As much as I like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Dabrowski rings far more true for me.  Loathe as I am to use Wikipedia as a source, for this topic, I am going to do it.  So, go here and read this: Positive Disintegration.  It’s not an easy or a quick read, but it is extremely worthwhile.  The theory is far too complex for me to give you a nutshell description here.

So, how can disintegration, an ugly term, ever be positive?  In certain persons, people Dabrowski terms as those with a high developmental potential, disintegration, as messy, and painful, and ugly as it is, eventually leads to the ultimate reintegration, and that is where the authentic person is found.   Dabrowski speaks of people with inherent overexcitabilies, similar to Elaine Aron’s traits of the Highly Sensitive Person.  A HSP, or a person with these overexcitabilities will see and feel life far more intensely than the average person.  I am a HSP, and I have several children who are, too.   Actually, I think they six out of the seven are, to one degree or another.  So, for we HSPs, life just hurts.  Are we born HSPs, or with these overexcitabilities, or are they born from childhood trauma?  What does childhood trauma do to a HSP?  Well, it may lead to that all important series of disintegration experiences, which, if faced appropriately, can lead to a beautiful place called authenticity.

I know many, many, women who are doing more than recovering from addiction, and healing from childhood trauma.  They are working hard to build their disintegration experiences into a firm foundation of personal integrity and authenticity.  These women, and I am one of them, have moved beyond excuses and blame and self abuse.  They live in honesty of all that they were, what they experienced, how it affected them, and those around them. We have a gleaming personal integrity.  We make mistakes, and take responsibility, we apologize, we keep moving forward.  It’s a beautiful way to live, and a gorgeous thing to watch.

Contrast all of the above with the narcissist, or the sociopath.  These are the people who are truly flawed to the core.  They do not get better.  They are the extreme in the term “treatment resistant.”  They lie, blame, fail to take personal responsibility, but worse, they see absolutely nothing wrong with that behavior, or themselves.  They almost never seek treatment, and if they do, they almost always use it to hone their craftiness—too learn how to better fake being human. Since they believe there is nothing wrong with them, they do not seek treatment to get better. They generally do it to shut someone up, usually a partner.  In their minds, there is nothing to get better from, so they lie their way through therapy, and the therapist often gets sucked in by their charm, so he or she may actually pat the narcissist or sociopath on the back and tell him he’s just fine.  For this reason, in many ways, it is far better for a sociopath not to seek help lest he come out of it more advanced in his manipulation skills.  These people are the users and abusers in the world, and they are everywhere.

So, give me addiction and PTSD and a messy looking life any day!   I am healing, and I moving forward, and I am better, and lest I sound a tad narcissistic, I am beautiful.   I am not an addictive personality.  I am a glorious, genuine, human being with integrity, kindness, compassion.  I live a wonderful life.