On Being Genuine and “Gosh, Darnit, People Like Me”

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Mental Health Quote of the Day: (me to my therapist) “Sometimes I actually think you really like me instead of just giving unconditional positive regard because I’m your client.”

Yes, this made him laugh. Yes, I was only about 20% kidding.

In truth, I’ve seen a fair number of psychologists and counselors, but my current trauma counselor is certainly unique. And he does seem to genuinely enjoy interacting with and listening to me–to the point that he almost fawns over me at times (in a sort of big-brotherly way). I find it a bit daunting to be genuinely liked by anyone, especially someone I pay for services.

I suppose that’s the true issue–I find it odd to be genuinely liked. I get nervous anytime I find myself at the grownup version of the cool kids’ table. I’m amazed when I learn that total strangers are reading and liking the things I write on this blog. I’m not used to being popular, and my inner introvert pulls away from public accolades at the same time as my inner performer craves the spotlight. (I’m not sure if this is just part of being born a Gemini or a symptom of DID. I do know I have struggled with this dilemma all my life. I’m the only person I know who hated being popular in high school.)

So although I try to live my life as though people are watching, I find it disconcerting to discover that not only are they watching but they also like what they see. Eeekkkk! My inner introvert goes running to hide under the covers in a dimly lit room. My inner artist craves constructive criticism. My observers are of no use if they don’t give me tips for improving. Screw this unconditional positive regard.

Then it dawns on me: Sometimes the very thing one needs the most, even the need one seeks most to fill can be the need most uncomfortable to satisfy.

Deep breath.

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When the Coping Mechanisms Are Exhausted

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There comes a point in my everyday life when not even a pint of carrot juice and an organic spinach and feta pocket will make everything better. I’ve been known to resort to portabella and cremini pizza on occasion, and that will take away basic rainy day blues. But then there are the times when, as my therapist says, stress adds to stress on top of stress on top of stress until there isn’t anything that I can do to escape, decrease or manage it.

I’ve just come through one of those weeks. Beginning two Thursdays ago, I juggled a series of changes in schedule with decent success. Until that second Thursday came along with no end of the schedule disruption in sight. By 10:00 on the morning of that eighth day, I was headed toward a full-tilt meltdown.

Even when my PTSD is under control, structure is extra important to me. My career choices prove it: 9.5 years working in libraries, 3 years as a proofreader, a part-time gig as an inventory specialist for a non-profit organization. When I told my wife and best friend this weekend that if I had a second chance at life I would like to be a concert violinist, my friend said, “Wow! So you want to be neurotic?” (Come on, people, what about me makes you think I’m not already fantastically neurotic even without the incessant violin practice?)

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So, yes, lack of structure is tough for me. I develop nervous tick when my DVD collection gets out of order, and you don’t even want to know how I respond to a cluttered living room or messy kitchen. But in my current reality, both my spouse and myself have chronic health issues that cause a barrage of unplanned changes in schedule. Maybe someday I’ll learn to cope better with these situations. Last Thursday, I curled up and sobbed. My inner five-year-old wanted her mommy. When I finally headed down the street to the local coffee shop–my safe place–they had closed early. As a last resort, I slumped into a booth at the local deli and bar to ruin my diet with a Coke and a turkey sandwich. That didn’t exactly make things better, but I survived. I got my second wind. I navigated the weekend (along with a relationship tsunami that seemed worse than it was through the lens of PTSD). And Monday finally dawned–magnificently gray, rainy and full of promise. I love a rainy May Day. So I went for coffee and a walk with my camera and to my counseling appointment where we discussed, among other things, Resurrection.

I don’t own a pair of rose-colored glasses. Someone stepped on mine decades ago. But with a fair amount of effort, I’ve grabbed a handful of fresh perspective. For now, that will have to do.

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Calling Dad

Author’s Note: This is the true story about one of the most important but also most difficult relationships in my life. Relationships for those of us with complex PTSD, DID, and other trauma-related disorders are difficult at best. Please take this under advisement as you read. Thanks!

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I called my dad today. Not my biological dad (whom I love and who will always hold the first place in my heart), but my dad nonetheless. My life feels like it’s falling apart at the seams, and I needed my daddy. My daddy who is as flawed as humans get but who somehow has always been gentle toward me. I just needed to cry and be scared and hear a voice from Rochester tell me everything would be okay because he and Jesus love me. And, of course, he’s wrong about Jesus being a protector of any sort. But he’s right that in light of the historical Jesus of Nazareth everything is relative and love can make anything okay.

I seldom call Dad. Rochester is a long ways away. We have our own lives. I don’t want to bother him. He doesn’t want to burden me. We get busy. We forget. But I called today. Because although life can turn on a dime, rebuilding a life 4 and a half years after homelessness isn’t easy. Because no one I know is made out of money but that doesn’t keep the doctors from telling me that I’m causing myself more harm by trying to work when I need to rest. Because sinus infections don’t wait until my wife has enough sick time left to accommodate them. And because–and this is a big one–I’m so bloody scared right now that I’d pick a fight with a momma grizzly just for the emotional release I’d get before she turned me into a corpse.

So I called my dad and cried. And he cried too. And I could tell more than ever he just wanted to be back in the Midwest to hold me while I cried. But that isn’t possible. Too many mistakes were made. Too many bridges burned. We’re both magnificently flawed humans after all. But there’s comfort in the knowledge that the former leader of a “pray away the gay” organization loves both me and my wife enough to talk us through the fear and pain that has left us both broken and bleeding. He probably doesn’t understand the sheer panic rising from the back of my throat when I think we might end up homeless again, but for all his flaws, he cares about his “darling little girl.” Today, I desperately needed to be someone’s little girl.

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As it turns out, he needed to be someone’s dad. His mom died Saturday. The morning after her 100th birthday. He’s in pain too. That man’s mother was his life in a way I’ve never observed in other mother-son relationships. The way he set aside his impatience over the past five years to care for her shocked me. (We all have different strengths. My dad’s primary strength has never been patience. Aging has a way of mellowing a person, but this was nothing short of miraculous.) And she died in a coma the day after he had planned her glorious centennial celebration–a party that will never happen outside the pearly gates. Today Dad needed family. So did I. That, at least, was in our favor.

We didn’t pray outloud together this morning. We usually do. Today, it would have left me cold and broken to mumble anything resembling words toward an invisible deity. Instead, we left our holy pursuit at inutterable groanings of the spirit and took more practical assessments concerning whether or not I required hospitalization. Not today. The decision brings a sigh of relief and a shudder of terrific fear. I’ll walk again. (Walking’s never been particularly easy for this crippled girl, but I always find the strength to get back up. Dad is always right when he reminds me of this.)

It’s afternoon now, and I’m still crying. But I’ve also spoken with my trauma specialist, and the bubble bath I’m soaking in while writing has soothed me. My wife is resting. I know Indian food will make everything okay tonight. That’s the stop-gap that gets me through until more permanent solutions can be found.

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In Rochester, Dad’s still crying too. I don’t need to be there to know. He’ll muddle through–leaning on Jesus in a way that I don’t usually have the courage to do. And probably doing some carpentry work. He loves to create things–the things he gives life give life right back to him. We both need renewed life right now. As it turns out, we’re still in the season of Easter. It takes mere mortals time to unwrap the mystery of Resurrection. We’ll get there. After today, I have a feeling Dad and I will be travelling the road more together than apart–at least for the next leg of this journey. Forgiveness, after all, is a key component in Resurrection. God knows we both need healthy doses of that.

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One of Those Days . . .

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Does crying count as a calorie-burning exercise? Because I installed My Fitness Pal this week and started a diet. And I’m having a bad day. I’m in a lot of pain (Thank you, April showers!). I’m super anxious (Thank you, bill collectors who think you need to get paid whether or not I am able to work.) And all I want to do is curl up, cry, take a nap, and binge watch television while eating a giant chocolate muffin covered in berries and homemade whipped cream. Of course, doing that will add shame to the mix, which will end either in a panic attack or a flurry of physical activity in a futile attempt to burn all those bloody calories despite my very ouchy feet screaming in pain.

Being Flexible: PTSD Edition

the-eleventh-hour-2202815_1920Everyone has days that don’t go as planned. It’s part of life, and whether or not an individual struggles with mental health issues, disruptions in routine can be upsetting.

For me, disruptions in plans of any kind often feel cataclysmic. When I was young, my mother often reprimanded, saying how much more flexible and cheerful my little sister was in the face of necessary changes of schedule. I never improved. Something as small as an empty cookie jar at snack time would set me to tears. An unexpected scheduling conflict that caused me to miss out on a field trip or other special occasion resulted in crying jags or deep, locked down depression (extreme flattened affect, in clinical terms).

To say that this characteristic of mine causes interpersonal problems would be an understatement. People around me seldom understand why a cancelled lunch date sends me reeling. In my marriage, when housework is delayed due to rush hour traffic or other unavoidable situations, my patience stretches more thinly than it ought.

That said, today, I am proud. This morning, an appointment ran long. My wife had planned to take me back home before heading to work, but there wasn’t time. I had to accompany her the 20+ miles to her office and then drive back home. Yes, this was uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable is my realization that I will have to spend over an hour on the road this evening to pick her up. But I have managed to turn this inconvenience into an opportunity. In fact, I’ve enjoyed my day so far.

After depositing my wife at work, I realized I was ravenouslh hungry (my breakfast was thawing on the table at home). Since I needed to pick up cat food (another errand that got value-engineered out of the original plan), I decided to stop at a nearby coffee shop. My usual latte and an everything bagel gave me energy and helped to ground me in the present. (This was not a day to find myself reacting to the past while grappling with present challenges.)

The trip to the pet store provided an opportunity for me to snap some photos for a couple ongoing projects. Then, after completing the errand, I drove home and took a long walk (and several more photos) before returning to my apartment and feeding the cats.

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Sure, I’m a little frustrated that my day did turn out as planned. I don’t want to sit in traffic this evening instead of on my sofa watching television. But today is a success because I realize that this unexpected turn of events doesn’t endanger me. For people with PTSD, that’s the heart of the issue–circumstances beyond our control frighten us. At one time (or, as in my case, at many times) in the past, uncontrollable circumstances did spell danger. Today is not that day. Today, I can keep breathing. Today, I can still get things done. Today, even something pleasant may come from an unexpected turn of events.

Yes, I Require High Emotional Maintenance

two-2042413_1920It’s part of having complex PTSD, but it’s a part that tends to bring me a lot of shame. I was brought up to consider others before myself. Unfortunately, that often translated into neglecting my own needs until those needs became critical in my life. Now, I’m healthier–and married. That last bit–the married part–is fantastic and comforting and has a way of complicating everything.

My wife has frequently over the past couple of years referred to me as picky and high maintenance. At first, this really hurt my feelings. I have trained a lifetime for to be as Spartan as I am today–growing up near poverty and having to pinch pennies almost every day of one’s adult life will do that to a person. Besides, my supportive, loving-but-stern religious upbringing taught me well. My interests are not the most important in any relationship. I’ll eat most anything other than stewed tomatoes. I don’t demand expensive gifts on birthdays or at Christmas. However, my wife (and the couple of other friends who have gotten close enough for me to rely on in times of desperation) have a point. I am emotionally high maintenance.

Marriage to someone with chronic health issues isn’t easy. A relationship with someone who has complex PTSD and DID comes with a special set of complications. Frankly, now that I’m married, the complexity of every relationship I’ve ever had appears clearer. As for my marriage, which is a happy one, the exponential complexities mean we have to work constantly to make it work.

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At this point in my recovery process, I’ve left behind me a trail of emotional destruction. In some cases, I simply left a relationship just before the tipping point–knowing that one more late-night phone call would tax the friendship too much. In other times, the person in relationship with me had to make more space between us to keep from suffocating. Sometimes the end of relationships have been loud and explosive. Other times, they have resounded with a deafening silence–emails left unanswered, phone calls not returned, mail undeliverable. In many cases, fear of my potential reaction to the need for distance caused others to leave with no explanation. I’ve cried oceans over these losses, beat myself up over them, read myself the riot act for my inability to relate to others. I’ve reached the end of the line in relationships and isolated myself, read myself the riot act for being unlovable, beat myself up over having done something (only God knows what) wrong. Then I continue to beat myself up for being so stupid as to not know why my family and friends “just can’t handle” me.

Today, I frequently find myself reluctant or unable to reach out to friends. Fear of rejection or, perhaps worse, of hurting someone I love unintentionally, easily wins out. I’d do anything to keep from hurting those I love.

As I continue on my personal journey to healing, I’ve begun to find that most of my fears, informed by past trauma, are far bigger than actual current threats. This series of realizations provides me the opportunity to do damage control today that I could not do in the past. For example, I know that I fear white men with full beards. Back when I actively picked fights with dear friends because of that, relationships had to undergo major surgery for things I scarcely comprehended. Now I can verbalize the fear and let well-intentioned people who look scary but aren’t know what I’m feeling.

Some of the triggers I encounter aren’t as easy to ward against or navigate. The Mustang-driving Trump supporter in my networking group will never understand why I’m scared he might rape me if I accept a ride from him. Although I’m not fool enough to attempt an explanation, I do need to protect myself from triggers. So I seek alternative companionship and other transportation. Closer to home, I can recognize when a close friend wearies of picking up the phone to hear a sobbing, panicked E on the other end. I’ve learned to expand (carefully, cautiously) my circle of trust. Even in my marriage, I have begun to recognize how vital it is to have a backup team of friends to call so I’m not I quivering pile of fear-filled goo every time my wife comes home from work.

After a sudden hospitalization last May, I also began to fill in my support gaps with professional help that specializes in trauma work. I’ve been seeing a counselor regularly for many years, but I currently need help from someone skilled in helping people process early trauma without retraumatizing us.  With the right professional help, I’ve been able to build up my support structures at home and in my community. In fact, for perhaps the first time in my life, I actually have the support I need. That one fact gives me incredible hope because the more my fears are assuaged by loving support, the less I ultimately have to fear.

Yes, I am emotionally high maintenance. No, I am not too much–not now that I have the tools to help me know where to look.

Beautiful, Broken Feet

Beautiful, Broken Feet

Holy Thurs FeetNo, I don’t consider my feet beautiful. They are swollen most of the time. They’re too wide, too small and have manmade holes near the ankles where normal feet have ligaments. But this Jesus of Nazareth guy at whom I was yelling a few weeks ago loves feet. Even mine. And today we observe the anniversary of the greatest foot-washing ceremony in history.

Today, I’ll attend a Holy Thursday service, and another person will ceremoniously pour a bit of water over one of my feet and dry it with a clean towel. It seems silly to a lot of people, too embarrassing for others to participate in. For me, it’s the most beautiful part of the journey toward Resurrection.

I’m not proud of the way my feet look. I’ve even painted my toenails so as to be presentable this evening. But Jesus doesn’t care. On that first night of Passover when he washed feet, those feet weren’t pretty. Those feet walked through dust and mud. Those feet belonged to smelly fishermen and exhausted housewives. Those feet had stepped in donkey dung. Jesus caressed toes stubbed on tree roots. He washed heels blistered by the dusty Roman roads of Judea. He washed smelly, ugly, swollen, tired feet.

Jesus and I still have a lot to sort out, and that’s okay. Tonight, I will bask in his love. The kind of love that touches feet like mine–broken, swollen, bruised–and considers them beautiful. Maybe someday, I’ll even think of those long-ago, untreated baby feet of mine as beautiful too.

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