The paradox of safety

I am currently living in a safe environment – the person that I’m living with is caring, attentive, patient, understanding, has never raised a hand to me, and isn’t abusive psychologically… the house I’m living in holds no memories of abuse… I’m no longer exposed to the tensions created by work pressures… Yet, I’m struggling so much…

Late last year I moved to a new country, and a new relationship. There were so many positives associated with the move – the environment I describe above being the most dramatic; but, there were also losses… no longer seeing Allison; being so far away from my family; the strangeness that occurs when you are a new immigrant to a country that seems familiar, and yet is so different. I wasn’t prepared for the level of stress that the change would create. I seemed to drift along on a tide of stress for months… it feels as if I still am drifting… I know that this isn’t always the case, and that at times I’m very connected to those around me, and feeling very grounded…

But, this isn’t one of those times.

I’m lost. I’m falling. I feel defeated.

When I made this move, I heard from several people who suggested that the move was just what I needed. There seemed to be this thought that if I moved to a positive environment, then I would be “fixed”. It felt like my struggles should disappear… that my eating disorder and dissociation would magically ease. The reality seems to be almost the opposite.

I’ve never lived in a safe environment before. I don’t know what to do with that safety. I don’t have the skills to recognise and understand what safety means. I look for danger that isn’t there. I lash out to test the people around me. I do all the dysfunctional behaviour that I hate to see within myself.

I hate myself in new ways and to new heights.

How can I be so ungrateful? How can I be so stupid, selfish and pathetic?

Apparently, very easily.

I’ve been so lost, that I’ve ignored the friends that I had made… I’ve lost so many positive connections over the last year… I make commitments to make efforts to reconnect, yet get swept away in another wave of stress instead. I wonder how much of that is me making excuses and being avoidant? I’m the Queen of Avoidance… Avoid thinking… Avoid feeling… Avoid connecting… Avoid seeing the pain that my actions create in others… Avoid… Avoid… Avoid… Avoid looking for a new therapist because the two I’ve tried have been poor therapeutic matches… Avoid… Avoid… Deny… Avoid… Deny… Deny…

Possibly the biggest problem that I’ve faced since the move is that I have no idea how to be a partner within a safe relationship… Allison once commented that I’d never seen a healthy relationship, and therefore I was attempting to learn totally new ways of being within my current positive relationship. What this means in a practical sense, is that my partner is trying to be with someone who is inconsistent, hides, and is often unable to communicate. I try to talk, but the internal noise that occurs whenever I try to verbalise a thought can be overwhelming… “you can’t say THAT… he’ll think you mean [something really bad]”… “just shut up and listen”… “I’m scared”… “you’re missing the point!! You’re SO THICK… he doesn’t mean [incident that happened yesterday], he means the process of the interactions”… There’s this constant level of noise, differing opinions, chaos, dysfunction, … SO MUCH NOISE!!!!!!

I can’t cope with it…

I want this relationship to work… I want to heal and get healthy…

I don’t know how to do those things…

I’m lost…

When I was in New Zealand, I knew the rules to get by… I know I was destroying myself in the process, but it was a game I was familiar with… I don’t know how to live within this new safe environment… I don’t know how to trust that environment… I don’t know how to navigate a healthy relationship…

I’m trying to learn, but seem to be failing.

Safety is meant to be what everyone wants, craves and needs… But, it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered… It means being present and connected… I learned very early on that being present and being connected brought pain and abuse. How do I open up to those again?

The response I keep hearing is “You try…”

I’ve been trying… I seem to be failing…

Goodbye Allison

Last week I had my final session with Allison. The person who has listened to my secrets, encouraged me to talk, tried to understand my experience, and connected with me on many levels; is no longer in my life. I’m not sure how to deal with that reality… or, if it’s even possible to deal with at the moment.

We departed on amicable terms, in that I’ve moved from the area; but, that leaving was oh so difficult. I’m not sure that I fully comprehend what it meant to work with Allison. We formed a therapeutic relationship that allowed me to explore my experience in a safe environment. There were times when we got frustrated with, or misunderstood each other; but there was a desire to keep working on that relationship and find out why things were difficult. This gave me a valuable framework for my relationships outside of her office. I came to understand that people could be frustrated with me, but not want to hurt me… I learned that people were affected and effected by my actions and my past… That realisation was incredibly difficult, and I’m still not sure that I fully accept or understand it.

Allison walked with me as I tried to heal. At times I lamented that I hadn’t made any significant changes in my healing or reactions… but, then we would discuss seemingly little things like now being able to identify and talk about things that are causing me anxiety. I say this is “seemingly little”, but it isn’t. To put it into context, a few years ago when Allison would ask me what issues were affecting me, I’d say “everything… work, neighbours, family, relationships, healing… everything”. I meant it… everything seemed so overwhelming and beyond me, that I wanted to give up… it was all too big to deal with… But, more recently, I’ve been able to break down that overwhelming “everything” statement into more manageable and accurate descriptions of the problems. I’d be able to name the issues associated with that stress; rather than bundle it all into this huge “everything” statement that wouldn’t be able to be addressed until much later – if at all.

Addressing the issues within a therapeutic framework is difficult. I’m not used to being the focus of a safe person’s attention… I’m not used to the empathetic responses that Allison exhibited… I often railed against her attention and response; but, that was about my inability to cope with my emotions. I’m still learning how to cope with that safety… I hope that one day I’ll be able to understand what safety is, and what it feels like to exist within a safe environment…

During my last session with Allison, I began to get an understanding of some of the fears about no longer seeing her, or going to her office… There was a young and vulnerable fear that everything I shared in her office would disappear… At the time, I thought that meant that there was a fear that the secrets that I shared with her would be forgotten. On one level this forgetting was considered an advantage, as it would mean that the pain the secrets held would no longer have an impact on Allison. Another advantage of the loss of the secrets, was that Allison wouldn’t be hurt or bothered by the people who hurt me – I was told that the people who knew the secrets would be hurt, or killed. Then, there is the flip-side to the secrets disappearance/being forgetten… Does that mean that the telling didn’t happen?? Does it mean that the events described within the secrets, didn’t happen?? Does it mean that we don’t exist??

The question “Does it mean that we don’t exist” is still the hardest one to contemplate. Allison bore witness to many of my secrets, and has reassured me that she won’t forget me or my secrets… A part of me doesn’t believe her reassurances, and another part is hopeful she will remember… But the fear that my time with Allison was all a fabrication and didn’t really happen is very present. I have a dissociative coping mechanism where I quickly forget people and places… especially if they mean a great deal to me. This dissociative coping, means that I’ve already lost most of my memories of being in Allison’s office. I can see glimpses of it, but nothing lasting or meaningful. It’s crazy-making… How can I so quickly lose something that was important to me?

This brings me to another of my huge regrets during my time with Allison… I can only remember looking at her face once in all my time with her. I know that may sound silly, or even impossible, but it’s true. I have so much shame, that I can’t bring myself to look people in the eye… especially someone, like Allison, who knows some of my secrets. I can usually look people in the eye at work, but rarely in any other setting. I tried to talk myself into looking Allison in the eye during our last session; but couldn’t do it. I wish I had…

So now, I find myself in a strange city without a therapist. I initially rejected the idea of finding a therapist soon after arriving here, as I wanted time to grieve my relationship with Allison. But now, I’m not so sure… I seem to be coming apart at the seams… Denial and dysfunction are high on my list of coping behaviours… So I’m struggling to look for ways to move forward within my new life…

Please let me find a way…

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Now playing: Enya – Only time

Being “evil”…

A couple of months ago, I agreed with Allison that it was time to focus on my disordered eating… Little did I realise, that by agreeing to talk about my eating, it would open the floodgates to my past. Almost as if the agreement was an acknowledgement, or the permission needed, to really start addressing what happened to me…

I’m still trying to comprehend what I’m learning… and it’s not that what I’m sharing in session is necessarily new information, but it’s from a different perspective… I’m not sure how to describe it, other than that there is an emotional connection to those events… That seems like a simple line to read/write… but it’s not… I’ve been left at the end of sessions reeling from the emotional impact of what I’ve just realised…

Some of the realisations are heartbreaking… like discovering that part of the reason I doubt my abuse, is because the different abuse survivor biographies that I have read in an attempt to understand what I experienced, described certain abusive events in a similar way… but, that wasn’t how I experienced them… The literature talked about “fearing death” during the event and provided enough detail that there is horror for the reader; but, it didn’t capture my experience… I wished for death… my body shook, no matter how well I managed to stop the tears, I couldn’t stop my body shaking… There was such confusion over the disconnect between what I read and what I experienced, that I took it as a sign that what I experienced didn’t really happen. I realise that if anyone attempted to publish a book with the details of an abusive event from a visceral perspective, that it wouldn’t be published… no one would be able to read it… the trauma involved in the act of reading the details would be too much…

One of the realisations that I’m really struggling to make sense of, is what it means for me to be evil. I was told from a young age that I was evil for making my abusers do these things to me… so young, that the word became part of my identity… I saw myself as being evil in the same way that I had blonde hair… But, whereas I could see and understand what having blonde hair meant, I couldn’t understand what it meant to be evil, other than it was really bad…

Throughout my childhood, I became more familiar with what being evil meant… Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot… were all examples that I learned about at school. I’m still struggling to comprehend what that meant to my young mind, but I seemed to link the idea of being evil to the ability to “make” other people do bad things… This makes sense, from the perspective that I was “making” the abusers do things, seemingly against their will… I know it doesn’t cover so many other areas of logic, but I was young and trying to make sense of the world around me…

When the rather warped religious messages that I was taught about evil are added to the mix, a huge source of confusion is created… I now wonder if this is part of the reason that I slowly withdrew from people over time… Why I can’t touch anything that is clean, new, or “perfect”… Why I need to have a clean house… I know it’s not a simple cause/effect relationship, and that there is a myriad of factors which influence my actions; but, are these attempts to combat the dirty evilness that is considered to be within me?

In many ways, I see how I’ve attempted to reject the evil label from my identity, and that I don’t really see it as “fitting” with my identity as a whole… But, the label has been a part of me for so long, that it feels like it will be there forever… A part of me strongly identifies with the concept of being evil, and wears the label like a badge of honour…

This conflict seems to be driving so many of my actions and reactions within the context of my disordered eating… the need to rid my body of the evil… the problem is, I’m trying to rid my body of something that is considered to be part of my identity…

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Now playing: Taylor Swift feat. The Civil Wars – Safe & Sound

Street

I recently came across a video by James Nares called Street… What struck me about the clip wasn’t its beauty – although it is visually stunning; instead, what hooked me into watching it, was how well it describes a state of dissociation that I sometimes experience.  I consider it a form of derealisation, but this might be inaccurate… it’s a disconnect from the rest of the world… feeling as if I’m there, but standing back from my eyes, observing.  At times it can be a little scary, as it feels as if I have no control over what is happening, and that my actions are running on auto-pilot… other times, that lack of control can be calming, and serene…

If you look at the clip, you’ll notice that there is little connection between the people being filmed, and the camera… no one seems to look into the camera to meet your eye.  This is also an important aspect of my dissociation… an inability to connect with the people around me… a feeling almost as if I’m gliding through the world, totally invisible, even when in plain sight… It feels as if no one can touch me, and I can’t touch anyone…

The slow motion effect shows how it feels as if the world is slowing down, and yet speeding up at the same time… It seems as if everyone is walking around, totally oblivious to the disaster that is about to happen, or the pain that I’m experiencing.  What’s worse, is that I’m incapable of expressing that pain, or imminent disaster, in any meaningful way…

It is often this state of being, that would often lead to the worst of my self-injury…

Self-injury could break through the derealisation, and make the world seem real again… make me seem real again…

The problem is, the self-injury added to the pain that created the derealisation to begin with… it became a self-fulfilling cycle of dysfunction, pain, and confusion.  Thankfully, I’ve managed to stop that form of self-injury… I just wish I could say the same for the disordered eating.

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Now playing: Brooke Fraser – Scarlet

Perfection…

I used to define perfection as a set of behaviours that would allow me to be invisible.  I thought that if I was quiet enough; got good enough grades; was plain enough not to attract attention; and so on… then I would be free of abuse.  No matter how hard I tried, I never reached this perfection…  I didn’t realise that it was an impossible goal… Part of me still doesn’t…

During the past few months, I’ve experienced another kind of perfection…

  • Seeing a friend smile, and realising that I am part of the reason why they are smiling.
  • Laughing at a joke over dinner.
  • Watching a brilliant red sunset.
  • Walking on the beach, feeling the cool sea breeze, and tasting the salt in the air.
  • Swimming in the ocean for the first time in over 20 years.
  • Aimlessly walking around shops with a friend.
  • Playing on a park slide at dusk.
  • Talking with a friend over coffee about life, meaning, and reality.

These events were all perfect, not as “events”, but because of how they made me feel – seen, safe, at peace, alive, appreciated, loved, connected, … “worthy” …

None of the events were without problems… The dinner with a friend was a shared pizza, where my slice of pizza was more like the enemy, than food… I felt incredible anxiety on the beach, as I wore a swimsuit for the first time since my weight loss… After the brilliant sunset, I became so disconnected that it created a gaping chasm developed between my friend and I…

There were problems, and some of them were quite big… the thing is, I felt able to explore those problems – either through my own reflections, or talking about it with the people affected.  It became all about that old saying ~ “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.  The quote is a bit eye-roll worthy; but, it also seems to hold some truth…  The problems became part of an ongoing conversation – with myself, and others; rather than the anxiety inducing, end-of-the-world events that they sometimes feel.

I’m not sure why things happened like they did…  Was it because of the friend I was with?  My holiday from work? That amorphous thing called “healing”?  Or, was it all of those things, and so much more?  I’m really not sure, and part of me doesn’t want to analyse it too much, in case I decide to make some rules around it all, or negate the positives that I experienced…

The thing is, even with those positives, I’m still struggling… I seem to have drifted through the last four months of my life, with little awareness of anything going on around me.  Yet, within those four months, I had these amazing experiences of connection…  It makes no sense, and total sense…

I wonder if the connection that I experienced, scared me…  Whether the visit to my home-town and ongoing work stress, has combined to create the need to compartmentalise even more of my life…

It’s funny, in a sad way… I started this post intending for it to be positive; but now, all I feel, is fear…

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Now playing: The Fray – You Found Me

A day of clarity

It feels as if I woke up this morning with a sense of clarity and grounding that has been missing for months…

In some ways today has felt no different – there are still urges for disordered eating, and there was a dissociative panic when I went out for a walk… But, in other ways it has all felt very different – I’ve managed to resist those urges to engage in disordered eating, and I went for a walk during the day (I usually walk at night so no one can see me).  This may not seem like much, but it’s so different from what has been happening over the last few months.

I know that one of the reasons for the clarity, is the passing of Christmas and New Year.  These holidays are particularly difficult for me… they’re associated with triggers from the past, and societal expectations in the present day.  That potent combination has meant that for the last few months, I’ve been a dissociative mess.

Adding to my anxiety, has been the knowledge that I would be staying in my home-town for Christmas…  For the last few years, my mother has come up to stay with me for Christmas and New Year; but this year this somehow got reversed, and I travelled to her.  I know that when I made the arrangements, it was with the thought that being in my home-town would be safer than being alone.  I say “safer”, but I realised that the balance between the safety provided by being with someone during the holidays (with all of the associated structure that provides); and the potential triggers of being in my home-town, were debatable.

It was an “interesting” visit home… being around someone else for such long periods of time provided a stark reminder of how much I dissociate – for example, I apparently went for a walk at 2am one night… I found that if I didn’t sit in the aisle seat at the movies, I become so anxious that I basically shut down and nearly fall asleep… I proved to myself that I could go for days on end without one form of disordered eating; but there seemed to be a trade-off to other forms taking over… When I did engage in the disordered eating, I hit new lows – something that I’m not proud of, but am trying to learn from… I found that I could cope being in my home-town, as long as I didn’t visit the satellite town where I spent most of my childhood… I found that I liked the peace associated with living in a retirement village – although the residents do tend to be in everyones business! … I discovered that I could sit with my aunt and mother, and we could talk about real issues…

In the past, my relationship with my aunt has been strained… She seemed to see me as this “perfect” person, who never did anything wrong, and resented me accordingly… considering how much I strived for perfection, I find this rather ironic.  But after we’d been to see the movie Quartet, we had a rather raw and honest conversation… my aunt was in an abusive relationship for several years, and my mother was married to my father (enough said).  We didn’t talk about the respective abuses we experienced; but instead talked about its effect on us… how my aunt tried to encourage her abuser to take responsibility for his abuse, by forcing him to pay for the plastic surgery on her face after he pushed her through a pane of glass… how my mother has purposefully forgotten chunks of her life, just so that she can cope with it all… how the abuse caused all of us to doubt ourselves, our truth, and devastated our self-esteem… and one thing that my aunt observed, was how much my behaviour is defined by my abusive past.  I found my aunt’s statement to be interesting, as she is not aware of my childhood abuses, just my marriage.  It was also a little scary… is my dysfunction that obvious?

As for my relationship with my mother… well, that had its ups and downs.  She was incredibly accepting of my odd habits, and even suggested ways that I could do things in a similar way to I did them at home – I’m still not able to do simple things like hang clothes out on the washing line.  But in other ways, she showed how unaware she was… I was talking to a friend via video on Skype when she came home, and she basically took over the video call.  My mother can be larger than life, especially when she’s trying to impress someone – and she was trying to impress my friend.  I get so overwhelmed by her personality when she is like this… I become this small, vulnerable being, who is unsure of how to react, except to play along… So I smiled, laughed, and played the game… anything to make sure that my mother doesn’t get her feelings hurt…  The call ended soon after my mother walked away from the computer… but what was interesting, was that while my friend also played along, and interacted with my mother; they noted my distress… a distress that I wasn’t aware of showing. They asked me how I was, and I admitted that I was close to tears… it wasn’t that I feared my mother trying to “steal” my friend, but that I felt so overwhelmed by her personality, and became so lost as a result… who was I???  I no longer knew…

Despite these ups and downs, I do think that my visit home was a positive experience.  I learned new things, made connections (internally and externally), and was able to keep promises that I’d made with myself – including attending Midnight Mass…

I’m not sure how long this clarity will last… but, I’m glad I experienced it…

And now for a random photo I took while away…
Sweet pea against the sky

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Now playing: Tracy Chapman – The Promise

Positives within the chaos

This year, one of my constant refrains has been about not being connected – to myself, and others. This lack of connection has been most glaringly evident in the minimal activity on this blog; withdrawing from my online network of friends; and my disordered eating. I consider all of these things symptoms, because they are outward signs of the internal turmoil that I’ve been experiencing. The problem is that the symptoms – especially the disordered eating, has become so all-consuming and dysfunctional, that it is easy to use it as a distraction…

I use the word “distraction” cautiously here, because in many ways it has distracted me from the real issues that I am facing… but, in other ways, the dysfunctions tell their own story about my past and present.

Through my disordered eating, I’ve learned how I felt abandoned in the past – by others and myself; massive amounts of confusion about my life and it’s meaning; isolation; and feeling so dirty that I doubt that I will ever be clean, good, or “healed”.

I’ve also learned about many of my fears… fears of being seen; being invisible; doing damage through the disordered eating; and not doing enough damage through the disordered eating… There are always so many contradictions… I used to get lost within these contradictions, and become so overwhelmed by them, that I would turn away from trying to understand what was happening… but now, I’m beginning to see the meanings inherent within them…

Those contradictions hold so many truths about my past. They revolve around issues that are hallmarks of a dysfunctional childhood (abandonment, perfectionism, disconnection, etc); yet, they are being enacted out because I am so very fearful of what I’ll see when I really look at my past, and it’s impact on me in the present…

This fear has been ramping up over the past year, and coincides with an increased awareness of the emotional impact that my past has had on me. It seems as if the closer I come to connecting with the emotions, the more dysfunctional my present day behaviours become. This became obvious when I was showing Allison some of my art… her comment was that the extreme pain that was evident in the artwork, was not being seen in therapy, or any other area of my life… except my dysfunctional behaviours.

It feels as if there’s a cycle happening – I’m terrified of giving a voice to those emotions… which leads to the required emotional outlet being shown in dysfunctional behaviours… which causes confusion, desperation and resentment… which means that I again turn away from the emotions… and so the cycle begins again.

The thing is, I know that healing happens within an emotional context… but, I know that on an intellectual level. I find it difficult to transform that knowledge into practice. Despite this, there have been connections made… I’ve started to take photos again, renewed my efforts to draw, and sometimes have been able to understand the impact of my dysfunctional behaviour through the eyes of people who care about me. This last one is possibly the hardest to cope with, but also the most vital… it’s easy to get lost within dysfunction, and lose touch with the reality of the impact those behaviours have on myself, and those around me. But then, I see the look on a friends face when I tell them the results of my blood tests… My cynical co-worker asks what she can do to help me with my eating… These are reminders that I’m not as invisible as I’d like to think I am, and that my actions have consequences.

It may not seem it, but this realisation is possibly the biggest healing step that I’ve made in a long time. I grew up with the idea that if I was only invisible, then things would be perfect… I would be safe from harm, and no one would miss me if I was gone. That idea has been challenged on several fronts… one of the most noticeable can be summed up in a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ~

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

I’m now trying to navigate a world where many of my core beliefs are being challenged… I’m not invisible, and my actions do have the potential to affect others… There is a huge discomfort in that knowledge… but, it’s also healing. I’m no longer that awkward kid that the teachers turned away from when things were obviously wrong… Instead, I am able to make choices that were denied me when I was that awkward kid… Positive choices…

Positive choices, like going to the zoo and taking a photo of a Spider Monkey whose body language mirrored my own…

Spider Monkey

In all of the chaos that has eventuated this year, it’s been easy to forget the things that have helped… Connections matter, no matter how fleeting they are… so a moment of connection to the external world through my camera is huge… it gives me a voice, an outlet, and lessens the sense of isolation that I seem to foster at times. It’s been a difficult year on so many levels, but also a good one on so many levels… yet another contradiction that I’m learning to live with, and understand a little more.

As a note, this post is for the December edition of the Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse… There is still time to submit a post of your own, just fill in this form.

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Now playing: Dave Dobbyn – Welcome Home