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…

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

Losing the illusion of control

Please note that this post will discuss self-injury and disordered eating.

Control is a tough subject for many survivors of abuse… I desperately search for control, as it feels as if my life has been so out of my control for most of my life. As I grew up, I thought that if I could just get control of things and make everything perfect, then the abuse would stop. In my world, control and safety became intertwined… if I had control, then I would be safe… but, I could never gain the level of control needed…

I’ve often thought that my disordered eating has been about control… this is supported by the inner dialogue that accompanies it – an inner dialogue that has mentioned traits such as strength and cleanliness. But, the events of the last week have shown me how little control I have regarding my eating…

It started last Thursday, and was triggered by a number of stressors… extra workload; a minor conflict with a co-worker; November 18 is my ex-husband’s birthday; and a psychiatric assessment with the Community Mental Health Services (CMHS) on November 20… All of this left me feeling overwhelmed, and as if there was no way to escape. It also coincided with the idea that my weight was now “ok”, that I didn’t really need to lose any more, and that I needed to start stabilising. This last thought about my weight was seen as “weak” and a threat against the drive to control things through the weight loss, and towards the “end number” that comes from the disordered eating thinking… So, in what I now consider to be an addictive, self-injurous move; I started to binge.

I became obsessed with food. Periods between binges were consumed with planning the next episode… I binged at work… I binged with the curtains pulled… It felt so shameful and disgusting; but, this is what I thought I deserved… what I needed…

Looking back, it all seems so surreal. I can see some of the actions as making sense – as a response to the stress… but, so much of it was senseless.

I mention that there was a self-injurous aspect to it, and this was evident in the foods chosen… all of them were ones that were previously seen as “treats”. It was this “treat” aspect of the bingeing that gave me a clue as to the motivations behind it… As part of my early experiences of abuse, I was often given a treat afterwards for being a “good girl”. These treats were usually food. The treats were given to one in the system who was/is unaware of the abuse, so they were always accepted with a smile… Meanwhile the ones who had just experienced the abuse were there, watching the treats being gladly received…

This negative aspect of being given treats and presents is one that I’ve mentioned in therapy before… But, I only talked about it in a detached way, and only from the perspective of how “awful” it was to be given treats after the abuse… What I failed to talk about, or even acknowledge; was that in order for the treat to be given, something horrific happened before it. I failed to connect those dots in a meaningful way. I’m still not sure that I really have connected the dots… but, I’m more aware of them. I’m more aware of the ones within the system who hold the abuse…

I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that the final act of bingeing happened with potato chips and raspberry fizzy drink… It was like a final assault, and it worked…

On Tuesday things began to shift… I stooped to what I considered a new low, when I binged at work. Then, by Wednesday there was starting to be more internal communication about the bingeing. Since the previous Thursday I hadn’t been out walking, but decided to make an internal agreement… if I finished the walk by 11pm then another episode of binging was going to be allowed; but, if it was after 11pm, then I would draw.

The walk was “interesting”… internal chaos, at times walking faster to try to beat the 11pm deadline, at times walking slowly to make sure that the deadline passed…

I arrived home right on 11pm. It was agreed that this meant that 11pm on the dot had passed, and therefore drawing was the agreed upon plan of coping…

Abstract drawing

It’s been so long since I’ve drawn anything! I always think of it as being too messy, and pass judgements about my ability… I forget about how connecting and emotional it is…

On Thursday there was still a desire to binge, but instead I went out and took photos… meaningful, healing photos…

Ones representing direction…

Direction

Others representing the system…

Roses

It was emotional, positive, and what I needed to try to ground myself in the present. I’d become so immersed in flashbacks, that I’d lost all track of time, place, and location… These seemingly simple acts of creative expression eased that feeling… It was hard work, but worth it.

It’s now three days since I last binged. The desire is still there, but it’s manageable… The problem, is that the weight gained by the bingeing has ramped up the need for my weight to keep dropping… In the space of a week, I’ve gone from thinking that I might be able to ease the weight loss to a maintenance level, to having weight loss goals again. I know that this was going to be a possible reaction, but I still feel at a loss as to what to do…

So yes, the illusion that I had control over my eating, has been destroyed…

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Now playing: Brooke Fraser – Scarlet