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…

—————-
Now playing: Enya – Only time

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…

—————-
Now playing: The Fray – You Found Me

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…

—————-
Now playing: Brooke Fraser – Scarlet

My world is crashing in on me

My world is crashing in on me, and no one sees. That’s ok, because I am one of many.

My world is crashing in on me, and no one sees. That’s wrong, because I am a person, and people are meant to matter.

Nine years ago today I wore red as I walked out the door to get married.  My future mother-in-law could barely contain her scorn at my attire.  I didn’t wear red by deliberate choice, but when you leave the preparations for the wedding until the day before, you get what you can.

Memories of the wedding are sketchy, at best.  We had a picnic the day before the wedding with the mother and two friends.  We did this because we were expecting my future husbands family to ruin the wedding day… they did.  One thing I remember clearly, is when the small gathering threw rose petals over us after the toasts, none of the petals went into my drink; so my mother-in-law picked some up off the ground, threw them into my glass, and made a smart comment about that being better.

Many weddings are about the expectations of the bride… mine were of dread.  In many ways, the wedding was not my own… my sister-in-law has such a dominating personality, that she overshadowed everything – my hair, the photography, directing people around, etc.  The sister, whom I hadn’t communicated with in over ten years passed sarcastic comments onto the mother about her not receiving a wedding invitation… yes, there was the double whammy of her sarcasm, and the mother’s need to inform me of that sarcasm… My future in-laws played games regarding whether they were going to attend, or not.  They only came because their other son paid for the entire trip.  Then on the day, my mother decided that her outfit was too similar to my only invited friends, so I had to help her find an alternative to wear…  Many of these things are run-of-the-mill issues associated with wedding days; but, they increased my anxiety, and therefore levels of dissociation.

The drama didn’t end at the ceremony, but continued through to mix-ups with the billing of the hotel room for the wedding night… We met several very nice police that day…

Did I mention that I didn’t want to get married?  I didn’t.  The only reason the marriage happened, is because he needed to marry.  He needed that security.  Later, as the marriage was falling apart, he often said that if we separated that it would be the end of us both… that I would commit suicide, and that he would be devastated with grief as he returned to the comfort of my mother – note, that he was wanting to gain comfort from my mother, not his.  That sentiment alone indicates his level of dysfunction, pain and confusion…

Marriage was never my thing.  During school, when introduced to the concept of debating, I was on the affirmative team arguing that marriage was an outdated institution.  It was rather amusing, as we drew a picture of marriage as a physical institution… the teacher changed the wording for the debate the following year.  We did get an A though…

I’ve usually seen marriage as a tie to someone who would hurt you.  My marriage didn’t dissuade me from that opinion.  Saying that, I have seen happy marriages… marriages where a combination of compatibility, hard work, and a variety of other factors, have meant that everyone involved has grown in positive ways…  At times, I wish I had that… But, I know I’m too broken for such things.

So yes, my world in crashing in on me… I have failed to work with Eating Disorder Services because I couldn’t meet the directives they established… I have failed at creating any sort of working relationship with my new team leader, and am now building a reputation as being difficult within the workplace… My continual poor communication skills have resulted in my withdrawal from my support system, and causing hurt to those who have braved staying around… Allison is left in the dark as to the reasoning for my behaviour, as I continue to withdraw and become less communicative… Then, earlier this week, the final straw, this chain email from the mother…

I remember the cheese of my childhood,
and the bread that we cut with a knife,
when the children helped with the housework,
and the men went to work not the wife.

The cheese never needed an ice chest,
and the bread was so crusty and hot,
the children were seldom unhappy
and the wife was content with her lot.

I remember the milk from the billy,
with the yummy cream on the top,
our dinner came hot from the oven,
and not from the fridge in the shop.

The kids were a lot more contented,
they didn’t need money for kicks,
just a game with our mates in the paddock,
and sometimes the Saturday flicks.

I remember the shop on the corner,
where a pen’orth of lollies was sold
do you think I’m a bit too nostalgic,
or is it….I’m just getting old?

I remember when the loo was the dunny,
and the pan man came in the night,
it wasn’t the least bit funny
going out the back with no light.

The interesting items we perused,
from the newspapers cut into squares,
and hung on a peg in the outhouse,
it took little to keep us amused.

The clothes were boiled in the copper,
with plenty of rich foamy suds
but the ironing seemed never ending
as Mum pressed everyone’s duds

I remember the slap on my backside,
and the taste of soap if I swore
anorexia and diets weren’t heard of
and we hadn’t much choice what we wore.

Do you think that bruised our ego?
or our initiative was destroyed
we ate what was put on the table
and I think life was better enjoyed.

I realise that she is reminiscing about her childhood… But, she also knows that I experienced sexual abuse within the environment that this poem glorifies… Oh, and yeah, she knows about my eating disorder too…  The irony is that her childhood wasn’t perfect… if it was, she wouldn’t be this unaware of the potential impact of this poem on me…

So yes, my world in crashing in on me…  Oddly enough, I don’t think it’s going to hurt.

—————-
Now playing: Audioslave – Doesn’t remind me

Hurt and go

As a warning, the following poem could be triggering because of abuse and suicidal ideation related themes.

I’ve had a few rough weeks – visiting the town where my ex-husband lives, work related stress, inconsistent messages from the Eating Disorder Service, and an emotionally traumatic assessment by the Eating Disorders psychiatrist… It has stirred up so much in me, that I’m barely coping. Well, to be honest, I’m not coping…

Hurt and go

Hurt and go
Hurt and go
Hurt and go
That’s all they ever did
Even when they were smiling
Hurt and go

It was worse when they smiled
You knew it was going to be bad, real bad
They wanted you close
Relaxed
Then
BAM
It was all on

They taught me my worth
No matter what anyone else says or does
My worth was proven long ago
Everything since that time is an illusion
A pretense
A play on words and thoughts

I am nothing
No, not nothing
A thing
An object
A toy for amusement
An aberration
Disgusting
Stupid

If I was anything else
They wouldn’t have done those things

If I was anything else
It would’ve mattered

If I was anything else
It would hurt so much I’d rather be dead

Oh wait, it does.