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…

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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

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

Connections and control

During the past week, I’ve had periods of feeling “good”… I’ve felt as if I’m together, emotionally consistent, and as if I can do this thing called life.  It’s at these times, that I wonder what all the fuss is about regarding my mental health.  I don’t remember the periods of disconnect, and everything seems to be going really well…  But then, someone tells me of something that happened a few hours previously, and I have no recollection of it.  I sort of know the event happened, but I have no connection to it, and don’t remember it as something “I’ve” done.  This throws me into confusion… am I being consistent now, or then?  Am I in denial?  Am I attention seeking?  I’m left wondering what’s going on…

It seems more and more as if my life is becoming a series of sound bites.  Each bite is disconnected from the previous one; but could be connected to one that occurred yesterday, or last week…  It’s all very confusing, and yet not.  That’s the odd thing about it all…  part of me thinks that there should be some panic about my functioning, but I don’t feel it.  Sometimes, I’ll feel a sense of confusion… but, its minor.  The disconnect seems to be minimising the emotional impact of it all, thereby increasing my apathy.

Yet, despite saying that I’m disconnected, I’ve had times of great connection.  Last Friday, there was a major rugby game played in town; because I talked to a friend, I left work a little later than usual, so met the rugby-bound traffic, and people walking to the stadium.  I was blind-sided by terror and flashbacks… memories of the past overwhelmed me.  I immediately started to look for ways to escape, and self-injure.  But then, I thought of the potential impact my actions might have on others… how would the friend that I was talking to after work react if they found out that I got hurt?  Would they connect my staying after work to talk to them, with my self-injury?  Would it hurt them to know that I was hurt?  I’ve often thought of the implications that my actions might have on others, so this line of thinking isn’t new… but, there was a different impact this time.

While thinking of my friend had an impact, the bigger realisation came by looking at the crowds walking to the stadium.  There was a high number of families amongst the crowd, many with children aged about 10 years, and above.  As I saw these children, I realised how small they were… walking in amongst these crowds, they looked so defenceless.  The adults were watching the children… making sure that they stayed with the family, that they watched traffic as they crossed the road… “normal stuff”.  But, that “normal stuff” is something that I don’t remember as a child.  I remember being alone.  I remember being taken places.  I wasn’t interacted with,  I was just “there”, left to my own devices.  Some would say that this encouraged independence, resilience, and all those good things… that may well have some merit, but it also taught me that I was alone in the world, that I couldn’t ask for help, and that no one would protect me.  The children in this crowd were different… they had families who seemed to protect them.  But the thing that continued to affect me, was their size… so small and defenceless… how could anyone that small stop the abuse?  I realised that if I self-injured, ones within the system who were smaller than the children amongst the crowd, would be hurt.  No matter how tough these ones say they are, and act… they are smaller than these children in front of me.  There’s no way that I would allow any of these children in front of me to be hurt, so why was I willing to allow myself to be hurt?

I decided that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, allow the self-injury.  Anger towards myself, and my friend, hit…  I was removing the only way that some within the system get relief from the confusion and pain.  It’s now a week later, and I’m still feeling the impact…  There is a need to isolate and escape from the emotions stirred up last week.  Those emotions have been fuelled by the weekly stresses occurring within my life (work, family, etc).  When I look at it like this, the sound bite life, makes sense…  it’s the old way of coping with events that are beyond my control, or ability to deal with.  I know that a large part of my current state is due to a sense of control, or a perceived lack of control.  When I was a child, I felt the illusion of control through my solitary, insular existence… part of me is so very desperate to get that feeling back.

Visiting the past

This past weekend, I visited my hometown.  It’s the first time I’ve been back in over five years. Being back there was awful, healing, confusing, and so much more.  I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but need to write something down in order to start the reflective process, and ward off it being lost in the dissociation.

There were some beautiful moments, such as going down to the beach near sunset.  There was humour, with my mother, brother, and I talking about movies we’d seen… it soon became obvious that our respective approaches to movie going is very different!

But, there were also endless triggers…

On Sunday morning, my mother met my sister to go to church.  I had never connected it before, but this reminded me of when my father decided to “find God” when I was a teenager.  This was the final trigger that prompted me to visit places of importance from my past.  The main place I wanted to see was the bar associated with my father… the place where I have different memories that are so disjointed…

As I drove out to the bar, I passed a factory filled with bad memories… or rather, where the factory once stood.  There was a wave of relief to see that it was now totally different, filled with various industries and businesses.  I passed my old high, and middle schools… and again, so much had changed.  They were still recognisable, but it was obvious that 20+ years had passed since I walked across those fields.  Even though the suburb that was my home for so long has changed dramatically… new roads and malls; it still has the same feel.

Then the bar itself… The first thing that threw me, was that the entrance had changed.  I can now see where the extensions were added; but at the time, I was totally disoriented.  As the place was closed, I could walk around and peer through windows undisturbed. I started off by looking through the main entrance windows, and saw the short corridor that had the toilets going off each side…  That was enough to create a sense of panic, and an immediate free-fall into dissociation.

I walked around the building in a depersonalised state… looking at the different parts of the building and clinically ticking them all off on my internal check-list.  When I got around to the changing room entrance, things shifted… it was locked, and I was unable to see down the corridor.  I could tell each room based on the windows outside, but this wasn’t enough… I needed to see down that corridor.  But, it was impossible.

I looked into the main hall, and saw so many changes… some of them were about perspective (the hall looked so much smaller than I remembered); but other things such as the new carpet and different tables, were more tangible… But then, I saw the kitchen area, and it acted as a grounding moment.  I snapped back to some sort of awareness, and started taking pictures… I took pictures of all of the areas that I remembered, then wandered around the streets, trying to ground myself.

During my walk, I found this mural…

At the time, I called it “Don’t Speak”…  There seemed something fitting about the red being painted over the mouth.

After the bar, I visited my old elementary school, the kindergarten, and a couple of significant houses… Again, there were so many changes.  I found one of the houses, only to see that the wood shed was being pulled down.  Another now houses a charity; and while it still looked the same, the entrance was totally different… where there was once an opening in the fence for the driveway, framed mosaics are now hung on a continuous fence.

In so many ways, these changes were disorienting… But, there was still enough of the old elements present, to allow me to see the historical context.

I know that memory is not an exact thing… I know it can be influenced, and change over time… So, in many ways, going back to these places was meaningless.  But, it was also healing, in that many things were confirmed, and I could also see how time had changed the places which once housed so much pain for me.

As for the rest of the trip… well, it had its ups and downs… I had a panic attack in McDonald’s, and had to go for a walk to try to calm down… I did some dissociative shopping, and had to return some rather odd clothing choices…  I had a fun birthday evening with my brother and mother…

But, probably the most important thing happened on my last morning there…  My mother and I went to have a coffee, and started talking about my sister.  It seems she has moved past the idea that I had the best childhood known to mankind, and has instead started seeing things in a different way.  My mother relayed how much sorrow (guilt?) my sister feels for “abandoning” me when she moved out at the age of 16.  This seemingly simple admission stirred so many emotions… a feeling of validation, that I wasn’t imagining how bad it was growing up in that house…  compassion for my sister, who was burdening herself with responsibilities that aren’t hers to hold…  compassion for my mother, who was obviously now looking back on the damage done by the past…

There is nothing simple about a trip down memory lane… but, it can be healing.  It helped me to see that, although I live with the effects of those events every single day; the events were a long time ago.  That doesn’t make what happened right, nor does it allow me to forgive, or forget… but, it does mean that I can help ease those fears when I’m caught in the flashbacks…  If nothing else, that knowledge made the trip worthwhile.

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Now playing: Taylor Swift – Safe & Sound
via FoxyTunes

The confusion and complexity of Mother's Day

It’s Mother’s Day.  That means that in about three hours, I’ll be expected to call up my mother and voice wishes for her to have a lovely day.  I’ll listen to her complaints about her life, and my siblings; then end with sending her my love.  It’s a familiar pattern.  A predictable one.  Yet, it comes with huge amounts of confusion…

I was not abused by my mother.  Yes, she failed to see warning signs of abuse; but, my main skill was trying to stay invisible… so while my siblings showed their pain by acting out, I internalised it.  Despite knowing this on an intellectual level; there are feelings of resentment, betrayal, hatred, and anger towards her.  There are always those questions… why didn’t she stop it? … why didn’t she see? … was I that worthless? …

The thing is, I know that my mother loves me – in her own way.  She has shown that by coming to help me when I’ve needed support.  She has also voiced her feelings of guilt about not seeing what was happening… But, at times her version of events surrounding this guilt, and the past, has changed.  It’s this sort of unpredictability that continues to cause confusion.  Again, intellectually, I realise that her changing stories are a form of self-protection… but, emotionally, they cause havoc.  They ensure the continuing dynamic where, even though she has supposedly come to help me; the help being offered is more about her, than me.  It’s about easing her guilt, and ensuring that the family still looks happy from the outside…

Outward appearances were always so important…  I grew up in a conservative town, and it showed.  When my neighbour’s daughter became pregnant outside of wedlock, she was forced to give the baby up for adoption (she is still with the father of the child 30 years later).  All that mattered, were outward appearances.  You can’t have scandal, you can’t raise your voice… but, as another contradiction… “boys will be boys”.  So, when my brothers got into trouble, or car accidents, it was worrying, but acceptable… They were “boys” after all… They could be a source of communal worry, and angst.  It was a socially acceptable form of rebellion.

My rebellion was hidden.  It was dysfunctional.  Even when evidence of it was found in my room, it was blamed on others… because there’s no way that a “good girl” would do that sort of thing…  Thereby adding another layer of guilt, shame, and hiding.

It is the contradictions that I find so difficult to sort through… my mother is not a nasty person – yes, she has her faults… don’t we all?  Despite not being nasty, or evil; she is not able to be there for me in any consistent way.  I can’t guarantee that the answer to a question posed last month, will be the same this month.  I don’t know if she will be cold, or open with me.  My ability to understand her, and interact with her in any meaningful way, is not there.

I also acknowledge my role in this confusion… I dissociate, and forget things that have happened.  I read things into situations because of my defence mechanisms… I know that the problem is not all hers. Yet, there is still part of me hoping that my mother will save me.  The sad thing is, just as I gave up on any God saving me, I gave up on her as well…

So, I’ll take some medication… call her in a few hours… and pretend that everything is just fine…

It’s that simple, and that complex.

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Now playing: U2 – Sometimes you can’t make it on your own
via FoxyTunes