Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

Trauma Therapy I: Anger and Release

When I was first released from my week in an inpatient hospitalization program, I felt better. I thought I had figured out the reasons I fell so far off the edge and believed I had the all the tools I needed to start again. My problem, I thought, was that I had failed to properly use my support system. I had plenty of people who loved me and cared for me, but my perfectionism had been preventing me from letting them in to help. While this was true, this was far from the root of the problem.

Upon my release, I agreed to attend a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). Literally the day after being discharged from the hospital, I had to show up at the same hospital again and keep talking about my feelings. I didn’t think I needed to be there. My first day, I thought, “I’m way more well adjusted than everyone else. I’m fine. I’ll be out of here in a snap.” (Spoiler alert: nope.) That’s the thing about trauma, though, is that it tricks us into believing we’re fine. Rather, our maladaptive coping strategies trick us into believing we’re fine because it’s the only way we know how to survive. I entered into the Women’s Trauma PHP assuming I didn’t have any work left to do. But I was about to do the hardest work of my life.

The first three days of PHP, I played my perfected role of “good student.” I didn’t disrupt, I listened, I responded when asked but only when asked, I took notes, I was friendly to the other participants. I knew all the answers. However, I had no intention of digging in, asking hard questions, or being vulnerable. I thought if I said all the right things and filled out my daily behavior log consisting of no urges to harm myself or others, I could get out of there and get back to my life. I stressed constantly about when I would be able to go back to work. The more “good” I was, the sooner I could leave. Trauma therapists, though, see right through that shit. So, around day 4, my therapist starting pushing my buttons. Our therapists often discussed how the trauma program would trigger us so we could learn how to deal with our triggers in a healthy environment, but they also emphasized that this triggering was not intentional. It just happened as a part of being vulnerable and interacting with others. However, my shell was so tightly encased, that I have a feeling my therapist had no choice but to grab a stick and poke the bear.

I’m funny when I get angry. Most people yell, become aggressive, or get physically aggitated. I sulk. I think a lot of my issues with anger come from both the fact that I’ve experienced the pain that misdirected anger can cause and also from my relentless Good Girl Syndrome. Because I’ve experienced emotional abuse, I don’t want my anger to ever feel that way to anyone else. In addition, angry outbursts seem like a form of losing control, and if I keep my anger dialed down, I’ll still be able to be perfect. It turns out, though, I’m SUPER angry. If you know anything about the Enneagram, this really shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a 1, and we’re notoriously the most angry number. But we keep our anger boxed up inside to seem measured and controlled.

This is what I did in PHP. For several days, I sat in the corner of each lecture and therapy session refusing to make eye contact and refusing to participate. The program was making me angry. The people were making me angry. My therapist was making me angry. And I was in such a delicate state that it was getting harder and harder to keep all my anger controlled. My second Friday in PHP, I told my friend in the program, “I’m never coming back here.” Later we laughed about it, but at the time I was serious. Anger is the gateway to so many other emotions, like grief and shame, so it’s where many of us start our trauma work. The minute we started to feel angry, the minute our therapist knew she was finally getting somewhere.

I finally moved past my anger the day I shared in group therapy. I had shared in group before, but never anything actually vulnerable. The longer I sat in the program, though, the more I realized that, in order to begin my true healing process, I would have to share some things that I hadn’t shared with anyone. I was terrified. Every day as I sat in group, it pressed harder and harder on me that I wasn’t going to get through this program if I didn’t start being vulnerable. I would rehearse what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it when I was falling asleep at night. I didn’t even know how to make the words because I had spent so long trying to pretend that this particular thing hadn’t happened to me that I had started to forget about it. The fact that I had kept it shoved down for so long, though, was a huge source of my trauma.

One morning, I finally decided to share. I think, probably, I was so exhausted from being angry that I figured I had no choice but to let go and actually work the program. As I shared, I stared at the table in front of me, tears dripping off of my face, my breathing shallow, my hands clamped together in my lap. I felt no better, in fact I probably felt worse, but I had done it. Next came the worst part. The sitting in it. Our program therapist was very fond of telling us to “sit in it.” Because of my maladaptive coping strategies that I used to survive years of trauma, I had forgotten how to feel negative feelings and just feel them. Most trauma survivors, upon feeling negative feelings, use behaviors like substance abuse, self harm, avoidance, partying, or over working when we start to feel this way. We spend most of our time just trying to stay alive. In PHP, our therapist challenged us to feel without relying on these behaviors. She told us we were in a safe place to feel all of these emotions: we had mental health professionals around us all the time and we had a built in support system if we were unable to handle the feelings. The only way out was through.

(to be continued in a part II – there’s a lot to cover here, y’all. stay tuned.)

Psych Ward

*tw: mental illness, hospitalization, suicide, self harm, sexual assault*

At the end of May, I spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing the specifics of what led me to be admitted, I was admitted involuntarily, meaning I did not walk in off the street and decide I needed care. Instead, I had reached my saturation point for handling life’s variables and healthcare providers determined I would be safest in a hospital setting. I never thought I would need to be hospitalized, but in retrospect, I’m suprised it took me this long. I can now see warning signs in myself all over the place, but I wasn’t listening to them.

Late on the Monday night before Memorial Day, I sobbed in the car as my roommate drove me to the emergency room. I texted my boss and my therapist and called my partner, but I remember very little after that. I spent the night in Emory University’s ER, attempting to watch Sex in the City and drifting in and out of conciousness as we waited for the rotating psychiatrist to come and evaluate me. Around 5:30am, my partner left to go home and rest. Around 6:30am, the psychiatrist finally arrived. I talked with him for a few minutes, answering questions about what brought me to the ER, my medical and psychiatric history, and how I was feeling. Not long after, the attending nurse told me I was being taken to a psychiatric hospital. They assured me they would find one that would accept my insurance. I was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance with no specific idea about where I was headed. I was terrified and exhausted, and I slept the whole ride.

When we arrived, I was unloaded along with my backpack I had somehow managed to bring along. Still in blue papery hospital scrubs, I sat scrunched up in an armchair alone in an intake room for what felt like hours, waiting to be processed into the hospital. Eventually, I was able to put my own clothes back on and use my phone to text a few people to tell them where I was. I wrote down important phone numbers so I would still have them after they could confiscate my phone. They took my bookbag as well, and it would be two days before I could get the rest of my things out of it. I was taken to a section of the hospital that I now know is primarily for people who are psychotic, delusional, aggressive, or paranoid. I didn’t fit any of these categories, but the women’s trauma unit I was eventually bound for was full, so I was stuck in holding until there was an open bed.

I walked around for three days in a complete fog. I’m sure the sleeping medications didn’t help, but as the reality of what was happening set in, I began to feel less and less in control of my body. I had panic attacks and cried constantly. I had no idea what was going on. I felt entirely alone. I wanted so badly to process what had happened but felt I had no one to talk to. I watched people get shots of sedatives to calm them after having raging outbursts. I watched one man try to escape twice in one day. I watched another walk around wearing only one shoe, in a psychotic daze for 48 hours until they corrected his medication and he became a completely stable person. I was scared and I had no clue how to move forward.

On day 3, I finally had visitation hours. Seeing my partner and my best friend was both jarring and comforting. They said they were surprised at how good I looked and seemed. Looking back, this is especially strange because of how out of control I felt. All of my defense mechanisms to keep my life together had finally failed. My perfectionism, my obsessive cleaning and organizing, my intellectualization of my problems, and my avoidance of conflict and difficult emotions had all worked for a long time. But the thing about defense mechanisms is that they work until they don’t. I avoided digging deeply into myself for so many decades that I started to believe I could forget that certain things had happened to me by simply not acknowledging them. (Spoiler: This does not work.) I was dishonest with myself and the people who love me about how I was really doing because I was ashamed of the pain I was actually feeling, and, at times, completely unaware of the pain I was actually feeling.

I started to unwrap all of this once I was moved from the chaotic holding unit to the women’s trauma unit. I was surrounded by women who shared my diagnoses and my life experiences. We never discussed specifics, but we just knew. It was such a relief to get hugs from other women after not having any physical contact for days in the other unit. I started to smile and laugh again. “This isn’t the psych ward!” we would yell across the table at each other, as we color pictures of mandalas and animals with dulling colored pencils. We laughed because there was no other way we could make it through. Because we were in the psych ward. And our reality pressed in from all sides as we walked around in our pants without drawstrings and shoes without laces. Our backs ached from mattresses without springs and our eyes were tired from the wellness checks every 15 minutes during the night to make sure we were breathing. It was an overwhelming week. It was a week I never thought I’d have. But it was real, and now it’s a part of my story.

Since being released, I’ve been participating in a partial hospitalization program for women’s trauma. It’s possibly the most difficult work I’ve ever done. I’m not quite ready to share my reflections on the work I’ve been doing in trauma therapy yet because it’s still so close and because I’m still doing it. But I wanted to at least share the beginning of this journey. I want to share this experience because I want to help normalize psychiatric care. Inpatient hospitalization programs are for everyone. If you feel out of control of your emotions, a situation, substance abuse, or your behaviors, admitting yourself to a program like the one I was in could be a helpful step. Inpatient programs help stabilize you in moments of crisis. Getting help before you’re in a full blown crisis is also a valid reason to seek hospitalization.

I’m getting better, but I can’t say I’m getting better every day because that would be a lie. Healing is not linear. I’m learning new ways to cope and some days I use those new coping skills effectively, but other days I don’t. I’m back at work part time, but I’m teaching my self to take it easy. I’m scared to integrate back into “real life”, but I know that I’ll be ready when it’s time. I’m still not sure what all I’m supposed to have learned from the psych ward, but I trust that I’m learning it.

Getting Pulled Over While White

I had never been pulled over before. I try, generally, to follow traffic rules and drive safely, but I’m probably not that much better at driving than most people. I refuse to text and drive but I’m definitely guilty of speeding to get where I’m going because I hate wasting time. I used be a timid, conservative driver, but then I moved to Atlanta and it was all downhill. In Atlanta, I’ve learned how to honk and throw my hands up exasperatedly. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to avoid getting pulled over, and I have my white skin to thank, at least in part. White people don’t get pulled over by police for “looking suspicious.” Partially, I’m lucky to have avoided traffic cameras at red lights and overzealous cops, but also, I’m white in a society that favors white people.

However, this past weekend, as I returned from a writing retreat in North Carolina (blog post coming soon!), I found myself completely zoned out, unaware of the speed limit and gliding absentmindedly through the mountains of North Georgia. I looked in my rearview mirror to find a cop tailing me, and I panicked a bit, wondering how long he’d been following me. I slowed down a bit and got into the right lane. A minute later though, he put on his lights and merged behind me. I sighed, said a few choice words, and slowed to the shoulder.

I always thought I would cry when I got pulled over. I hate breaking the rules, but I hate getting in trouble for breaking the rules even more.  Maybe it’s a tribute to my five years of weekly therapy, but I found myself relatively calm upon being pulled over for the first time. As I waited for the police officer to come to the window of my car, though, the faces of all the black men who have been shot in similar traffic stops flashed through my mind. Next to me, I had a backpack, full of books and my computer from my retreat. I rifled through it to find my wallet, thinking that, if I were a black man, this would be an incredibly dangerous action, my hands and the contents of my bag hidden.

It was a strange moment, anxiously thinking of all the ways black people are unsafe around police while also knowing those things wouldn’t happen to me. When the officer asked for my proof of insurance, I had to open my center console to find it. Again, I thought, what suspicions would this rouse in this police officer’s mind if I were black? Is this the moment when I would be shot, just for trying to comply and find my insurance card?

The police officer took my license and returned to his car to run it. I sat comforted, knowing that I had no prior traffic violations and no pending criminal or civil issues. If I were black, though, I might have found myself panicking, remembering a matter for which I had been unjustly or disproportionately charged. As a white middle-upper class woman, I am highly unlikely to be arrested. I’ve been to protests. I’ve yelled in the street, blocking traffic and demanding human rights. I’ve trespassed, stolen street signs, hung out in parks after dark, and other adolescent debauchery. But even if I had been caught by a police officer in any of those moments, I most likely would’ve been free to go with a slap on the wrist. And that’s exactly what happened in this traffic stop.

The officer returned my license to me, and, as he did so, he asked, “When was your last race?” It took me a minute to realize what he meant, but as I remembered my 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers, I told him I had run a half marathon in November. “Well, that’s farther than I can run!” he joked. I probably came off entirely aloof because of how shocked I was at his attempt at comradery. I knew this would never happen to a black person. After our awkward exchange, he simply told me to keep my speed under control and drive carefully. That was it. No ticket, no nothing. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt that it had been that easy. All I had to do was be a cute white girl willing to make small talk, and I was home free.

As I continued south down US-23, my mind reeled. The faces of Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile swirled around in my head. I was no better than these men, but here I was, alive and well, driving away from a routine traffic stop without consequence. 

overprotective

Weaving a maze of sticky threads,
the spider busies itself making a home
that sparkles innocuously in the morning dew.
A fly lands,
lulled in by the beauty and
perceived safety.
The spider closes in,
wrapping the fly tightly
in the filament,
a swaddle not meant to insulate
but to incapacitate,
slowly smothering
the fly
into a pale
and lifeless
form.

The Cycles of Grief

Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom.  Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died.  I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her.  I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.

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My mom on her wedding day.

For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think  much about grief.  Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy.  I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death.  The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade.  I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it.  I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.

It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me.  I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time.  Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests.  I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade.  It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.

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I see myself in this picture.

Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more.  It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible.  I talk to her and write to her and talk about her.  This doesn’t make it hurt less.  If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me.  And unresolved grief can be a real bitch.  My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm.  So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened.  When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.

I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP).  There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:

OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT

I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death.  One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death.  At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense.  I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to.  Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.

Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her.  I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died.  I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her.  I think about how much she would love my cats.  None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.