Stop! This is your friendly reminder to be good to yourself.

So I took some of yous advice after my last post. Was I going too fast in recovery? This was something K. had asked me, but I disregarded her. So, when I got the feedback from here as well, I thought and stopped.

Guys, the work we do is hard, to say the least. Sometimes one of the most healing things we can do is give ourselves something nobody ever gave us: empathy!

I think I’m just so used to listening to that inner voice that is so critical, that I forget there’s another voice that deserves to be heard.

Be safe all and do something fun tonight!

-Nel

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Finding Tranquility Amidst Distress

Recovery isn’t perfect.  You can be going along, doing well, and even feel like you’re making awesome progress.  Then, a trigger seemingly hits out of nowhere, or a switch happens with no warning, throwing internal harmony out the window.

Last night, one of my child parts, C., who our therapist, K., has been spending several consecutive sessions working with, was experiencing severe panic as we were trying to fall asleep.  C. often tends to be compelled to focus on the perception of danger, even when there is no danger present.  She is always looking for things to prove we are still in trauma time.

C. also appears to be impacted by RA-related traumas (we’re not yet sure exactly how).  Therefore, our internal communication with each other is inconsistent.  Mina and I try to talk to her often. I can count on one hand how many times we seem to reach C.

As the night wore on, both Mina and I became less and less capable of practicing grounding skills and staying forward.  As C. became more forward, she acted just like someone would in an emergency.  Fear and terror kicked in along with a lot of freeze, flight, and collapse behaviors.  

This continued on into the morning.  It was significant.  We hadn’t been in such an extended, overwhelming crisis since being inpatient.

“Do you need to call K?” [The Fiance] asked this morning.

C., who does not yet trust K., of course shook her head. “No. no. no.” She was crying hysterically, hiccupping, and didn’t want to accept any of his help, even going so far as pushing away tissues he offered.

Fortunately, [The Fiance] remained calm.  He respected her wishes for boundaries, but stayed attentive and listened to her.  Empathy was key here.  There was a moment when he said, “I know you’re upset, but remember that it’s all in your mind. It’s all in the past.”

As you can imagine, that made absolutely no sense to a part stuck in trauma time.  It only made her cry more and insist that this was all real.

Eventually, he started to understand how what he said had been offensive.  He acknowledged, “Ok, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.  Yes, what you are feeling and what happened is real.  But what is equally real is I am not going to hurt you.  I believe you.”

Eventually, his empathy and cooperation allowed for Mina and I to be more forward.  He did exactly what we could not do for C.  We’re all feeling much more secure now, and it has made us stop and reflect tonight.

Internal communication, empathy, and internal cooperation are always the main goals.  But what can we do as a system when internal communication isn’t up to speed yet with new parts, and symptoms are off the scale?

Here is what we learned…

  1. A basic attitude of mutual empathy is #1 in understanding other parts and helping them make effective decisions (e.g. grounding instead of compelled to to focus on danger).  Listen to parts and try to reassure or comfort.  Even a little bit goes a long way.
  2. Once C. felt heard and respected, she was able to calm down.  This allowed us to move in and begin grounding and self-soothing skills to help the whole system move forward from this event safely.
  3. Once grounding is established and parts are in their safe spaces, we can fall back on the skills we learned inpatient like…
  4. Orientation Messages – There are several ways to orient parts to the present.  In therapy, K. often verbalizes to them where they are and the current year. She provides examples, like the name of the President, or shows them around her office.  Orientation Cards are Index Cards we keep with us (taped to the front a of journal, or kept inside our Grounding Kit.  They contain a quick message about the current place and time and explain we are safe.  They explain that the person we live with is safe and share [The Fiance’s] name.  This is all done in bright colors which are appealing to children.  Sometimes, if we know which part is struggling, we re-create the Orientation Card with quotes they like or messages they think are helpful.  All parts are not helped by the same Orientation technique, so it’s important we have them help us.  If we don’t have internal communication yet, we have discovered using imagery with present-day technology (not around during the abuse) helps us bypass programming to get safety messages to subsystems.  For example, we may use a drone which is capable of providing a safe audio message about the place and time and can fly over traps.
  5. Distraction Techniques – Conscious, voluntary distraction can give our parts a “reset” button on feeling overwhelmed.  Today, we took some time to focus on a video game which a lot of the kids enjoy.  This allowed us to take some deep breaths and enjoy the music in the game.
  6. Containment – Tonight, we will be carving out some time in our internal meeting to focus on containment.  Just in case C. is listening, we will remind everyone containment is not ignoring anyone’s feelings, but acknowledging it, putting it in a safe place, and promising to review it tomorrow in therapy with K.

Lastly, we will be enacting a BDA (Before-During-After) Plan.  Tomorrow is Monday, which means we have to report to our Full Time job.  It is likely we will be sensitive to triggers right now, and in order to be grounded and present at work, it is imperative to create a plan ahead of time.  Hopefully, work is smooth sailing tomorrow and nothing happens, but it’s always good to go in with a plan.

Having a BDA not only helps improve internal communication in our system, but it gives us a sense of a “safety measure” and we have control over a situation where C. feels largely powerless.

Note: Part of the “Before” and “After” parts of the plan, I have written elsewhere which I call the “Morning Routine” and “Night Routine.”  As they sound, they are set routines incorporating skills to assist parts have a good morning and fall asleep easily at night.

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Group Therapy Returns!

In years past, K., our therapist, ran an Advanced Trauma Support Group for clients she had been seeing for years and were well into the therapy process. Since it was an advanced group, conversations were deep, and we had to demonstrate effective use of coping skills both in and out of therapy. The group met for 2 hours once per month.

Since K.’s departure from the non-profit agency she used to work at, and the long year without K., our therapy has mostly been adjustment back to working with her and slowly getting back into trauma work.

With the start of a new year, K. offered the advanced group to us again. Without a second thought, I said yes. Then, as the group approached, my anxiety inched higher and higher and higher.

K. eventually said there would be 3-4 peers in the group. That’s all I knew. I arrived 10 minutes early last night but nobody else was there yet but K. We talked, casually, and I admitted I was anxious. She said that there would be 3 people tonight (including me), and all 3 of us knew each other already! A mixture of relief and curiosity washed over me. K. then told me a 4th person was going to be in the group, but she was sick, so I would see her next month. She wouldn’t tell me if I knew the 4th person or not.

As I was talking to K., in walks the next person to arrive. Horray! It is [Couch Buddy]! In K.’s old group, there were so many of us that we were all crammed in a small room together. [Couch Buddy] and I sat together on the only Loveseat/Couch in the room, and neither of us were comfortable sitting next to anyone, ever, so we sort of had an unspoken closeness.

We head into the group room. Now, this is K.’s office, all in her control to design. So there are multiple comfy couches. [Couch Buddy] and I got a whole couch to ourselves each!

Then, the 3rd member walks in, and it is [Kindred Spirit]. [Kindred Spirit] and I have a lot of things in common. She was in K.’s group for 2 years, but left unexpectedly due to family illness. I always wondered how she was doing, and I didn’t realize even though she left group, she had been seeing K. for individual therapy. She had gone through the loss just like the rest of us.

We spent most of the group catching each other up on the last year-ish of our lives. I talked about struggling with loss of K. and going back to Sheppard Pratt. There was a lot of sadness. We all had it really rough while K. was out of our lives for so long. At the end of group, K. says to us:

“I’m really sorry that things ended at [non-profit] the way they did. I had clinical and ethical disagreements with how counseling would be happening, and I couldn’t stay there. Four weeks was not enough time to close therapy. You were all in the middle of some tough trauma work, and therapy should never have ended so abruptly.” She paused. [Kindred Spirit] and I were quietly sniffling/crying. [Couch Buddy] looked distraught and frozen. K. continued, “Having therapy end in such a way is traumatizing. Knowing that, I am honored that you would choose to return to work with me. That choice of yours speaks volumes. Of the work you are committed to doing and your willingness to trust.”

A tough group, for sure. But I’m glad I’m back with some of the ladies.

Grounding Techniques

Why are Grounding Techniques so important?  I used to put little importance into learning them, because I felt like it was a waste of time, when I needed to work on uncovering trauma and processing memories.  Wellllll…doing trauma work kicks up trauma disorder symptoms, and if you can’t keep those symptoms “in check” … you can’t do the work.

Grounding Techniques are great because they assist with CPTSD symptoms (e.g. flashbacks, hypervigilance, panic, intrusive thoughts/feelings), and dissociation symptoms (e.g. trances, timeloss, uncontrolled switching).

Grounding helps us be present in the moment, connected to the here and now.  Ugh, why would I want to do that, when I’m in so much emotional pain all the time?  Well, that’s exactly what happens when you are not grounding.  By allowing symptoms like avoidance and dissociation to be our main coping strategies, it only reinforces feelings from the past (like the emotional pain).  In fact, surviving day-by-day casts a shadow of doubt on our future.  When even the future looks so bleak, no wonder we can’t fathom connecting to the here and now!

Increasing our present-awareness actually gives us a defense against the symptoms and control back over our lives.  There are loads of techniques out there that help people.  The trick is finding the ones that work for you (and which ones work/don’t work for each part).  Here are some grounding strategies people find helpful:

  1. Anchors – These are items in/around your home (or other place you spend a lot of time–school, work, etc).  Find things that are neutral or pleasing to you.   Hear them, touch them, connect to these things in the present.  If this is your first time finding anchors, slowly walk around your house, from room to room, and find at last 3 items that you can choose as anchors.  It’s especially helpful if these are items that were not around during your trauma.  Eventually, you will be able to identify anchors in each room, so that no matter where you are, you have something that can ground you to the present.  Here is a personal example of anchors for me:

I walk into my living room after a long day of work.  I take off my winter coat and hang it up on a hook.  I take off my purse and hang that up as well.  It was a very stressful day at work, and something that happened on the job kicked up overwhelming stress and shame.  I feel so stupid, I hate what I said, and I wish I could just erase the whole day.  Instantly, one of my child parts is crying, and another part wants to engage in self-harm due to the shame.  I feel the body’s heart rate pick up, and I realize a 3rd part is headed into an anxiety attack.

“Hey guys, I know it was a stressful day, but it’s over now.  The only thing we need to do now is relax.” I take my parts away from the door and show them our living room.  “I know some of you feel like you’re stuck in trauma time, but that time is over, see?”

I point to our large flat-screen TV. “It’s 2019. We didn’t have a TV like that when we [at unsafe place], right?”

Then, I sit down on the living room couch and point to a big blown-up photograph on the wall  which is of the body eating breakfast outside in Austria.  “Oh, look! That’s Salzburg!  We went to see where Sound of Music was made.  Remember what Austria was like?”

If parts who are struggling didn’t go to Austria, we might share the experience with them in detail.  Or, we might try a different anchor: “Do you like this bracelet? It’s a grounding bead bracelet we made at Sheppard Pratt.  Do you want to help me make a new one?  Which color should we use?”

Some of the things, like the grounding beads, and other art supplies, have a special place in our living room, so we know that’s a good “grounding/anchor spot” we can always count on being there.

2.  Grounding Bag or Grounding Kit – We keep a clear makeup bag like this in our purse.  This makes them visible and easy to access in a moment of need.  Inside, we have a conglomerate of items that different parts find soothing, like:

  • Burt’s Bees Lip Balm (the tingling sensation is sooo grounding)
  • Peppermints
  • Gum
  • Tea Bags
  • A few colored pens (pink, purple) if parts want to write in our journal
  • Lavender scented hand lotion
  • Essential oil (with roller) I can roll on my skin if I need to smell something calming (we link cinnamon)
  • Fidget spinner
  • Silly putty
  • Grounding stone (a smooth river rock)

3.  Soooo many more ideas… There are just way too many for me to go on about.  Beauty After Bruises blog has an excellent post about Grounding and gives a nice list of ideas for you to try out.

My last bit of advice…is keep a list! It can be overwhelming to be introduced to so many new things.  As you try skills that work for you, keep a list in your journal to easily flip to when you need a refresher.

Here’s to a happy, in-the-moment, New Year!