An Analogy: the Wetsuit

When you grow up in a minefield, it seems normal.

People often find it difficult to explain, or to understand Complex PTSD. I often find myself falling into metaphor or analogy to explain the experience. The reason for using an abstraction is because in Complex PTSD the particulars from one person to another vary – greatly. I have found that trying to paint a detailed picture often results in becoming lost in the need for exactitude. It is impossible to be be ‘exact’ for everyone. Enter the analogy.

One question I have seen repeatedly about Complex PTSD is “Why am I having to deal with all this NOW? Why not when it was happening? Why 10/20/30/40 years after the fact?”

In the past I have often explained that when disfunction is your norm – you don’t see it as dysfunction.

Recently I thought this idea needed to grow. While comparing the environment to a minefield works it doesn’t go far enough. The minefield only addresses the environment, while Complex PTSD is the product of how we adapted to that environment.

Think of all those adaptations we learned or created to keep us safe as a wetsuit. See it in your mind and make it as thick or detailed as you like. Maybe you have one of those ‘survival suits’ for the North Sea, light blinking on the top and bright orange. Perhaps your wet suit is more like the body glove of neoprene we often visualize on Navy Seals and Frogmen.*

No matter how you envision your suit to look it all served one purpose – to preserve your life in a hostile environment. By ‘hostile environment’ any diver will tell you – you don’t need sharks to make the water dangerous. The water itself – everything surrounding you – is quite capable of ending you.

That is the mental state in which many of us grew up. Life itself, our most immediate environment posed an imminent threat to our survival. Perhaps there was a shark – a person(s) with the ability to harm you. Perhaps there was not – but your surroundings were as cold as Arctic waters. And some of us endured both.**

To survive we adapted. Those adaptations became the ‘wetsuit’ we wore to help us survive.

Our ‘wetsuit’ served us while we were in those dangerous places. But as we grow, age, we leave the environment(s) that caused us to make those adaptations.

When we no longer need that wetsuit because we have left the freezing water we don’t abandon it. Primarily because we are unaware of it. Those adaptations are integrated. Our ‘wetsuit’ is an intrinsic part of who we are.

Over time, out of that hostile environment, that wetsuit – our adaptations – no longer serve us. The neoprene becomes hot, binding, restrictive, and could even become more than an impairment, but a danger. ***

It is not a sudden appearance of Complex PTSD. We have carried it with us since we entered that hostile place. The reason for the sudden appearance is not because the wetsuit has changed, but because they have changed their environment and no longer need it.

Now – comes the work of peeling that sucker off. And that’s part of the reason you always have a dive buddy. It is easier to get out of the wetsuit when you have help.

At least, that’s one way to think about it.


*Note: I met one of the original ‘frogmen’, once, years ago. His stories were beyond impressive.
**Note: Just imagine a shark wearing a wooly knit jumper.
***Note: Good friend went to a Halloween party dressed as a ‘diver’ – full suit 5mm – almost cooked himself into heat stroke.

Counterpoint

Poetry Counterpoint Complex PTSD

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow
~TS Eliot
(The Hollow Men)

That space between
A point
Of precarious balance
Where we exist
Both alive and not.
~ M.Stewart
(on complex-ptsd)

By Jove – I think I finally get it.

white clouds and blue sky

This post is probably going to sound a lot like bragging – but I promise there is a point at the end…

I am challenging myself to do ‘one big thing a day’.

Why? Because I stand in amazement at what an ordinary human can accomplish in a morning. For decades I have watched friends (not so much family) just soar through their days. They get thing, after thing, after thing done. They just crank out the minor jobs of day-to-day living.

And I stand there stunned and mystified as to how they can do it.

HOW?

Then this morning…

I was up early.

Made my bed.

Ate breakfast.

Did a little social media.

Decided that my ‘one big thing’ challenge was going to be to clean my desk off.

So I went upstairs with my plastic grocery bag of cleaning supplies – and a bag to toss garbage into – and a bag for donates. A couple of rags to do some dusting. And my cup of water.

But that turned into –

You know I could use a chair in here.

(Into the spare room) (Look! A chair we aren’t using)

Moved the chair into my office space.

Went back to the spare room and moved my husband’s inversion table closer to the window. The mirror isn’t in danger now and I can get to the linen chest. And he has a window to look out of. Win-Win-Win.

Noticed the floor needed spot cleaning… grabbed a rag dumped some water on it from my cup, let it sit.

Felt like some music – had to clear my desk anyway – so set up a place for the computer and hit Pandora.

And on. And on. And on.

By lunch I had moved a set of shelves from the basement to my office. Reorganized my desk. Tamed all the cables. Danced. Made a bed for the cat on the shelves…

And I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that I had been more than just ‘functional’. Damn, I rocked this morning.

The point to all this is I noticed WHY this morning was so productive.

I GOT OUT OF MY HEAD.

Everytime that little voice said… AUGH – I’m overwhelmed!

I would pause – and talk to myself.

“Really? We’re mopping a spot off the floor. This is a problem?”

And – that voice of being overwhelmed quieted a bit.

“OK, just this.”

Next time. AUGH – I’m overwhelmed!

“We are just brushing the dust off the shelves – nothing says we have to do anything else. Is this really a problem?”

A little quieter.

“OK, just this.”

I managed to “Ok, just this.” my way into having a bloomin’ productive morning. And it was all because I listened to that anxious little voice – responded to it – and just did one more little thing.

I’m guessing all my ‘productive’ friends don’t have that almost instant anxiety always in their heads stopping them from doing most anything.

I think/hope I have tamed mine a bit more this morning and more importantly – learned how to work around it.

I hope this helps someone else.

The Beginning Writer: ah, humility

beginning writer writing

I am here at my desk taking big calming breaths as I look at a mountain. A figurative mountain, but still it is impressive and daunting in its size for a beginning writer.

I have to climb it.

It’s not a question of do I want to or do I not. It is a necessity. One that I hadn’t considered. Actually, I’ll admit, I thought I wouldn’t have to climb this particular mountain. Not so.

I have reached the point, which I suspect all writers come to somewhere along the way, where I have realized that although I can tell a good story, and I have a good story to tell, I still have a lot of craft to learn.

The realization is both painful and, I hope, ultimately rewarding.

I have a lot of craft to learn.

I’ll admit – it is a painful realization. It’s right up there with stepping on a lego block, or stubbing your toe on the doorjamb. It’s the kind of pain that after a long hard day makes you sit down on the floor in utter defeat.

I suspect this is one of those junctures in life where people either give up or they dig deeper. I wonder how other writers have faced this particular Rubicon. What was the moment Neil Gaiman looked at his story and said – this is rubbish? And what made him go on? Margaret Atwood? Toni Morrison?

What made each of them know that this dream – their dream – was worth the effort? They embraced that challenge even though it was, maybe, wrapped in a bitter pill.

There are moments in learning that define careers. I’ll use Chemistry as one example – because I’m a Chemist. There is one notorious class that is often referred to as ‘the weed out’ class. It’s Organic Chemistry. I have seen dozens of people decide to switch their major after failing Orgo, as it is called in the nerd world of the lab. That course has altered the trajectory of more people than I can imagine. A great many Chemistry majors become Biology majors after Orgo. I had friends who wanted to become doctors, but after failing Organic Chemistry they changed their aim.

But, a few of my friends who had failed found something in themselves that refused to let this block derail them from their future. One friend took orgo three times before he passed. I admire him immensely. He’s got grit.

The beginning writer needs grit

I’ll be honest, I never needed grit. I have been blessed with a curiosity and the ability to understand complex things. I’ve always been more abacus than human. That’s from the Complex PTSD, but I won’t take you down that rabbit hole today.

After decades I finally have a dream in my life that is ‘my dream’. It is also something that is not coming easily. So, I’m learning grit.

I’m learning to recognize the places where I lack skill. Which is a hard thing to do with the drum beat of ‘not enough’ in the back of your head. But, I have learned that in order to get where I want to be I have to fight for it. I fight my own failings, and keep moving along that learning curve. Though, not always as smoothly as I would like.

I now know that to achieve anything that is close to your heart you have to climb mountains. Sometimes they are mountains that you never saw. But, the worst mountains are those that you thought you could avoid because you were already beyond them.

It’s humbling to find yourself at the foot of one of those.

So here I am. A bit bruised, my little proto-ego having taken a solid shot to the chops. Feeling very humble and getting ready to start my journey.

A new post up at the CPTSD Foundation

Ah yes, the Holidays.
Here is my Thanksgiving wish for you, and me.
This will be the first official ‘holiday’ at my mother’s house in 5+ years.
The feeling is kinda “I wonder how it’ll go” v. “OMG – What have I done?”
I’ll be keeping all of you in my thoughts.
Hang in there.

Fierce Independence

Complex PTSD Survivor Voices vacant black and gray chair in room

A part of the Complex PTSD Survivor Voices Series. This strives to be a safe place for Complex PTSD survivors to write about their experiences. Our stories are as different as our journeys.

What is Complex-PTSD

by Anonymous

Fierce independence and self-reliance are survival skills. We don’t see the rage or pain behind it, we don’t hear the primal screams of an abandoned child or see the unshed tears, the shattered pieces of her soul. We see someone strong, capable, courageous, a miracle…

The world is so busy praising her survival, the miracle she is alive that they are blind to the scars, the tattered brokenness of her. They all forget how fragile she really is, maybe it is her fault, after all, she never forced them to see her, she allowed them to live in the happy oblivion of her survival miracle.

They said she was strong she sighed, shook her, kept silent while the world prattled on the praise..”No, you are, you’re so strong!! I can’t imagine living through all that…blah blah blah” Do we really think she wanted to? That it was a choice? She tried a hundred times to die… by the way she didn’t hear anything said after all that, the noise in her head just got too loud.

Everyone is so sure that she is so strong and capable, brave and resilient, such a fucking miracle how dare she shed a tear…they see strong, capable, brave…they can’t see the girl, they don’t accept her truth, if perhaps by chance a silent tear falls from her eye, she wipes it away quickly, the world ignores it, and the bullshit continues…just once perhaps if we could shut the fuck up long enough and look at her, see her, accept her, we could actually be helpful beyond platitudes that perpetuate the facade of strength, survival, and miracles, maybe just maybe we could hold her hand, offer a shoulder, or just shut up and hold space, then maybe just maybe the tears of her wounded broken shattered soul could fall and she would begin to heal…until then she must for our sake, for our comfort, for our selfishness continue to be strong, capable, courageous, a fucking miracle.

Gabby Petito – Another Lost

Gabby Petito

The video of the stop in Moab Utah.
Fair warning – It is hard to watch.

I heard the news this morning about Gabby Petito as I checked my feeds. The confirmation of my worst fears was there, displayed on the screen.

I heard there was a video of the interaction with law enforcement in Utah. I had avoided it until now. But now I needed to see it. I thought it was necessary – though, at the time, I couldn’t put ‘why’ into words.

Watching it reminded me so much of my own past with domestic and relational violence. The images hit close to home – the reverberation shaking loose forgotten things. In those forgotten images I pieced together the ‘why’.

#metoo

I suddenly appreciated anew that I survived. That I escaped. I saw again how close I had skirted danger. I celebrated the ones I helped get out and I cried for the ones that died. And I was reminded of one gold brick put in a friend’s wall with his name on it. A figurative gold brick, but nonetheless one where we all paid a very high price.

I remembered something I had believed long ago, and I remembered how my experience changed me. So I’m going to say something no one is going to like to hear, and then I’ll tell my story.

I believe everyone needs to experience that powerlessness of being the victim of domestic violence.

I’ll soften that statement and say – ok, maybe not everyone. Maybe there are people out there who can understand that position without having lived it, but most people can’t.

I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all.

I grew up in a house that was poisoned. I won’t go into the particulars of that today, but I will describe what those years made me.

I was strong. I was stoic. I needed no one. I didn’t feel pain, not physical, not emotional, not mental. I never needed help. I was independent. I was hyperaware of everything. I knew my exits. And I knew to never admit fear or weakness because that was blood in the water.

This was me at 14, 16, 18 and on. So in those years when I heard of domestic abuse I was incredulous, even indignant. The lack of agency on the part of these women, the stuff they endured. How could they?

I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand.

I thought ‘I would have left.’ I would have got up and walked out. I would have, I would have…

Later, as I emerged into the world from the claustrophobic circles of high school I was convinced that every person was like my family, or like the evil portrayed on television, or found in the newspapers that I made myself a promise. If anyone ever struck me out of anger I would leave. There would be no second chance. There would be no reconciliation. It would be over and I would be gone.

So, why didn’t these women leave? I would.
I still didn’t understand.
And when I made this declaration on the first date – as was my practice – I saw very few second dates. As a matter of fact – the only second dates I had were with the men who would turn into my abusers.

Funny that.

What I didn’t know at the time – although I lived it every minute of my life – was that I wanted a rescuer. I wanted someone to come in and sweep me up in a romantic embrace, promise to never abandon me, and save me from my past. I wanted to be rescued from my life so badly that to someone abusive I must have looked like a neon sign.

And when my rescuers came I couldn’t see anything other than the ‘good’ that they presented at first. I ignored warnings from friends. My father knew – but he didn’t say anything – that’s a different story. These men became my rescuers – my romantic partner, my tormentor, my abuser.

I couldn’t reconcile the two realities. I was primed to believe that something was wrong with me. I believed that somehow I earned the disdain, the silence, the taunts, the threats. After all explosive violence was the legacy of my family – so, at least there wasn’t that.

Somewhere along the way that protective cocoon that he formed around me started to smother. I was isolated. Our finances were combined, we lived together. How could I leave? I couldn’t hurt him. He didn’t mean to hurt me.

Somewhere in those years, I began to understand why women (or men) don’t ‘just leave’ an abusive relationship. There are lives – jobs, obligations, a thousand little ties that connect you to where you are physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If you sever one thread there are still the other thousand to draw you back again and again.

And make no mistake those who would abuse another become skilled in playing their victim like an instrument. They are able to draw out any emotion they wish. To them, you are part toy, part safety blanket, part mirror, part captive audience.

My abuser had a distinct pattern that he moved his victims through. I stuck around long enough that not only did I get to see all the roles he shoved his partners into, I played those roles myself. When I saw the entire tableau, I helped the women he was grooming to leave before they were caught in the pernicious cycle. And they, in turn, helped me to leave.

Let me emphasize I was never struck. I don’t know if that is because of my declaration at the beginning or if I just got out in time. I suspect the latter. But, even if I was never physically hurt, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t wounded by the time I left.

Those years in the crazy-making, gaslighting, emotionally battering world stripped me of so much. When I finally fled I was a fraction of myself. And after you escape there is shame, and anger at yourself and them. There is the world not able to understand how you could leave someone ‘so nice’. There is a whole new landscape to navigate. And you start on your knees. Or, at least, I did.

But, I came away from those years with a new understanding, new compassion for those who live with violence. It is not something you can just drop and walk away from. You fight your way out of it. You fight to reclaim yourself. And I finally understood that leaving wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning.

Nailed in the past… a paradox

This is one of those things that when I think about my Complex-PTSD should have been obvious. How I missed it for so long really confounds me.

I often talk about the paradoxes that arise in C-PTSD. Here I have stumbled into another one. It goes something like this.

Huh. I just realized how weird it is to live with one foot nailed in the past when you can’t remember any of it.

ThinkingTooLoud

The Things We Keep

Cover The Things We Keep

The Things We Keep, the premier novel of Ms. Julee Balko, is a story about grief, both that which we let go and that which we keep. The thread of grieving carries the story from far before we meet Serena to the final resolution of her own pain. As the reader progresses through the layers of understanding Ms. Balko reveals how grief can poison a family.

The Things We Keep begins with one of the little absurdities that follow a death in the family. Serena is swamped, as are all survivors, with the photos and tchotchkes that carried meaning for her mother. Those items now missing the memory that made them precious become part of the sea of ‘stuff’ that accompanies death.

While alive those maddening quirks of our families are concealed in pantries – they aren’t ours to deal with. After a person’s death – suddenly all those quirks become our property and our problem. When the story opened with Serena dealing with her mother’s cans of beets I immediately understood where she was.

And seriously, what do you do with 53 cans of beets?
Or, in my case, 32 loaf pans?

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko
The cover of The Things We Keep Book Reviews and Quote – “Family complexity told with honest simplicity.”

Death, the great equalizer, is also the great reorganizer. In the wake of death within a family, there is an inevitable reshuffling of roles, of emotions, of perceptions, and of truths.

Compounding her grief, for Serena, was the question of why? Why had there been such coldness towards her from her mother? Why had a chasm formed between them?

The loss of her mother comes with both the loss of her opportunity for resolution and a new chance for answers. Although Serena could no longer ask her mother for the reasons, death finally broke the grip of her mother’s choice to hide the truth.

The revelations tumble out as layer upon layer of false memory is peeled away. With the final exposure of the original loss which started the chain of losses throughout the family comes freedom for everyone. The heavy warping burden of grief is finally lifted and the healing of an old wound can begin.

Ms. Balko captures grief with all its facets. She portrays all of the exhausting, frustrating, maddening minefield of emotions that comprise grief, both your own and everyone else’s, with heartbreaking honesty.

The prose is clear and painfully honest. Her words were perfectly pitched for this story of difficult relations and complex family dynamics. Lines of flowery prose would have stifled the impact by dressing it in too much perfume.

As always with grief and secrets, you need to explore down to the roots before you can let go and finally heal.

The Things We Keep is, in short, a complex story told with honest simplicity.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Healing the Invisible

There is an event in the writing world called #PitMad. It is a Twitter event with a specialized hashtag, #PitMad in this case, where writers can pitch their novels to agents. It’s a bit like Carnivale crossed with Bedlam.

These events have really taken off in the past couple of years. From initially a few hundred pitches over the day agents and publishers can now be bombarded with thousands of pitches an hour. How they wade through all that, I have no idea.

How you stand out as a writer is even harder.

This is where my Complex PTSD enters the picture.

For someone who has grown up in an environment where they were in essence ‘invisible’ learning how to be seen, and heard, and noticed is an exercise in something not only new, but frightening in cases. If, like me, your home was dysfunctional with explosive anger you might also have learned that being unseen was safer. I learned early that it was better to be the child that didn’t need, or want, or ask.

I learned that lesson so well, so many times that I even made up a little chatechism that I recited every night.

Don’t Ask – You’ll be denied.
Don’t Rely – You’ll be disappointed.
Don’t Trust – You’ll be betrayed.

By the time I was 13 I had carved a reminder of this into my arm so I would never forget it again. I still have those scars fourty years later.

But, I’m trying not to live by those rules any more. Trying. The healing doesn’t always go smoothly, or in a straight line. Think of it more like a mental health cha-cha. Sometimes you go forward, sometimes you go back. You get the idea.

To tie these two things together – PitMad and CPTSD recovery – think of it as peeling off layers and layers of habitual camoflague. Rule one of PitMad is if you want to ‘win’ an agents attention via the event – you have to enter. You must put yourself out there. An agent is not going to come knocking on your door.

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay : Words by MStewart

Participation, putting myself ‘out there’, that means making an active attempt to be seen. That idea just registers in my core as pure insanity.

Be Seen. NO! That’s when ‘bad things’ happen. You get ignored or hurt when you are seen.

Don’t touch it! Just, put the idea down, and slowly step away.

One day you finally figure “Meh, I’ll try it.” So, you do. And you hear the worst thing you could. SILENCE.

Why is silence the worst? When in a situation like PitMad it could mean –

  • The agent just isn’t looking for a fantasy book about a mentally challenged heroine.
  • The agent blinked when your pitch scrolled by.
  • They stepped away for a minute (they’re human, too)
  • Their dog farted and they had to clear the room.
  • They already have a book that is a fantasy about a mentally challenged heroine.

Who knows? There are literally millions of reasons that no one put a little red heart next to your entry. And the competition is stiff. Thousands of entries for all kinds of books scroll by during the day. There is not enough time to respond to them all.

But, though my rational brain knows this, my emotions tie themselves into knots and I’m that small, inconsequential, invisible girl again. Being back in that place makes me wonder if I ever left it at all. Maybe that invisibility is permanent? Perhaps there is nothing I can do to be seen or heard. I will forever be shouting into the void. And, even there, drowned out by millions of others. Never to be more than a dull anonymous speck among stars.

Ouch.

After a few tries you wonder if the voices of the CPTSD are right. You fear you never will be ‘visible’.Part of you contracts with the pain of the idea. But, there is a tiny voice within undulled by all the abuses and fear that whispers – “Try.”

That seed, our original and true self is the one we must nourish.

So, rest when you must. When you can, move on; sure in the knowledge that the Universe sees you.