Off the rails

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a bitch.
I was trying for something more academic sounding, but let’s face it, I’m not on that plane today. Nope, today is one of those days where I’m just trying to figure out where I put my sh*t. Or, more accurately, where I lost it.

I know when. That much I am certain of. But, where all my bits scattered to after that I have no bloody idea. I’m off the rails, ground to a halt and trying to find a way to right myself and start moving again.

I hate this.

And yet, I know this process very well. This is a cornerstone of my CPTSD. This cycle repeats itself ad nauseum. Every time through this process these days I’m better at being able to identify which part of the cycle I am in. That, although it sounds trivial is a huge step.

It used to be that I didn’t know what was happening. My CPTSD manifests in many ways. The aspect being activated here is my emotional dysregulation. The cycle goes something like this.

Phase 1:
Calm, cool, collected. Moving forward with life tasks and goals.
Small emotional moments are managed by either listening to the emotion or ignoring.
The sum of the emotion is no change in my equilibrium.

Phase 2:
An event of intense emotion.
The event can be almost anything and can trigger almost any emotion possible. The track-record is more to the negative, but positive emotional events have also kicked the cycle into motion.
In the event there is a sharp dichotomy about expressing or not expressing what I am feeling. More often than not I fall to the side of repression. Which, as loved ones have told me, can feel deceptively normal – or intensely dangerous. I’ll admit, from the inside I can’t tell the difference.
On the upside, I am at least getting better at acknowledging that I am feeling ‘something’. Even if I cannot always identify the emotion, these days I am at least aware that I am feeling. It may sound inconsequential, but for someone who has lived with emotional paralysis for 40+ years, this is a huge step.

Phase 3:
Working my way out of ‘the moment.’ Because of the confusion surrounding my emotions, their muted state and sometimes just the delay in determining what is happening, the ‘moment’ of emotion can last. It is like sitting down and teasing apart lines of rope that have been coated in tar. Laboriously I peel apart the strands of what I am thinking from what I am feeling. At the end of the process I need to sit with that feeling and try to not only understand it in a rational manner, but to also process it at an emotional level. That processing is another intense period of labor as the creaking and stunted machinery of my inner emotional self is prodded into motion.
Previous patterns of attempting to ignore or stuff the feelings away results in anger, depression and intense self-loathing. Enough of that and I will begin to start longing for ‘out’.
So, these days I work through it. Believe me when I call it work. It is.

Phase 4:
The aftermath of one of these events is all encompassing. Every system of myself suffers under the impact of such an event. Physically there might be muscle spasms, stomach upset, migraines, exhaustion. Emotionally the rawness caused by this unprepared for intensity leaves me in one of two states; hyper-aroused or depressed. Periods of hyper-arousal are followed by emotional numbness.
There is another feature in all this backwash. The question inevitably comes up of “Why am I doing this again?” Why am I spending time and effort and money on trying to connect with these emotions when I was doing well-enough as an automaton?
All those storylines where an android wants to ‘become a real boy’ – wow, I’m pretty sure I could talk them out of it. Because, seriously – why am I doing this?

Phase 5:
Recovering my balance.
Much as I wish that recovery from such an event was as simple as recognizing that I am in the midst of one, it isn’t. Recovery takes time. Time to process the emotions. Time to process the event that caused it. Time to herd the physical and mental processes back on-line. Time to pour it all out onto a page in an effort to move past the wreckage. Time to reflect, but not to fall into an old pattern of over analysis.

That is where I am, right now.

I’m trying to feel my jaw unknot. I’m coaxing my shoulders to relax. Telling my stomach that this too shall pass and to try to stop cannibalizing itself. Above all reminding myself to breathe.

I will end with a couple of quotes from Winston Churchill:
First “When going through Hell, keep walking,” and the second – “Success is never permanent, and failure is not fatal.”

So – here’s me, walking.

For my brother

Duane Robert Stewart
October 16, 1964 – January 18, 2021

My brother died today and I wept for him, for us.
For all the warm words we never exchanged,
For all the jealousy we held for each other,
For all the times pain was our only contact,
For the words of hurt,
For the thefts,
For the bruises,
For the silence,
And for the little boy
At the bottom of the stairs
Who screamed in panic
As I fled upward
And father raged below.
You deserved better,
And so did I.

In the can.

CPTSD is a strange thing to grow up with. Even stranger to live with once you know you have it.

For Example:
My latest InstagramPost-

There it is the manuscript for Book 4 in the Unhomed series. Still debating titles. I do like to stick with one word – but this particular word is proving elusive.
Despite that this manuscript will be placed into a drawer to ‘marinate’ for a year, at least. I’ll come back to it in Jan 2022. Provided I’m still here.

You might be wondering what is so ‘typical’ of CPTSD in that little post above. I’ll point out the last line. Now, while it may be very appropriate in 2020 to not take making it to tomorrow for granted it goes a bit deeper than that.

From Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving I pull this quote from the section on “Toxic Shame and Soul Murder.” (If that isn’t a powerful phrase I don’t know what is?)

Quote: When our emotional intelligence is restricted, we often do not know what we really want.

~ Pete Walker

I don’t think I can convey how estranged I was, and let’s admit still am, from my feelings. I can see that emotional emptiness echoing back through my life. With it I can follow the ambivalence I had about life.

One of the questions I have always struggled with is “Where do you want to be in ten years?” Or even five. Hell, I don’t know where I want to eat lunch let alone what I want to do with myself in a year. Never mind ten years.

Learned helplessness is a survival tool. Additionally, it is a phrase I absolutely loathe. But, love it or loathe it, learned helplessness is a firm part of my past. I still wrestle with it.

I never really planned for anything because promises were broken, plans were ignored, asking for something was too much. I became able to be grateful for what I was given and not to expect or hope for more. This is the core of learned helplessness. There is nothing you can do to improve your situation, so you learn to endure. Later when the cause of the suffering is removed the mind is still locked in the role of the abused and cannot see that circumstances have changed.

How does all that relate to planning for tomorrow? For me there was no planning for any future. I dealt with what was given to me. My future was to fulfill the expectations of my family. I didn’t think about my future. I didn’t get to.

So, although I have every intention of revising, editing, and publishing the book above, I know that nothing in life is promised, not even tomorrow.

Thanksgiving, rewritten

As many of my readers will know, Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday. Putting my family together with the expectations of a celebration to rival the covers of the Saturday Evening Post never worked out well. It was more like a production of The Crucible.

For many years, and I know I’m not alone in this, I avoided this holiday in any way I could. I worked. I was ‘on-call’. I watched a sick kitten. Even sitting here thinking of those past gatherings has my stomach trying to tie itself into knots. Easy stomach. Down boy.

Being an analytical sort I thought I would sit down and dissect exactly what was going through my brain. Plus, it takes me out of the arena of emotions and solidly back on the ground of intellectualism. Hooray for avoidance.

What is Thanksgiving at its very core?

  • A historical commemoration
  • A family gathering
  • A celebration of (something?)
  • A time to reflect on what we are thankful for

I have no problem with these ideas.

I believe in commemorating historical events. I don’t believe in most of the myth that surrounds the discovery and early European colonization of the Americas. That is a history lesson for another day.

Family getting together is not a bad thing. Not in the main. Some people simply have ‘chosen’ families rather than biological. I know that it is common to trot out the old saw that ‘Blood is thicker than water.’ Indeed, some folks have wonderful, giving, supportive families. Others, don’t.

Celebrating something. Sure. Why not?
But, to celebrate something doesn’t require mounds of excess that devolves into this frenzy of acquisition. Again, that is a different essay.

A time to reflect on what we are thankful for. Yes. This is, in my opinion, the reason to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day.

So what do I have a problem with? The expectation that the day will be perfect. That the family will rise to some level of decency and caring that isn’t there the other 360+ days of the year. That in one day we can reach over the chasms between us for appearances. To provide the feeling, no matter how false, that we are a close loving family.

I stopped being able to do that years ago. The mask and the costume wouldn’t fit anymore. I was tired of pretending.

It’s a sad thing to think about. There are lots of ‘maybe’ and ‘what if’ and ‘why’ in all those memories. There’s a yearning for something that we pretended to have really been true. It’s a lovely wish.

I know it is just a fancy, all that stuff about wishes and fishes and bicycles and beggars.

I would rewrite Thanksgiving and I would make the center of it consist of gratitude. I admit I would strip it of most of the bells and whistles. So what might it look like?

It would look like me writing and contemplating all the people who have helped me this year. I would take a moment to say ‘Thank You’.

Thank you to the people of the CPTSD community for your support when I have needed it. Thank you for allowing me to help and offer support where I could.
Thank you to the mental health professionals who have helped me find more pieces of myself.

Thank you to the wonderful folks at Episodic Publishing for having faith in my novel.
Thank you to LaNae and Kaleigh and Bex for helping polish the manuscript and for creating images that will help it shine.

Then I would probably go into a long litany of individuals of who I wanted to thank, for their help, their encouragement, their kindness. The occasional dose of reality and keeping me on track. My chosen family whom I miss and pray that you all stay safe and healthy.

I would finish by thanking those who are on this journey. Thank you for supporting me, for understanding, and most of all sharing this road with me.

Two paths diverged in a yellow wood

I love the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost which contains the line used for the title. The simple idea that we all face choices that define our lives. Those choices can be momentous or tiny. They can be so small that at the time we didn’t notice that we had made a choice.

I suspect we have all stood at a decision point in the path and tried to discern which one would be ‘better’. For me, the reality is that often I made the choice based on what I knew others expected. I did this no only because it was the expectation, but equally because I had no idea what I wanted. I spent the bulk of my life constrained by fear of the unknown, fear of punishment, fear of speaking up, fear of speaking or doing, at all.

I am learning, rather late in life, that these choices were mine or at least they were meant to be mine. I still wonder, were the choices taken from me or did I abdicate them in the hope of buying safety?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I stood upon a road facing a divide,
I trembled knowing that on one path
Without premonition, sign or guide
Both branches were equally eyed.
Filled with doubt I must choose to pass.

On both roads stood dread unknown
Faceless fears and boogie men
Childhood monsters though I’m grown
Follow me far from home
And try to draw me back again.

I was caged safe and sound
My hands could span from wall to wall
In silence I sat making myself small
Blinded to the bars that did surround
For if I did not rise then I could not fall.

When I saw the cage I had designed
Silver bars and barbed wire fence
About myself for fear I did wind
I was prisoner in my own mind
And that has made all the difference.

As the author of the poem stated, “And that has made all the difference”.

Paradox #3 : joy and fear

Yesterday was a remarkable day. So many people felt as if they were coming up for air after fighting to breathe for years. The announcement of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris being elected as the next president and vice-president of the United States was literally celebrated around the world.

All the aspects of life that bring my CPTSD into full bloom were central at that moment; change, relief, uncertainty, hope. I was caught between feeling the moment too much or not feeling it at all.

That first instant of glorious relief was cut short by the fear that this was an illusion and would not last. As I watched the celebrations erupting around me the only thing that passed through my mind was, How long until we find out this is a lie?

I couldn’t dive into celebration. My brain, my past, kept telling me that this was a mirage. Don’t trust it. Wait until you see if it sticks. Don’t let go. So, I kept that death grip on myself that I call rational self-control.

Change can bring such a relief. It can also throw everything into the air indiscriminately. With change I wonder will it stay? How long? Can I trust it? What are the rules for survival now?

Folks with CPTSD often live with the knowledge that what you have been given can just as swiftly be taken away. So many parts of me were echoing with past experience last night that I felt ready to fly to pieces. The memories were jumbled and pressed in from every direction. This was the moment of the backlash, or the crushing blow.

This was the moment when if you allowed yourself to believe the world contains goodness you invited disaster. Happiness only exists in milliseconds because inevitably the hope is smashed, the toy broken, the dream shattered.

With CPTSD you try to remember that this moment can’t last. We guard our feelings so closely because we have been taught that to show emotion is like placing a drop of blood in the water. To demonstrate a moment of happiness is the same action that summons the monsters which will destroy it.

Hope. Hope is the most treacherous emotion of all. That is the driving force that makes you pull yourself over the glass time after time. Hope is so often an illusion, untrustworthy. For those of us who live with CPTSD hope is a double edged sword where both sides can wound .

So, last night, with the world celebrating around me, I clung to my husband unable to breathe. I lay there feeling the muscles around my eyes tighten, my jaw clench, my throat close, my chest contract. Afraid to breathe, I was waiting for the blow to come.

Coming Alive Amidst a Pandemic.

Oh, the irony.
Thirty plus years of
Being various degrees of suicidal
And now we have a pandemic
Upending the world
I want to live.

Strangely, that’s about average for me.
Let me take a moment to unpack this one.

My depression started somewhere in seventh or eighth grade.
It’s possible it started earlier, but
I have no memories earlier
Except for a very few, so let’s say – around 12.

At age 12 I started to self-harm.
‘Escape’ was the word always in my thoughts.
I didn’t know much as a pre-teen
but, trust me, I knew I wanted out.

At this tender age
Out was still a fantasy
Of rescue or of running away.

Other people, with other issues,
Might have managed to escape on their own.
I couldn’t.

Where would I escape to?
Was escape even possible?
Did I even deserve better?
Who did I think I was?
This was where God put me.
This was my lot.
Suck it up.
Manage.

As a teenager, my resources changed.
I had access to a car and endless mountain roads.
I was always safe in my car.
I felt ‘in control’ of something.
That was where I started to think
Maybe, at least, I could control my death.

My fantasies of escape became fantasies of dying.
I wore black constantly.
I was erasing myself from my life.
(Not that there was much to erase.)
Vanishing before my own eyes.
I was content with that.

I was content with
The process of unbecoming
Because I had a way out.
Sitting in the driveway was
A 1980s bright orange mustang.
Ugly as sin, but the straight six was a beast.

Having that door made staying easier.
Because I knew I didn’t have to stay.
I had a choice.
Of all the things in my life that were broken,
Out of my control,
Dangerous, or terrifying.
I had control over one thing.
One choice.

How does all of this relate to today?
For better than 30 years
I managed to face tomorrow
Because I knew that if I didn’t want to,
If it was too hard, I didn’t have to.
I could stop.

In my 20s,
I saw all my friends growing and flying,
Becoming these spectacular people.
While I was sheathed in lead.
The learned helplessness,
The ‘shoulds’ of my family
Ruled every aspect of my life.

I slept a lot.
hoping I wouldn’t wake.
And when I was awake
I prayed to die.

Dear God,
Fix me.
Or finish me.

I actively debated suicide.
And came close to death a couple of times.

I was so depressed
I had my first hallucination.
Thankfully, it was also my last.

My 30s were calmer,
At least, on the surface.
I finally found help for the depression,
But not for the problem at the root of all of it.
Ideation moved back and forth
Between passive and active.

As my 30s wore on
I found the pendulum
Spent more time towards the passive side.
That was good.
I was able to function.

Although I went through the motions
I did not understand
This ‘joi de vivre’ that others expected

I’m not saying I was never happy.
I am saying every day was a trudge.
An exercise in existing.

So, where I slept through most of my 20s,
My 40s were marked by
A type of emotional numbness.
On occasion, the ice beneath my feet would break.
Plunging me into terror.

Two years ago,
Perhaps three
I finally made the connection with cptsd
I found a good therapist to work through it.
I’m still working on it.
Likely, I will for the rest of my life.

Now, I’m over 50 and discovering how to live.
I grieve so much of the life I missed.

So here’s the irony:
I’m writing. I adore my husband.
Finally, I am discovering who I am.
I have put most of my desire for death aside.
I want to live. I have something to live for.

Here, at a very scary moment,
In a world that I have always shunned
Because of my twisted roots,
At the moment when
Life seems most precarious,
My life is most precious.
Now – I want to live.

NaNoWriMo 2020 – Out of Darkness

Yes, the “Holiday Season” is difficult for me. It has been for almost forty-plus years. In that time I have tried many different approaches to managing the time of the year between November 1 and January 3. I’ve tried sun-lamps, vacations, visiting my husband’s family, going nowhere, shunning parties, and straight up hiding. As you might guess this time of the year is pretty dark for me.

Because of that I search for the good in a holiday. Strangely in the darkest part of winter with Solstice, Yule, Kwanza, Christmas, Chanakya I actually find it easier to manage. The emphasis is on bringing light to the world. That is something I can celebrate.

Thanksgiving, not so much. This holiday carries a good share of the family dysfunction that marks most of this season. However, I can’t find an aspect of it that helps me relate to it in a positive way. Because of that November has become a month of dread.

Every year culminated with this slow wind-up to Thanksgiving, the heat of the proverbial water increasing until a rolling boil was reached at Christmas. “The Holidays” were a mania of seeming.

When I discovered NaNoWriMo I found a way to pass the days of November which allowed me to avoid the slow escalation of expectations. Being able to lose myself in my writing helps me focus on something that is very tangible. Ink on a page. Work.

All the expectation, and the anxiety, the roles we played becomes fodder for stories. I can take that pain and turn it inside out and into something useful, healthy, beautiful. NaNoWriMo helps me navigate my most difficult time of the year.

Things are changing, slowly.

I’m beginning to look forward to November. For me it is the start of ‘hygge season’, time to curl up to listen to the wind, and to allow my imagination to wander across a page. Send up some warmed cider and a turkey sandwich and I’ll get along just fine.

Positives we have learned from CPTSD

Weird title, right?

I saw a thread over on Twitter, some of you all may have seen or participated in it as well.
What it was about was looking at the positive side of the traits of CPTSD that we have.

I was skeptical at first. It struck me as rather ‘wishful thinking’. But, I stuck around and listened and I realized there was something amazing happening.

Folks in the thread were giving examples of the parts of CPTSD that they struggle with, and sometimes another reader would turn that struggle into a positive. Sometimes the person who still struggled with the trait could express how it influenced their life in a positive way. It was, for me, a lightbulb moment.

So I started thinking: What is one of the biggest things I struggle with or a trait of CPTSD that I still cling to? And has that had any positive outcomes in my life? For me, a trait that I know I still possess is the inability to ask for anything. Which results in a distinct pride of being able to do without, or do with less. To make do. I’ve been called Spartan in the manner that I live.

The positive side of that is that I have skills that are quickly vanishing from the 1st world. I can preserve food, I can mend just about anything, I know basic carpentry and electrical work, and I’m thrifty.

Those are some worthwhile skills to have.

What is it for you? Give it a think. Perhaps you can see the positive outgrowth of some of your traits. Please share them so that others who might be struggling with something similar can see that there are some useful/positive aspects that we can dig out of the mud of our past.

Midnight Writing : July 2015

This is it. The dark and dangerous hour when my mind, released by a weary body and the tasks of the day cease their incessant calling, this is the hour when my mind ignites. Words, unbidden and unbiddable cascade across my mind in a torrent that I cannot stop, and would never hope to withstand. The words tumble and converge. Ideas branch from one another and then wind their way through a mind in chaos, only to re-merge, just to fragment again. 

This spell that the words put on me shatter my peace. What little I have. I am compelled, down the darkened stairs into the light of a single flame to write what I am bidden by the words in my mind. Uncontrolled, chaotic, tumbling, spinning, crashing, forming and reforming, again and again. So I pour darkness into darkness, howling with ink onto a page that will end crammed with vowels and syllables and ideas and have no meaning.   It is the stuff of madness.  

As lighting gives but a fraction of illumination I chase the words hoping that in the chaos I can glimpse some semblance of the mind behind them. Is it vast, beyond my comprehension. Is that why I can only ride the torrent of words and not find sense in them. I tie up my hair, a distraction from the relief I am trying to find.  Words. 

What are you reading, my Lord. 
Words.   Words.   Words.  

(Hamlet, Act II Scene II) 

Hamlet had it right.  Words.  They are the key to and the respite from madness.  For in words are both the hinting and healing of a mind in chaos.  Find the right words, string them together, make sense and Lo, you are sane.  Find the right words, string them together and have a meaning that means nothing or which cannot be discerned and Lo, you are mad. 

I know I am not mad, I ride the torrent, down into Charybdis and back again. Taken up by the same words that pour out, for unlike Claudius, though my words are somewhat torn, they rise up to heaven.  In the darkness they fly like sparks.   

There is no draft in this.  This is pure, pouring out of what is inside. There is no editor, there is no process, but to sit in the dark, and to let the pen cross the page. The house may creak and groan around me, but the only sound will be the churning of the words in my head as I struggle to push them out of the pen. Out through the fingers, out into the world, where they will dry. Living things drying to mere reminders of the turmoil.  

Sometimes there is a reason. Some days there is a thought or an idea or a passion that cannot remain silent any longer. That need will start the torrent of words and feelings and emotion that is so often shut securely away. Not tonight. There is no wound behind the words tonight. This night in this stillness they simply wanted to shed their skins and fly. So I obey. Eyes closed, watching the words form in my mind and paying no attention to the page. I let my hands move unfettered across the surface, no resistance to the words that want to escape or shape themselves. Let them go. Unimpeded. Freely. For only in that is there peace. Try to hold onto them, they will choke and dam everything behind them.   Let them run. Let them be. 

When silence comes. My hand is cramped. Ink smudges the page. There are misspellings, but there are no mistakes. The mistake would be to try to hold the swell back to ensure better precision. This isn’t an exercise in writing. It is survival.