Sunday, May 26, 2013

Mental illness: Laughter in Crazytown.

Mental illness can feel like being trapped in the movie "Labyrinth." You swear you're walking straight ahead on an undeviating path. You look at the walls around you and they seem flat, sturdy and sound. Every once and a while you stop and talk to some sentient rodent who seems, while unusual, reasonable enough. Sometimes you take their queues on the way you should go. But then if you could see yourself from above, you'd know you were swirling around in an endless corkscrew of constantly shuffling walls and talking to mischievous sock-puppets operated by your own imagination.

The worst is the confusion. In your paranoia you absolutely believe, without any shadow of doubt, that klutzy barista Sharon throws scalding lobs of mocha at you in an attempt to make you feel shame. In spasms of post traumatic stress, you are entirely convinced with histrionic certainty that your assigned work shadow Brian is really orchestrating a plot to get you alone and assault you. Your disassociation invisibly splits your mind into raucous versions of "Crossfire" in which you and another you both attest with equal sincerity that you really are a Republican traditionalist who just wants to go to work, and you are also an anarchist hippie twitching to chuck all your things in a van and move to Venice Beach tonight. Then you wake up the next morning sleeping in the van in the kmart parking lot curled up on a pile of fifty cent stuffed animals and you have no idea why. (It's not as fun as it sounds.)

And don't even get me started on the medication. There are pills that give you a "safety net" but replace the whispering voices of sinister evil with a constant ringing in your ears that makes you want to bust your ear drums with booming Rastafari just to get some peace. Then there are the pills that temper your highs but make you feel like some rubberized prisoner in that moment when Ben Stein drones "Beuler. . .  Beuler. . .  Beuler. . . " and you can barely move your legs to escape because every part of you feels like it's swimming in lukewarm pudding. And then there are the pills that make you slightly less convinced that everyone you know wants to kill you, but simultaneously make you gain forty-two pounds and have untoward "leakage" that none of those previously murderous friends can ever discover.

Sometimes you feel your only choices are a disease that is a whirligig of interminably conflicting inputs and swings through bliss, terror and despair, and a recovery that is a parched desert of grey-tone faces,  muffled voices, dulled sensations and drowsily stumbling thoughts.

Plus, without your disease, in recovery, you can feel completely un-anchored. You may have been convinced that the voice in your head, who told you your place in the mystical architecture was eternal, penitent punishment, was God's. If that voice disappears, does God vanish too? Maybe you never lived one day not impelled through frenetic busywork by mania. How do you fill your hours once you're calm?

And who do you connect with? It's not like you can just go up to the guy in the lunch room and say, "Gosh you know, sometimes it is just so hard to stop crying in the morning in time to get ready for work, right?" 'Cause it's not like he'll, perchance, just back away slowly and maybe pull the fire alarm or anything.

You feel isolated. Like it's just you, and your disease, alone on a wide grassy plain with nothing else but crickets. It's scary.

But you're not alone. A recent article showcasing three people who got better from severe schizophrenia and depression highlights that, to stay well, they:

Have fun. And connect with others.

Often, we who bear mild to extreme crazies feel as though anyone who might discover our inner Wonderland would go running screaming into the night. We can also feel excessive shame. Sometimes the only people who feel safe are those suffering like us. And there are few more healing remedies than laughing with someone about that time you taped the windows shut against night daemons, and how it's not as funny as when they nailed the door closed to keep the giants out.

Just listen to these guys:

"It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it." ~ Bill Cosby

"No mind is thoroughly well organized that is deficient in a sense of humor." ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Some of the most ill of us are wiser, stronger and braver than the sanest of the curmudgeoney sane. Despite our struggles and brain-kinks, we can sometimes offer more to each other and the world than could someone who's survived less. And we gain huge relief from our illness when we can treat it like some cross-breed of David Bowie and a Boggart. (Just picture that for a second. Dita Von Teese? Anyone?) Our disease may never leave us. But its weight upon us and power over us will decrease significantly if we can laugh it out with friends. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Addiction gypsies steal your brain.

The addiction gypsies sneak up behind the focused, recovering addict. The Victoria & Albert Museum
You know that "follow the cup" game where you mentally track a concealed ball being shuffled around by a Fagin-ey hustler? And as you stand there tracking the ball, his two gypsy kids sneak up, saw the straps off your backpack, lift your wallet and run away laughing? And then the cups lift and no ball is in sight? Addiction is just like that.

A recovered alcoholic can spend years vigilantly guarding herself from booze, only to learn she has diabetes because of secret, frequent chocolate binges. A recovered heroin addict could dedicate his life to helping other users get clean, but live miserably tangled in an obsessive search for the perfect emotional and sexual mate. A recovered compulsive overeater may finally reach her goal weight, and celebrate by adding another grand to the fifty thousand in debt she's accumulated since getting abstinent. They could all focus so much on avoiding their addictive substance, they forget to pay attention to their addictive personalities and leave themselves open to being mugged of health and peace.

Too often addicts win recovery over their main addictions only to have their lives torn down again by new ones. It's comfortable, as an addict, to almost blame the substances for our addictions, as if the substances were containers of a disease that has nothing, really, to do with us. We want to think, "It's the alcohol, the drug, the sugar, the porn. It reacts in my body and mind. Without it, I'm fine." We think if we just avoid it, the rest of our lives will handle themselves. But this is a half-truth.  

Drugs, alcohol and addictive foods do stimulate neurochemicals that create addiction. Addictive behaviors, places and thoughts also activate neuropathways leading sometimes inevitably back to addiction. But many addicts also have the ability to look at our drugs and behaviors across a span of recovery -- knowing deeply that they cost us spouses, children, careers and health -- and still think, "That would be so good."

That's us. Not it.

Before we pick them up, addictive substances and behaviors have no magic magnetism. They are not the Borg, drawing us toward themselves with tractor beams against which all resistance is futile. They're a can. A bottle. A needle. A pill. A box. A bag. An image. A room. They're nothing. That's why they're so easy to swap for something else. 

What draws us into addiction, before we pick up, is what we're using it for. What emptiness it's filling. Ex: We have no self-esteem. Gambling's easy potential for victory was our drug. We gave it up, but still every time we lose a girlfriend we feel our self-worth grind into a fine powder. We can't live without her. Or: We never felt loved. Food comforted us like nothing else. We gave up binging, but still we obsess into tears over our pets and kids, sacrificing romantic, social and personal time to make sure they love us. We can't live without knowing they care.

We're dependent. We're hooked. We're still addicted, on new drugs now. The risk of this is, what happens to us when our new drugs leave? When she dumps you again? When your pet dies? When your kids go to college and forget you exist? Is it back to web poker and the junk food isle? Or is it endless revisions of your eHarmony profile, two new dogs and bi-monthly vacays to the kid's new school? And then what? What if eHarmony's a fail, you can't afford the vet bills and your kids tell you to get out of their life? Where are you in all of this?

Withdrawal. That's where. A hard, brutal one, fueled by every year, month, day and hour spent dependent on your drugs. Old and new.

Real self-care and recovery is a tough but worthy challenge to keep one eye on each side of the healing game. We have to drop our primary drugs, avoiding all their Fagin-ey tricks. We also have to watch ourselves, keeping our inner addictive urchins from sneaking up on our backs, and ideally parenting them with enough love and attention to reform them into abstentious little Oliver Twists.

If we don't do both, we risk someday really needing our recovery, reaching in to get it, and finding it gone.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Seven Anger Management Tools for the What-In-The-What? Weary

Sometimes you just need to express your feelings, especially when the entire planet seems chock full of pervs and nincompoops.

Stories of military atrocitiesgropey yogishow shocked we all are not about Michael Jackson and the new foot-in-mouth disease in Japan may anger us beyond all get-out (trigger warning on all those links). Sobriety may surface all our jagged, buried rage. Or the helpless checker who can never (ever) weigh our zucchini without flailing for managerial help may just make us want to punch the checkout lane's bags of Bugles into orange clouds of puff. Stifling these feelings is not the right thing to do.

But neither is throwing our flatscreens into the pool, filling our tubs with Jack, or swatting said helpless checker upside the head with squash. We need effective, healthy, harmless release.

Seven Anger Management Tools for the What-In-The-What? Weary

If you've not yet learned to vent anger without ending up on "Cops" or you've never admitted to feeling angry once in thirty-six years (or you just can't therapy-bat out the workaday stress with your gestapoey boss looming), behold these handy anger management tools. Each is tested and (mostly) free. And watching their therapeutic awkward just may trim some edges off your simmering fury until you can smashy-smashy-and-we're-breathing alone in your safe place. Enjoy! (And check out the special bonus at the end!)

1) The Dammit Doll. I wish I were this cute when I'm angry. (But I'm really really not.)

2) The silent primal scream. This may or may not be affiliated with "Kids in the Hall."

3) The pillow fight. Okay don't really do it this way though.

4) The mattress fight. You may need a shaggy friend for this.

5) Kickboxing. Try to have as much fun as these guys. They're really enjoying themselves.

6) The foam bat. Be careful!

7) Special bonus: Smashing dishes!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Comic Prozac: Strangers in normieland.

From the happy place at zen pencils. (Because who hasn't yearned for a hug-out with their cubemate? Anyone?) ~ The Curator

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When life throws you landfills.

You ever look around your shambly room and all it's piles of garbage and laundry and spiderweb condominiums and feel burdened? Why can't things be cleaner? Why haven't we gotten a Roomba for Christmas yet? How can we be expected to fit in chores when we can barely handle stumbling out of bed at 8:45 a.m. to grope-crawl for our Abilify without having a panic attack?

Moments like this, when you're lying on the floor sobbing because you just didn't know it was garbage day until it was much too late, these moments call for gratitude.

I know I know. Shut up with the gratitude. But just give me a second.

Yes, recovery is very hard. You do sometimes cry in your car before meeting your boss, and silently strangle pillows in your closet before tucking in your kids, and miss bowling and dancing and fishing to spend hours resolving in front of strangers how your dad caught you stabbing a Ken doll when you were nine.

And yes, you probably did have had a very crappy life from which you now must recover. Aunt Betsy sat you on the stoop saying she'd return in an hour and didn't come back for fourteen years. Mom couldn't afford more than Icebreakers and cracker sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And Grandpa celebrated your birthday by dispatching three jugs of stout and tearing down your dead grandmother's rose-print wallpaper.

This is all real and painful. No one should ever diminish what you're going through. But, sometimes, finding the joy buried under your legitimate pileup of pain can transform everything.

Take this everything-that-is-adorable-in-the-universe girl:

Landfill Harmonic
Now watch this video (seriously, watch it):

If these kids who live literally in piles of garbage can make Yo-Yo Ma's muse out of said crap, so can you.

Maybe you can't get up and mow your lawn or burn the dishes. And that's okay. But while you lie there on the floor, patiently waiting for your soul to heal, maybe notice that you too are kinda like these cuteness wunderkinds. Beneath all the junk life's thrown on you, there is your courage, resiliency and beauty, the stuff of which Mozart dreamed.

Sanity through infographic: Wolf wisdom.

An old truth is a good truth. Howl on ~ The Curator

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I believe I'm a bird.

Mistake: A) Slamming cheekwise into a freshly Windexed sliding door; B) Crashing your pimpmobile through the back wall of your sister's house (Note: Both A and B can be done sober, or otherwise); C) Failing to learn from A or B.

You ever watch Bob Ross? He may predate some of you youngins but for some of us Ents of the Eld he made our Saturday mornings. Rather than watching Power Rangers as they strobed their way with karate chops into our hypothalami, we sat with coco learning to paint endless permutations of the Grand Yukon and discovering there within the great meaning of life:

Everything is possible with practice. And there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. (Dear galloping-moose-in-the-trees, we love you bearded Bobby, almost as much as our bespectacled angel of heaven.)

According to Ross, every painter's mistake is a unique piece of something unfinished and beautiful -- if used well. Word, hairy whitefro man. Word. For Ross, this was a meta-narrative about finding joy and peace in life. Painting was living. Living was like painting. Nothing is irredemable. It just has to be blended in towards the goal.

And we all sat drooly awed in our footy pjs, wondering just why his hair was quite so very round, yet getting the message deep in our hearts. So let's again let bearded Bobby instruct the rest of our morning, via this video.

Paint well, dear readers, live well.

Sanity through infographic: Giggles and what?

That's right, giggles and mental health. Teehee! ~ The Curator

Healthcare Communications News

Monday, May 13, 2013

Don't be Simon. Be Oprah: Survivor shame.

While we do grasp that we couldn't have expected ourselves to kick away the guy who jumped us in the parking lot (we're not quite Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian), we still feel weak. We do get that it wasn't truly because of personal ineptitude that we received quite so many timber-jack blows from our drunken father (we were six at the time). But we still feel stupid. And yes we know it isn't necessarily true that our preborn cruelty is the great torture of our helpless mother's life (despite all her many weepings that such is so). Nevertheless, we still feel ashamed.

We accept all these rational absolutions of our guilt, in some hazy outer-region of our minds. But no absolution feels true. What feels true is this:

These extracts of rape survivors' personal shame and guilt come from Pandora's Project (a.k.a Pandy's), a resource site for rape and sexual assault survivors. Their shares are posted to show their grievous commonality and promote empathetic connection between survivors. It's as if (and I'm just guessing here) all we trauma, assault and abuse survivors are so Hulk-with-the-shirt-busting enraged about our injuries that we even hate ourselves for feeling them. We'd each gladly be rid of ourselves just to revenge ourselves on the pain we contain. Worse, we feel resonantly alone. We are too weak, too guilty, too bad to be heard. If someone knew what we'd allowed, and how we felt about it now, they'd flail backwards in disgust, throwing books and armchairs to pad their escape. They'd hate us. And their hate would confirm our self-loathing. We couldn't bare it.

But hearing that someone endured what we did, and felt as we do, makes it all seem less terrible. Seeing these people like us embraced with love, at least by someone, also mitigates our fears. Broaching our pain becomes more possible because of their example, less like a nightmare that drags us naked on our fat day to bawl "I Am Beautiful" in front of Simon Cowell off his meds, and more like a scary but doable risk.

Shame researcher Dr. BrenĂ© Brown calls this kind of empathetic, vulnerable connection the antidote to shame (if you want, skip to 2:55 for the point. Hi Oprah.):

Unfortunately, much of the time, people aren't helpful. (Don't even get me started.) Also posted on Pandy's is an excerpt from After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back that discusses how others (like, perhaps, masses everywhere) so often fail survivors (or, say, bulldoze them like Roger Rabbit under Christopher Lloyd's psychopathic glee). Also exploring this is Gift From Within, a nonprofit serving PTSD sufferers:

Effectively, survivors think something like, "Okay, even if I couldn't Arnold-sword-hack that guy off of me, or rabidly bite through dad's wrecking-ball arms, or dispel mom's mania with a tidal flood of love, at least I should stop hurting now. I should be strong now. I should be smarter, braver, better now. And everyone agrees. See how they react. They and I think this is all my fault. I wish I were dead." (Queue violent sobbing and funnel-in-throat pour of favorite drug.)

We don't deserve this. But we don't believe that. Not yet. Not without much strong, smart, brave self-love.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Comic Prozac: Because Mother's Day is heck.

And sometimes you just need to look forward.

From the wonderful, inspiring Incidental Comics:

Variations on Mother's Day

Lay on the floor like a pile of laundry and weep deeply. Run through the park like a Borg squadron chases you. Rip through speed bag drills like you're in a Hanes commercial. Let your therapist guide you through a coffee table timeline of your anguish. Sit sukhasana in the sand and watch the sun rise. Or drink tea over scones with your mother. Today can be Hallmark or Jackson Pollock. Whatever gets you through.

Some of us have mothers. For some of us, this is grand. We love them. They nurtured us. Or at least they did their best. We can look back over years of "mommy" with adoration and peace.

Others of us, not so much. Mom is something more akin to a hagmonster from the tidepools of Sheol reaching out from the black ravines of our memory to pull us forehead-first into the abyss, where we'd cry forever over why we've never been loved. Or she's a voluminous blob like an uncanny Miyazaki thing that absorbs all our air and space, eating every part of our life until we're left with only one little corner like Daffy being erased by sociopathic Bugs. We shriek and wail. We wave our helpless little cartoon arms. But mom's hag claws or unseeing, googly eyes just stump closer, absorbing all our mental autonomy until we black out in terror.

Still for others of us, mom is a bittersweet memory. Something unresolved. A piece from our past we've not found safe room for in the future. We don't look back in hate (anymore), but we don't look forward in hope (not yet). We're ambivalent. We're unsure. We feel love. But more than that we feel the need to stay safe from loved people who don't always act healthily. Mother's Day feels sort of like waiting in the airport. You don't know when your next flight leaves, nor from which gate. You just sort of hang out and wait for some sonorous, squawky voice from above to instruct your next move. And you're okay if the day passes without direction, because you snagged the leather chair in the Starbucks lounge anyway and have an iPad full of Iron Chef. Mother's Day passes like a leaf on the wind. You notice it. You find it lovely. But you're okay with it landing and fading into the earth out of sight.

And still others of us have lost our mothers forever. Mother's Day is a reminder of unresolved loss and grief. We weep like baritones in the privacy of our lungs, but we hold the buffets in gaspingly because we don't want to tarnish her day. Or we caress creased photos and spend time crying softly in her chair. Or we lay on the bed cuddling the quilt she made us when we were nine, hoping what we smell on it is her. We feel alone, and sorrowful. And yet when we reach out to heaven we know she is there, and so feel not alone anymore.

And some of us feel an odd, achy mix of all of this. One moment we lean into the hagmonster's pit, next we cry for mommy under the sheets, and then we run on the beach at peace because we're free.

And at the end of the day we're stronger, because of her, or in spite of her. Or both. Because we've grown to a place where we are our own mothers, and fathers. We're learning to care for ourselves in the best ways our mothers did, or never could. And we're grateful.

"Mother and Child," Jeff Fessenden

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A diamond is a cracked stone.

Some days you feel broken. Your grey matter is hole-punched by hundreds of hits, your liver corroded by pools of booze, your ovaries incapacitated by too many years too thin. You feel wasted. Your present and future feel murdered by your past.

Are you over? Ruined? Not necessarily. Not with some minor readjustment.

"Minor" you say? Yeah, fine. My brain can't compute, so instead of going back to engineering I'll just sweep garbage shoots. My liver will burst, so rather than learning to run I'll lie floorwise waiting to die and studying the ceiling popcorn's Rorschach mystery. I'll never have kids, so I'll turn my apartment into a rescue farm and make all my dresses out of Purina sacks.

No, readjustment is not easy. But it is possible. And it leads to a more fulfilling life than despair.

Some things we can't change. Some wounds we can't heal. Some people we can't get back. No matter how sincerely you limber it up in yoga, nurture your organic turnips, cry it out in therapy, or make amends, sometimes Humpty Dumpty cannot be taped up. And refusing to accept it only creates new cracks.

Example: Your daughter won't see you. You could chase her down, visit her place of work, show up at her house unannounced. You could plead with her to see how sick you were, how you didn't mean anything you did. You could even fight, saying she's cruel. She rejects your amends, doesn't see her part. This probably won't go well.

Rather than snuggling your daughter into your warm embrace, you may just chase her deeper into shadow. What might be only a short time apart could become, because you fought it, one that may last years. Or forever. Your refusal to accept the loss magnified it. You created the pain you feared.

And this is basically how it goes.

You may have injured your brain. And you could fight it. You could go on interview after interview trying to prove it isn't so. And this may work out. If it does, wonderful. But it may not, and in the attempt you may erode your self-worth. Meanwhile you could have accepted your injury. Instead of fighting, you could have found new value. You might have helped somebody, coached kids after school, cared for an elderly friend. Your unexpected, unwanted life could have been more powerful than decades at a desk.

And so your liver's wounded. Again you could fight, keep on as if everything's unchanged. And this may prove a miracle. But it could also be your death. Alternatively, you might reap more years in admitting the disease, treatment and care, and meanwhile fill every hour of every day with joy as if each were a bubble about to burst so should be savored while it lingers. You could condense more life into a month than some might fit in decades.

And no, maybe, you can't have kids. And yes you can keep fighting, suffering through every test, believing it can be changed. And if this works, what a joy. But if you could accept your loss, you might find new purpose, and someone new, who needs you, to love and serve.

Your brokenness may be an opportunity for extraordinary meaning. Your dream of an unbroken life may awaken to a deeper life with infinitely more impact.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Slipping: There's no such thing as fairy dust.

We all know that place. Where we teeter on the edge of the decision. To cut ourselves. Call that dealer. Drink that beer. Go back to that website. Eat that cake. It would be like sliding off a cliff. All you'd do is drift one foot leftward, and you're falling all the way down.

And at the edge you believe you're weightless. You feel no gravity, see no horizon, no earth far below. No consequences. The choice seems so easy. Restraint is so hard.

When you're trying to stay clean it can feel like you have two warring selves. One you floats at this cliff in a bliss-bubble. The other you stands outside the bubble screaming and pounding on its crystal surface like you're Dustin Hoffman trying to stop the apocalypse. You want to scramble after whatever cord powers your suspension of sanity and yank it hard with a zeeoowww that would send your other self hurtling, informed, onto the safe high ground.

But you can't. You stay stuck outside, watching helplessly as the floating you drags you both over the edge, with a blissed-out smile on its face.

Weirdly this is a learned skill.

Pain rolled over us once. To survive, we may have whipped out a mental pop-up tent into which no pain or fear could enter. We hid inside. Left reality. Dissociated.

In Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation, psychotherapists Suzette Boon, Kathy Steele and Onno van der Hart describe some physical aspects of this strange dissociation:
"There may be times when you feel spacey, foggy, or fuzzy. You may lose a firm connection with the present without being aware of it, and only realize afterwards that you were not very present. . . . You may have times when you are aware of your actions, as though you are watching yourself, but do not feel you have control over them."
They also describe dissociation's result from trauma:
"If we consider a continuum of trauma-related disorders, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being the most basic, and developing in the aftermath of a traumatizing incident at any age, then complex dissociative disorders are a more pervasive developmental accommodation to trauma...."
Trauma hits. You're shocked and scared. You hide. You fly around like Peter Pan in Wendy's sheet-bunker for hours. You try to come out, but when you do you're hit with overwhelming fear, shame and anger. So you hide more. You fly around for months, maybe years. And every time you try to emerge, "smack!" Overwhelming pain. So you never come out. And in time your hideout expands like a glowy ethereal Blob, no longer shielding only trauma but blocking every unwanted feeling or thought.

Meanwhile all that fear, shame and anger sits alone on the outside, waiting for you to come back. But you never do. And while you expand your hideout, the earth between you cracks. And the crack spreads into a cliff-edged canyon, with your two selves stuck on opposite sides, miles apart.

And then one day you find yourself all grown up (or trying to be), with that fearful, shameful, angry self boasting a 12 Step program (or two or three), and fighting hard to stay clean. But frickin Peter Pan on the other side of the canyon won't stop leaning over the edge.

So what do you do? What Peter did. Sew your fearful, shameful, angry shadow back on. And refuse to fly away.

We'll check in with Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation again to talk about how.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ohio rape case special: Zombie warfare.

The news attacks with another story of kidnapping, imprisonment and rape, and our buried nightmares reanimate like zombies that will chase us bloodthirstily for a week.

First we're numb. We try to not click the news links and we palm back the zombies' lowering faces without looking. We mute the news-flashes that cut through our pretense that nothing exists in the universe besides Bruno Tonioli's hyperbolic frenzy for foxtrot, and we look straight ahead as the zombies murmur, "braains," in our ears. We dodge whispered conversations, hearing only snatches of, "It's so awful, so unbelievable. Wouldn't someone know?" and we duck into bathrooms feeling queasy, with the zombies behind us pointing back to the fading words.

By the end of the day we're twitchy. The night seems darker. The zombies trail us as we walk, seeming to move closer. Then closer.

By the end of the night we're shrieking in the tub like Janet Leigh clutching her shower curtain while dozens of zombies of all shapes and sizes pile on us to infect our brains with panoramic terror.

The world is a trigger bomb. Is there any escape?

Yes, there is.

Escape route, step one: You want to scream at those whispering people by the water cooler, "Yes these things happen! No, for the love of Albert freaking Einstein, it is not 'unbelievable'!" (strangles imaginary air-neck) "And yes, yes!, dear merciful death from above!, someone probably did know!" And then you'd kick over the whole 1982-ish Crystal Springs mechanism with a big sploosh!

This is okay. This is not wrong. Your residual trauma-related anger may be triggered and trying to work it's way out. Feel free to fantasize about various splooshings for at least a good half an hour. Maybe buy one of these. Or be like this brilliant child:

This may help you avoid actually kicking anyone in the head. That's really the main point of step one.

Escape route, step two: Your trauma memories spring from your pores like you're a Wes Craven Chia Pet and you're sort of choke-drowning in grief for those three Ohio women like one of those CGI extras in Titanic.

This is also okay. Remember, you were a victim too. Deep trauma leaves scars. And empathy is a virtue (even if it makes you like Leonardo DiCaprio who can't get on the door sometimes). You wouldn't ask those poor women in Ohio not to cry. Don't ask it of you. You can create a safe space to vent your feelings without doing harm to you or others (see brilliant child again).

Also know that (brace yourself) most enabling bystanders are scared too. Feel free to air-punch me from wherever you are for saying this. "Enablers are vampire-daemons from the Place Beyond Doom. They allow our hurt." Yes. True. But sometimes it's helpful to notice motives. Inside anyone who may have seen any strange perversity in that Ohio house, and overlooked it, is probably just another broken person who fears the truth. This could also be true for those who overlooked you. Accepting big hard truth is a feat of strength. If you can accept truth, and those around you can't, know this means you're stronger than them, and try to have mercy.

Somewhere around this daunting feeling is the general aim of step two.

Escape route, step three: Do good with your pain. Don't let the perpetrators win by turning you into them. Don't hurt others because it will make you feel better. And maybe, if you feel strong enough, use your experience to help others. Walk back up to that water cooler (after a hearty wail-out on your car's back seat) and engage them. Tell them that one out of every four women, and four out of every one hundred men, is molested or raped at least once in their lifetime. Maybe hand them this terrifying RAINN stat sheet (perhaps emphasize the last two sections):

If the water-hoarders walk away even slightly more informed, congratulations. You've completed step three. 

Then after all of that, if you've processed the kindling-bundles of rage, fear and shame, passed through uninformed, water-starved masses everywhere, and come out the next morning okay with yourself, knowing you survived, you know truth and you do good with it, then be proud. Rick Grimes has nothing on you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

When Buck Rogers misses the train. How to die addicted.

Thank the Lord Almighty for death. Nothing kicks addiction faster than killing yourself with it.

When we were addicted, we thought maybe we could manage it. We laid on our bathroom floor chatting with Puff the Magic Dragon about how to break the window bars off our parents' house to get more cash. We double-fisted cocktails while teetering off a Reno curb and calculating how long we could extend our trip and still make our Monday meeting. We chain-swallowed from a Costco flat while scrolling the web for work-from-home that could let us binge all day. But then, if we were lucky, management failed. Puff turned on us and magically made our frontal cranium seem to cave in. We were hit by a taxi. A diabetically withered artery behind our eye burst.

The lights went out. We saw God (or Not God). And then we awoke. Terrified.

Fear of death is one of the few fears stronger than fear of losing our drug. Hear some Word about this from addict-come-interventionist Kristina Wandzilak:

(Disclaimer: Just for right now we refrain from endorsing Wandzilak's Discovery Health channel show, Addicted, because, while tele-interventioning is sometimes handy scare therapy, other times it's sorta Tammy-Faye-with-all-the-eyelashes telecommunications that amounts to sick-sploitation. And we can't swear either way about Addicted. Maybe you can. Regardless, Wandzilak seems like a lovely lovely person, hence her inclusion in the blog.)

What Wandzilak says here about "jumping off points" is truth: addicts almost always must smash kinda face-first into their craggy, seashore-during-a-hurricane bottoms to recover. You basically have to realize you're going to die if you don't stop killing yourself. Genius, I know.

This brilliant insight doesn't always come chugging at us via literal, personal near-death experiences (with the wriggling lady tied down to the tracks, helplessly shrieking, "Help me Buck Rogers!"). Take the transfiguration of former heroin-chic model Jamie King, who got long-term heroin addiction recovery after her boyfriend had a drug-related death. It can come floating down on a sunny walk when we see an elderly couple and realize we may not live that long. Or when we lose our job and know we're headed for the street. Or even when we read some annoying blog that won't shut up about topics we hate because deep down inside, we're scared.

It only takes anything that convinces us there's more risk to keeping our drug than losing it. Lacking that epiphany, the best recovery tool is the grave.

Comic Prozac: Be a green goat.

Because we're all really just two steps from writing everything in crayon, here's an instructive infographic via Virus Comix. Stay green people. ~ The Curator

Monday, May 6, 2013

B-movie villains can't bite.

by Belathee Photography
So there is this monster that keeps attacking you. It's this four-armed, four-legged, two-headed blob of a sorta-human with two voices and four eyes each looking crazily at you from different directions. It wobbles toward you and reels back, screeching like Skylla, waving all it's arms, scaring the bumblebees out of your craptrap.

This is the person who triggers you.

He or she is this freakish conglomeration of their generally humdrum self and your worst nightmare. Flouncy Nancy in the print dress has your demeaning step-mom's face growing out of her neck. Jittery Frank in the hipster bolo has your child-molesting uncle's hirsuted arms flapping out of his coat sleeves. Nancy says, "Hi Bob," and you hear a caterwauling mixture of that and, "You ugly bastard! Nobody wants you!" Frank calls, "S'up Diana," and you get a squealing, reverbed, "You little slut."  

And usually you can't escape them. Nancy's your cube mate. Frank's your best friend's boyfriend. You're trapped. Your first impulse is to run, quit your job and dump your friend. But then your new boss is billowy Barbara with your step-mom's eyes staring out her forehead, and your sister gets engaged to chubby Charles with your uncle's drawl coming out a hole in his throat. 

The monsters keep attacking. Because they live in our heads.

Hear me out. Admitting our "trigger-monsters" aren't real is one of the scariest, hardest, most humbling recovery tasks. And one of the most healing.

It's hard because trigger-monsters feel real. We feel really attacked, just like we did back then when we were traumatized, abused, neglected, overdosed, raped. We feel cornered, demeaned and alone. Admitting the monsters' unreality feels like admitting the trauma was myth too. We feel blamed for our hurt by any implication that the triggers spring from the still-wounded crevaces of our minds. The suggestion makes us want to Bruce Lee somebody's skull.  

But the admission is also healing because it de-merges the past and present, at least a little. It's like moving a projector beam off the person blocking the screen. If you can accept that Nancy's over here, in the present, and your step-mom's face is over there, in your memory, the movie of your step-mom's screams may stop playing at you from Nancy's talking face. If you can allow that Frank just sits over there in that goofy hammock chair, and your uncle's gross arms died twelve years ago, the action sequence of your uncle's attacks could stop running in 3D surround sound. The traumatic memories may cease grabbing at you from an undulating phantasmagoria. They'll still exist. But at least Nancy will be just Nancy. Step-mom recedes back to 2D. Frank's just frank. Uncle fades to black and white. 

If the new perspective reveals Nancy as, truly, a triggeringly terrible nag, and Frank as a flirty sleaze, at least you can now deal with them as just them, and no longer space-monsters from planet Hades. And while step-mom and uncle will never be your favorite memories, their mind-daemon claws cut far less deeply from across the reach of the past. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Our beautiful neighbors.

When you were scared and alone that time, I bet no one saved you. Maybe someone came later, someone kind who told you they would save you, build you a rocket ship and fly you to the moon. But then they left. And you were alone and scared again.

This lingers. These childhood feelings of isolation, abandonment and threat, they stick. They sink in, pool and stain. We stay scared. We keep feeling alone and helpless. Especially when we confront scary people today.

We're at the mall with a frenemy who bosses us around, feeling our dead abuser's hands tighten around our neck, and we snap at the slow cashier. We present before our grouchy boss while our mental loudspeaker crackles out the daily rollback on our worth, and our addiction itches. 

We're trying to grow up into big, strong people who can push back and detach from scary others without hurting us or them. But we aren't there yet. Today, our "voices of truth" are stuttered grunts or scream-cries blurted out in half-fragments followed by inarticulate heaves. We lash out in preemptive emotional nuke strikes or we run away, curl into hidden balls behind chairs, hoping some big white knight will save us. But no white knight trots in.

Except for Mr. Rogers.

What? Well, he is white after all. And he does have a castle. Just watch this video....

If only he were our parents. Sigh.

Mr Rogers made this video when America recovered from 9/11. This bespectacled angel of heaven wanted to soothe our nerves and help us believe we could still look forward with hope, rather than just look back in fear, after the worst national tragedy. His message matters. Still. Today, for everyone.

Especially for we've who've suffered the worst personal tragedies.

This message matters because, first, it reminds us there are Mr. Rogers in the world. Not everyone is that grandmother who locked us in the back room for crying after being hit, nor that guy who punched us in the gut, or did worse, in the shadows of the high school bleachers.

There are plaid-tie-wearing, fake-piano-playing, walking founts of adorably safe-huggable love everywhere. Sometimes even in the people we fear.

Second, it reminds us that all these beatific Fred McFeelys (I heart you Mr. Rogers, I heart you so hard), they believe in us. They think we're good. They're proud of us, even when it seems to us that all our attempted bravery, maturity and grace end up as pretty much awkward failblog trampoline jumps into the shrubbery. They support us when we can't.

And last it matters because he's talking right to you, the little kid shrouded in a fumbly, shrieking adult body,  petrified beyond-all-get-out of the harm-sharks about to bite. And scared even more of your own helpless capacity to fail. He's speaking truth.

The past's tragedies don't define you. You have grown up (at least partly). You will "do all you can" to protect your kids (especially, ahemhem, you). You'll learn to voice truth with graceful health. And you are no longer alone.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The banshees can't steal your floor.

Drawing by Kim Schrag, from Unbound Art, Embracing Life
What about those mornings when you want to shave your head and strip naked because your hairs and sweater collude in a malicious itch attack on your face? And then the cushion beneath you condenses into a rigid plank in some kind of proletariat protest against your bourgeois glutes. And then your legs decide to secede from this unhappy union with two petulant swoons into perversely numb uselessness. These are the mornings when life is a yarn-ball of discomfort.

Your mental banshees decide today's no ceasefire day, so instead of greeting you with their usual DMZ kabuki of non-hostile animosity, they fly around your skull rafters, toppling your cognitive filing cabinets and triggering your parasympathetic fire alarms. You can't get comfortable. You feel angsty for no reason. Your muscles tense. You want to scratch your skin off, and dear-pistachio-and-peanut-farmers-everywhere your spouse better not give you any dubious looks for a good hour and a half.

These mornings are hard. They can set everything askew, making any attempts at peace and serenity turbulent.

One good trick for diffusing these crackling lightning storms of "I hate you wool fibers, get the Frederic Fekkai off me" irritation is grounding to your felt sense of self.

"Grounding" is standard practice in somatic therapy. The goal of grounding is to find inner sensory resources and distance from overwhelming stimulus. The "felt sense of self" is a "pre-verbal sense of 'something'" (thank you Wikipedia) comprising you, an "inner knowledge or awareness" of your whole being. It is "experienced in the body" and is "not the same as an emotion." The quick and dirty is, grounding in your felt sense of self can improve your feeling of calm, stability, boundary and strength.

So let's give it a whirl. (Curse you mind-banshees, curse you to Customer Service at T.J.Maxx.)

Grounding to the Felt Sense of Self  

(Note: If you suffer from severe PTSD or similarly overwhelming disorders, it may be best to attempt this only in the company of a trusted professional.) 

1) Sit in a comfortable chair in a safe place with your feet flat on the ground.

2) Notice the floor beneath your feet. Notice it supporting you. Scrub your feet around if you need. Notice any comfortable, supportive feeling associated with your awareness of the floor.

3) Notice the sensation of the chair supporting you. Feel the fabric or material. Find any comfortable, supporting feeling associated with your awareness of the chair.

4) Notice any other comfortable sensations in your body. Focus on them. Are your knee muscles relaxed? Notice that. Does your chest feel open? Focus on that.

5) Try to expand these feelings of awareness all over your body. If you feel any physical or emotional discomfort, return your focus to the comfortable parts of your body (the supportive floor, those loose knees, that open chest) and keep your focus there. Try to expand the feeling again until you can do so without predominant discomfort. (It's okay if you can't do this comfortably. If you can't, allow yourself just to notice where you are comfortable.)

6) Try to expand this feeling all over you, including your parts beyond your body, like your mind and your soul, etc.

7) Rest in this awareness until an all-encompassing feeling of your "sense of self" forms in your mind and body. Rest in that as long as you want.

And you're done.

Hopefully, at this point, the banshees will be Ritalined back to bed, the hairs and sweater will have relaxed into more Gandhian compassion, and the cushion, glutes and legs will have reformed a more peaceful union. If so, wonderful. Go have a blessed day.

If not, then God help us all.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Forgiveness for when you need it.

It's not your fault, your addiction. Yelling at your kids while high, selling yourself for hit money, the Ziplock taped to the underside of your desk, it's not your fault. Getting your kids drunk, cheating on your spouse in a haze, driving drunk everyday for a year, that wasn't your fault. When you ate food from from the garbage, stole money for a binge, smelt like vomit at school, you weren't guilty.

You are not bad.

And the consequences, the scars, disfigured face, liver disease and diabetes, your wounded children, estranged exes and disappointed parents. You did it. But you are not ruined.

Addiction is devouring. It is a mental superhighway with no exits and no road signs and on which you can travel two hundred miles before even realizing you got on.

Telling you yet again that addiction is a disease and all the subsequent blah-dee-blah about neurochemicals and reward patterns may not convince you you're forgiven, even though that blah-dee-blah is true.

And though you may still hope that all you really need is just to hear that one answer you want so much, to that one question you're afraid to ask of those people you love and hurt so badly, their forgiveness may not work either.

You have to forgive you. But this is crazy talk. Yeah, I'll just squeeze that muscle.

Take this super-hopeful video from the awesome YouTube SobrietyTelevision channel as inspiration:

You can decide not to hate you anymore. You can. It will be hard. It will often suck with discomfort. The whole process will often crap out. But you can. Under every tar asphalt of addiction, behind every heroin dealer, black-out drunk and obese sugar addict, is a just another soul. No monsters. Souls that are sick, and lost, not evil. This includes you (imagine a visual Smokey the Bear point here for emphasis).

Believing this may be too hard. And if it is, that's okay. Because even if you never feel it or believe it, underneath that disbelief will still be a soul that is not at fault, not bad, and never ruined.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Not because it's National Prayer Day.

Some favorite forms of prayer are f*** riddled screams, cries in the bathroom and plate shattering sprees. There's also horseback riding, ceremonial "every letter she ever gave me" burnings and deep sea swimming. The trick to prayer is doing it with abandon. This is a multistep process:

1) First, bob and weave around your spiritual baggage. Your Pentecostal mom may have burned you with an iron for buying TeenBop. Your sloppy-drunk priest uncle may have drawled that you're going to hell because you're gay. Your college professor may have espoused the virtues of Buddhism through a choking cloud of pot smoke. Your best friend may now angrily push the Hijab. If we want, we can squarely refuse these people's definitions of faith. Not letting them or their examples push us into or out of our right faith can be the most rewarding way to make them irrelevant.

2) Next, get over the ego discomfort. We can get on our knees at a new church and suddenly fear, "Do I look like that lady who dances with a snake and a bible to 'You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings' right now?" Or we finger a meditative mantras book at Whole Foods and have flashes of that guy who dressed up as a Tent Monster at Occupy protests and is uncomfortably flexible in yoga. We have to sort of surrender to that possible asp swinging, down-dog crotch tear of humility just to get started. 

3) And of course, pick your God. The Trinity? Buddha? Thetans? The angry ghost of Richard Dawkins? Jesus seems cool, but lots written about him seems kinda sprinkled with generous bits of crazy. Buddha's nice too, but according to him he may have obliviated into chaos bliss so probably can't hear our prayers. We're not praying to Tom Cruise. And Richard Dawkins might bite our hand with derisive ghost teeth if we try to reach out. We have to courageously forge through this jungly ambiguity of contradicting doctrine to find God. Pieces of the truth puzzle can lie under the weirdest looking rocks. 

4) The hardest part. Face God's failures. That's right. I said it. There are moments, lots of them, when God seems to stand back and watch us fall. God watched us be hurt, badly, and did nothing. God maybe even pushed us down. This does not bode well for God. God looks cruel, persecuting, or nonexistent. Why  pray to that? 

Well, what's the alternative? 

Nihilism? Chaos theory? Bunking down with Richard Dawkins' bones? They're not very uplifting ideas. And maybe just maybe, there is a Thing out there who created everything. And since "everything" includes you, thought and love, "Thing" could think about and love you. This is just as likely as Thing hating you. Or not existing. 

But most of all, when you know you need help, and you know people fail, praying (whatever that means) to God (whatever that is) can seem worth a try. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Trauma Tiger: Part Two. The bully with the breastplate on.

Shame is like armor. And not that invincible spider-thread Kevlar kind of armor that could take an infrared missile to the chest and keep going. We're talking medieval armor, made out of lead, that's hot, hard-edged and heavy. It weighs you down. You try to trot around on your horse fending off invading enemies, but you just jangle crazily like your bangle-wearing grandmother driving a tank through a construction site. And your horse looks up at you with that "Dear Mother of Mercy why?" look only horses can have. 

Shame tells you it's protective. It's realism. It's clear-eyed acceptance of the sad, inevitable truth. Acceptance that will keep you ready for doom, so you're prepared. But shame is really fear. Fear pretending it's not, like that biggish kid at school who cries when his father yells at him so beats up everyone else at lunch. He's afraid to admit he's afraid, but he can't just poof! his fears away the way he wants, so instead he protests that all his fears aren't fear at all, but truth. And then he smacks you around with this "honesty": You are not afraid that you're bad. You are bad. You are not afraid of why you've been hurt. You deserve it. You are not afraid of why you've failed. You're a looser. You are not afraid of why your parents treat you the way they do. You are worthless.

Shame is fear of fear, and it cements your fears into your worldview. This kind of fear that mutates into these twisted craggy Slip-'n-Slides of self-disgust often stems from trauma, from entrenched addictions that frazzle our neural receptors, or from mental illnesses that can warp our perspectives like some cosmic string theory event. 

In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (see Trauma Tiger: Part One for kicks), Peter Levine offers a good metaphor:
"When confronted with a life-threatening situation, our rational brains may become confused and override our instinctive impulses.... [It's] similar to what occurs in your car if you floor the accelerator and stomp on the brake simultaneously. The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado."
So basically the "Oh my sweet carrot sticks! I'm going to die!" trauma energy gets stuck inside us and spins into a neutron bomb of terror that can't easily be "faced and conquered" without a hearty dose of Clozapine.

Addiction and mental illness are pretty much the same. Years of active addiction can reprogram the brain into thinking it's essentially gone without water for a week and a half when the abused substance is withdrawn. Addiction can also tangle emotional responses into hyper-sensitive feedback loops that spout upward into traumatically tumultuous torrents of anger or ecstasy before crashing into deep waves of depression or apathy. Likewise mental illnesses can trick sufferers into thinking they're on the brink of death every day.

The sad part is we're actually supposed to feel this way, kinda. Hear me out. Hypothetically we should be allowing ourselves to break down into these sobby panic-stricken states of universe-ending terror, so the energy creating them can flow out of our systems. This is the "not stomping on the brake" part of the process.  But we have a really hard time doing this in a way that releases control. Queue Levine:
"Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well. They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear, and sorrow, but without passing through the primitive 'immobility responses' and releasing the traumatic residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress."
Basically, even if we want to work through it, we want to do it with our talking, reasoning, big-kid helmets on. And if perchance we let ourselves slip over the edge into the quaking vulnerability quivering under our shielding, we get self-judgy. Al la Levine, we "tend to judge this instinctive surrender in the face of overwhelming threat as a weakness tantamount to cowardice."

And there's your shame. Fear of fear. The armor that keeps you pinned to the floor under a hot iron plate of histrionic self-loathing. And underneath it all is an adorably biggish kid who just needs to collapse.