Archive for the ‘anxiety’ Category

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Today is the six-year anniversary of the day I left my abusive husband. I didn’t even realize that was the case until I found myself wondering why I was having a PTSD flare up. I couldn’t pinpoint any triggers, but the last few nights I’ve been up with insomnia. I’ve been anxious, irritable, tense, and then today I started feeling paranoia set in, and I found myself trying to track my ex down online, and trying to make certain I wasn’t traceable through my old name. Nothing had happened to cause me to feel triggered.. and then I realized the date.

Six years ago today is the day the events in my blog post “Don’t Look Back” took place, and today I feel myself constantly looking over my shoulder, checking out my window, flinching in response to shadows. I feel a “twitch” insisting I look up a background check on my ex, just to be sure he’s still living in the same place, still hasn’t moved, still hasn’t come looking for me. I feel an obsessive need to find something, anything he’s posted online recently, just to be sure he hasn’t gone off grid. Just so I know where he is and what he’s up to. But to what end? How long will I keep having to deal with this fear?

I haven’t gone anywhere today. I’ve stayed inside, only stepping out long enough to let the dog use the bathroom. But that’s only seemed to increase my sense of paranoia. I’m near tears. Why do I feel this way? After everything I’ve been through, all the progress I’ve made, all the healing, all I’ve accomplished, all the time that has passed… How does my biological clock pick up on nothing more than a date and trigger my body into a panic?

Why don’t I feel safe? Why am I still terrified by his temper? Why am I still haunted by his angry eyes, the sense of his fingers pressed into my throat, his raised fist, his massive bulk? Why do I keep expecting to hear him pounding on my door, breaking my window? Why am I overcome with a desire to flee, to wake my son and leave everything behind and just drive away?

And as I contemplate that feeling, I realize I’m constantly preparing myself for the possibility I may need to flee. Minimizing my material possessions, avoiding social interactions with neighbors, avoiding community involvement, keeping disconnected emotionally and socially, keeping an emergency fund on hand… Without a moments notice, I could be out that door and driving half-way across the states. I’m used to starting fresh. Comes from being raised a military brat.

But there’s no need for me to feel so afraid. There’s no need for me to remain disconnected. There’s no need. I’m safe here. Aren’t I?

It’s been six years. I have a new name. I live somewhere he’d never think to look for me. I have a protective dog for a companion. Most days I’m happy and well and “free”. I don’t even think about him, or when I do I know it’s just an unrealistic fear triggered by something trivial that reminds me of one of our fights. I write about it, talk about it with my therapist, and move on. And then I have days like today… and I realize I’ll never really be “over it”. My PTSD isn’t going to go away. Healing doesn’t mean I’ll get “all better”. It means I’ll learn to cope, I’ll learn to deal, I’ll learn to handle the bad days and live for the good days.

On the anniversary of my flight from abuse, I want to remind myself that I made the right decision, that I have grown and changed in so many ways! I’m a completely different person now. A stronger person. A more confident person. A happier person. A more passionate person. I’ve escaped so much more than an abusive marriage. I’ve escaped the prison of my own closed mind and self-inflicted limitations. While it has been a struggle, I’ve not lost the idealism of my youth. I’ve overcome the threat of death itself, and I won’t let ANYTHING hold me back any more.

once-a-victim-now-a-survivor-award

I would like to thank A Strawberry Pushes Through Insanity for nominating my blog for the “Once a Victim – Now a Survivor” Award. This award is for those who have gone through mental illness of any kind, abuse, trauma, and especially PTSD. Here are the rules:

1.Thank the blogger that nominated you.

2.Nominate 5 – 10 bloggers to pass the award to.

3.Post questions for your nominees to answer (You may use the same as these below)

4.Inform your nominees and post a comment in their blog to let them know they’ve been nominated.

I consider it a great honor to be nominated for this award. My blog started as an effort to share my thoughts on the faults and dangers of religion, specifically how my experience with domestic violence opened my eyes to the similarities between an abusive relationship and a relationship with the God of any standard religious institution. I wanted to have a place where I could share my thoughts openly without fear and knowing that my words would be read by others who might be influenced to escape their self-enforced captivity. I wanted to share my journey, and show those still entrenched in their religious upbringing that atheism is nothing to fear- that opening their minds to the truth and their hearts to the possibilities is liberating.

But in a short time, my blog has become so much more than what I initially intended. I haven’t really written as many posts on religious topics as I have reflecting on my abusive relationship, my current efforts in coping with PTSD, and on my journey in coming to terms with my self-identity. I want to help people find freedom and connection, a sense of understanding and recognition… It is my hope that what I write will be read by those who NEED to see what I’ve experienced and see that it is possible to overcome trauma. It is for this reason that I’ve titled my blog “Inform, Inspire, Inflame”, because I wish to inform the uninformed, inspire the uninspired, and inflame the hearts of the apathetic, depressed, and disconnected so that they may discover their own passions and resume their lives with vigor.

My time as a blogger is still in it’s infancy, so it was quite a surprise to receive this nomination, and it has filled me with a sense of validation – that though my blog has meandered from my intended course, I am accomplishing something of importance. And so, it is with great pleasure that I name my own nominees for this award:

The questions I have been asked to answer (and my responses) are listed below, and I would like to ask my nominees to answer the same questions in their acceptance of the award:

  1. In what way do you feel blogging can help people with psychological trauma or mental illness?
  2. Why would you recommend blogging to someone who suffered from mental illness?
  3. How has blogging helped with your healing, or personal journey?
  4. Do you have any advice for a person who has a hard time understanding their emotions?

(Below answers all four questions. I started to break it down by question, but realized that it kind of all ended up flowing together.)

Writing is an extremely cathartic process, and blogging even more so. The simple act of putting your struggles to paper (or keyboard) allows you to process the pain and emotional turmoil associated with the memories that must resurface. You have to find the words to articulate it, have to think about how to break it down into sentences and structure it into something that makes sense. Taking the time to commit those troubling thoughts into written word is an opportunity to process what might otherwise remain trapped inside, and blogging it puts it out where others can see it. Others can read it. Others can comment and share. And you realize you’re NOT alone. There are others who share your pain and appreciate your efforts to put your thoughts where they can read them.

Blogging can be an immense help to those suffering from psychological trauma or mental illness, because it creates a support network. You make friends. You connect with others trying to process their own struggles, writing about their efforts, and sharing their own strategies for overcoming the turmoil. You feel validated. You feel strengthened. And you help others feel the same.

A few of my blogs were prompted by flashbacks and intrusive thoughts associated with my PTSD. Often, I find myself up with insomnia, with images coursing through my mind too quickly to follow and my emotions riding a roller coaster in response. When it gets particularly difficult, I know I have to get it out, but I wind up sitting in front of the computer screen just staring at it for hours, trying to think through the pain and find the words. Every time I write something about what I’ve been through, it’s the same, and I rarely even get one word down the first time I sit down with the intent to write it. I come back, again and again and sit and stare, until finally, the words start to form.

The emotions associated with trauma aren’t easy to understand. They are raw and powerful, visceral and intense. Don’t let them build to a breaking point. Talk with someone who can listen and understand. Talk with someone who can help. And write. Writing is amazing, because not only does it help get it out and in the open, it gives you an opportunity to look back. When you finish writing, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief and with that a sense of exhaustion. A weight has been lifted. Sleep it off. Then come back and read what you wrote. This helps process it further, as when you read it, you start piecing together clues and recognizing why you were feeling so stuck before.

There’s a whole world out there of people who share your pain and who want to help. You don’t have to be alone. Don’t remain a victim. You’re more than what happened to you. You’re more than your pain. You, too, are a survivor. And together, we are strong.

Enduring Freedom

Awareness of PTSD is building, and with it support for war veterans. With just a little thought, it’s not all that difficult to imagine what it must be like for soldiers who come home from war bearing invisible scars. They’ve been through some of the most intense experiences our world has to offer, and endured what nobody should have to endure. These battle-hardened individuals have faced death, terror, pain, horror, and suffering, and the memories remain with them.

Few, however, are aware of just how many people struggle with PTSD who’ve never left their homes. You see, PTSD is not a combat only disorder. This disorder can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. While war certainly qualifies as traumatic, it is not the only trauma a person can go through. Domestic violence is the MOST prevalent factor in individuals developing PTSD. Children are especially at risk, with approximately 50% of children who experience abuse in their homes later developing PTSD symptoms.

The problem with PTSD that has resulted from abuse as opposed to PTSD that has resulted from combat is that it isn’t as easy for people to understand. A combat soldier triggered by Independence Day fireworks displays is easy for people to understand. Getting triggered by a pile of dirty dishes in the sink…. not so easy to understand.

A “trigger”, as it relates to PTSD, is any stimulation or sensory input that reminds an individual of the trauma they experienced. Fireworks sound a lot like gun shots and mortar shells, so hearing them can remind a soldier of their time spent on the battle field. This “triggers” their fight/flight response as the brain relates the sound to danger. It also triggers the resurfacing of the memory in which the soldier really was in danger. Sometimes this triggered memory hits with such intensity that the soldier then experiences a “flashback” and completely loses track of where they are. They feel like they are THERE. Back on the battlefield. Fighting down that reaction, reconnecting with reality, convincing yourself that you are in no immediate danger and there is no need for your body to be reacting so viscerally can be exhausting.

For those who’s traumas are related to domestic violence, the triggers won’t be as obvious as fireworks. And they won’t be the same for everyone. The triggers are as unique as were the individual traumas experienced. For me… washing dishes is a trigger, because I was washing dishes when my husband scarred me for life.

I remember standing in front of the sink with a dull ache in my lower back and ankles. I was eight months pregnant, and I’d been standing there for over an hour already, because we’d allowed our dishes to keep piling up until we couldn’t put off doing them any more. My hands were dipped in the warm, sudsy water when I heard my husband scream in anger and frustration from the bathroom. I immediately tensed, my fight/flight response already kicking in as I knew what that sound meant. A fight.

He shouted out from the bathroom that he’d stepped on my razor and that he’d told me not to keep it in the shower. Without even thinking, I responded on the defensive, answering that the cap was on the razor so there was no reason to be making such a fuss about it. I heard the resultant tantrum, as he punched the wall, threw the razor, and turned off the shower. Then silence, and within moments he was standing next to me. Sweaty, wet, towel wrapped around his waist, and a crazed angry look in his eyes that I refused to meet. He was towering over me from behind, glaring at me, and breathing heavily but saying nothing. I opted to ignore him and continued washing the dishes, but my heart was pounding.

I was terrified. I knew, at the very least, I was going to be hit. That much was unavoidable. It didn’t matter what I said or did at that point. Once the beast was unleashed, it wouldn’t stop until it inflicted some form of pain. Even more agonizing though was the waiting. Why didn’t he just get it over with? After what felt like an eternity, but was probably in reality only a few minutes, his patience with me reached it’s end and he snarled at me, demanding an apology. I don’t even remember the exact words we exchanged at that point. I just remember that I’d become defiant and strangely, outwardly “calm” despite my racing heart.

I remember telling him off. I remember telling him there was no reason for me to apologize and that he was being childish. Some additional words were passed between us that I don’t remember, but I distinctly remember refusing to meet his gaze and continuing to wash the dishes while he hovered directly behind me. Then, something I said finally tipped him off his edge, and the violence ensued. But while I’d been hit before, this time was different. He shoved me into the sink. Hit me in the side of the head. Grabbed my neck from behind and choked me, and when I attempted to kick out his knee cap to make him let go, he tossed me to the side and grabbed a butcher’s knife off the counter.

My defiance immediately dissipated into a heap of blubbering abject terror. He had me cornered – the only place I could go without making an attempt to run past him was further into the kitchen, trapped up against the wall. He said something about cutting my stomach open and I melted onto the floor. I lost control of my bladder and found myself in a puddle of my own urine. My voice changed as I broke down into uncontrollable sobs. I curled up in the corner into the fetal position, knowing there was no escape and that if this man chose it I was going to die.

Seeing me so broken apparently achieved whatever goal he’d had in mind, and after eyeing me maniacally for a few moments, his demeanor changed. He put the knife back on the counter and started apologizing profusely, but when he tried to approach me, tried to touch me, I swatted his hands away screaming as if he were following through with cutting me open. I didn’t come around until my fear had run it’s course and worked it’s way through my entire body, wracking me with painful sobs, silencing my voice, and leaving me weak and frail and exhausted.

That moment changed everything, and my relationship didn’t last much longer before I found a way to flee. Now it’s been almost six years… but I relive that moment every time I stand in front of a sink full of dirty dishes and place my hands in that warm, sudsy water… When I manage to keep the sink clear, cleaning dishes the moment I dirty them, I can push it to the back of my mind and only feel a little tense for just a moment. But once a day’s worth of dishes have piled in the sink, my mental blocks kick in and I become avoidant. The pile gets bigger and bigger until I can no longer put it off… and then I roll up my sleeves and face the battlefield.

“Crazy In Love” – A walk-through exhibit on display in the student center ball room. See how many early warning signs of a dangerous relationship you can identify!

I was between classes, and I had about an hour to kill when a representative from the Women’s Center handed me their flier. I didn’t have anything better to do while waiting for my next class, and the flier sparked my curiosity, so I figured why not?

When I entered the ball room, I found a row of “stalls” covered by curtains and a pair of young girls waiting at a table to instruct those arriving to tour the exhibit. They motioned me over, handed me a piece of paper, and explained what I was to do. Each “stall” depicted the bedroom of a college student as it would have been found at different stages in her relationship, and between each stall was a computer set to play a vlog post from this student. As I entered each room, I was to peruse and examine, looking for “clues”. Feeling a bit like a private investigator, or Sherlock Holmes, I was intrigued and ready to piece together the puzzle.

Enter the first room:

dorm

The room was fairly typical of what would be expected of a college dorm. An open journal detailed the first meeting with the new boyfriend. A calendar on the wall indicated important dates – tests, study meetings, gym workouts, scheduled outings with friends, sorority activities, scholarship interviews, etc. There were pictures of friends and family on the walls, magazine cut-outs of potential purchases for the room, graduate school applications on the desk. It was easy to see that the girl who slept in this room was a hard-working, goal oriented individual with an active social life and a healthy drive for success.

The first vlog showed this peppy, happy girl introducing her new boyfriend to her family. Said boyfriend seemed eager to make a good first impression… and stake a claim on his new “territory”. I couldn’t help but notice his almost uncomfortably close proximity to his girlfriend through the whole video, arm draped over her shoulders and keeping her hand in his without ever letting go.

Enter room number two:

Another journal entry indicated that though they’d only been together a few short weeks, the girl and her new boyfriend were now engaged and planning on moving in together. She seemed to be madly in love. Infatuated, even, and the rest of her “plans” had taken a toll. Calendar dates for outings with friends were crossed out, cancelled, and replaced with “quality time” with the boyfriend or shopping trips to look for bridal gowns or other preparations for the wedding. A “to do” list indicated a need to pick a date, a honeymoon location, and other various pre-wedding preparations. The stack of applications that had been on the desk in the previous room was now on the floor – the desk flooded with bridal magazines and cruise advertisements. Little post-it notes from the boyfriend were scattered across the room, critiquing everything.

The second vlog showed a still “peppy” girl, now, however, intent on convincing her family that they weren’t taking things too fast, as they were just so hopelessly in love. The boyfriend was a little less interested in making a good impression now, and was instead focused on correcting statements made by the girlfriend.

Things start to intensify in the third room:

Now the room is flooded with messages from the boyfriend. Plans for an outing with friends are overlapped by a note stating “I thought you were going to spend time with me?” or “I thought you weren’t going to hang out with this person any more?”. Hopeful images for bridal gowns were plastered on the wall with question marks and synonymously shut down by the boyfriend with commentary that one was too revealing, another too expensive, etc. A phone log indicates missed calls from concerned friends and sorority members, a missed interview, and even professors concerned about late assignments. The journal entry now indicates that they’ve been fighting, and that the boyfriend got worked up enough to hit her during one of their arguments.

The third vlog shows a now disinterested boyfriend who has to be called to come to the screen and seems too busy to engage. The girl is telling her family that they are getting a dog, but the boyfriend isn’t willing to agree on a name. When he goes off-screen, the girl apologizes to her family for their delay in completing the vlog and blames their difficulties on the stress of wedding preparations.

The fourth room:

The boyfriend has now completely taken over. Everything is a chaotic mess of beer bottles, ash trays, cards… The attempted wedding preparations are buried under dirty clothes and pleading notes are shot down by further criticism. The journal entry is now written from the point-of-view of the boyfriend who indicates his distaste with his girlfriends decision making skills and his need to be there with her every moment for shopping and preparations to help save her from her own poor taste. A nasty note on the calendar demands the girlfriend get the room clean before his plans for having the guys over for another card game and drinks.

The final vlog, before the last room, the girl is alone now. She’s telling her family that she’s broken up with him, moved out, and gone to the police for a restraining order. She seems scattered, nervous, and confused, and half-way through the video someone starts pounding on her door. She looks panicked and gets up without turning off the feed. The boyfriend comes barging in, holding the restraining order paper work in his hand and demanding an explanation. He sees the camera, asks if she’s filming this and knocks it onto the floor. The video cuts out to the sound of breaking glass and the girl screaming…

At this point, someone else who’d been going through the rooms gives a dismissive cluck, rolls her eyes, and comments “so dramatic”… Meanwhile, I’m reaching a breaking point. With each room, I’ve felt my heart-rate increasing, my breathing becoming slightly shorter and more shallow. It’s not a fun puzzle anymore. I’ve numbed myself and am just going through the motions, trying to get through to the end without thinking. I can’t let it sink in. Can’t let it process. But that comment… “so dramatic”… seems to break open the flood gates.

I get one glance into the final room. I see broken glass on the floor, smeared with the streaks of bloody finger prints, and I snap the curtain closed. I can’t step in that room. I can’t. Before I know it, I’m striding across the ball room floor and heading for the nearest bathroom, where I break down in sobs. Gasping, panting, pacing… The scream. The blood. The glass… It’s too overwhelming. And over and over, ringing in my head, is that offhand comment – “so dramatic”.

BloodyGlass

It takes me almost thirty minutes to calm down enough to leave the bathroom, but my nerves are shot. I skip my next class and go back to my apartment instead, but I can’t stay inside. It’s too confining. I feel trapped. Like I’m suffocating. So I take my dog out for a walk in the fresh air and finally am able to settle down enough to quiet my mind when I find a nice cool patch of grass to lie in with my dog standing guard over my prone form.

The “Crazy in Love” display had been spot on. The “clues” in each room had worked like triggers, bringing memories of my own experience flooding back in waves. I could identify characteristics of my abuser in the boyfriend, characteristics of myself in the girl. Each room represented a stage in MY relationship with my now ex-husband. Each vlog represented MY emotional state at different stages in my abusive relationship. It was superbly executed. Excellently thorough. And it brought back the terror in such volume, it took me about a week to “fully” recover from the exposure.

More than anything though, I wanted to find the girl who’d been standing beside me and uttered those callous words. I wanted to tell her how REAL it was. How PAINFUL it was. How TERRIBLE it was to be afraid for my life. I absolutely ached with the desire to point out every single “clue” that had been in those rooms and make it clear to her that she could end up experiencing the same turmoil if she didn’t watch out. If she didn’t open her sheltered, ignorant mind to the evidence that was staring her right in the face.

While those rooms may have only been an exhibit, while those vlogs may have been completed by actors, it was very, very REAL.  And the statistics are absolutely tragic. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, and 1 in 3 female homicide victims are murdered by their current or former partner every year. Knowing what to look for early on and how to get out before it becomes violent can save countless lives. So the next time you think what you are seeing or hearing is dramatic, take some time to think about how traumatic it would be to experience first hand… and pay attention to the “clues”.

Having a child who suffers from an anxiety disorder makes for some interesting challenges. Potty training, for example, was an erroneously slow and tedious process. Even now, at six years old, it is a struggle to get my son to enter the bathroom alone. Every day seems to bring with it a new fear, a new worry, a new terror. Often, he does not even understand what it is that has caused him to feel so fearful and he cannot articulate his worries or concerns.

When fear strikes, he wants to run. He lashes out at those who try to speak with him – especially strangers. Like working with a startled animal, it takes patience and respect to maintain his trust and safety. He needs enough space to overcome the smothering sensation of too much attention, but he also needs someone right there, ready to take his hand and keep him from running headlong into a street.

As he grows and learns and develops, his fears become more complex. A religious individual would resort to prayer, blessings, trust in God, etc. The parent would share comforting stories of a heavenly father who sees all and intervenes on our behalf, of life after death, of heavenly rewards, of a Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts and soothes our ills… For many, faith is the answer to everything. Faith allows people to put aside their fears and believe in a being who watches over all things and has designed the world around us so that everything will work out for our good.

Of all the aspects of religion, I miss this the most. It is an easy answer to all life’s problems. A wrong answer… but easy. I miss it, not because I wish to comfort myself, but because I wish to comfort my child. I want to be able to assuage his fears and reassure him that everything will be alright. However, many of his fears have a legitimate foundation, and while I abhor seeing him in pain and anguish, I would feel absolutely horrid if I lied to him and told him he had nothing to fear.

Fear of death is a simple recurring topic between us. In particular, my son is afraid of MY death. The first time this fear was voiced, I was still a believer, and I told my son the go-to comforting answer that yes, mommy will die someday, but her spirit will live on and you will see her again in heaven. The story seemed to console him and the topic did not come up again until nearly a year later. He remembered what I’d told him about God, and when I didn’t again share this story or elaborate on it, he asked me if I’d lied to him.

“No,” I said. “Many people in the world believe there is a God and a heaven and that we will be with Him when we die, but we don’t know if it is true. Nobody really KNOWS what happens after we die, and nobody who believes in God really agrees on what He is like or what heaven is like.”

I did not go into much detail beyond that – he is, after all, only six (five at the time of this conversation) – and turned the conversation back to his main concern, death. I realized that it was impossible for me to provide an answer that would be both fully honest and fully comforting. I also realized that while I could not take away my son’s fear of death, there are aspects of death I could make less frightening for him. I explained that people usually don’t die until they are very, very old and at that point they are in a lot of pain and have lived a very fulfilling life. I explained that “my” death was likely a long way off, so far in the future that at this point he wouldn’t be able to comprehend it and it would feel like forever. I explained that if I were to somehow die while he was still young that there would always be somebody there to help take care of him – his grandparents, his aunts, etc.

An interesting change resulted from this conversation. As he asked questions and I provided honest answers, we delved into many details that never would have been discussed had I resorted to a story about God and heaven. His fear did not disappear. In fact, he had quite a heartfelt cry over the thought that his mother might someday be gone and that there was no guarantee when that “someday” might be. But as we discussed the aspects of death and it’s inherent uncertainty, there was a very clear difference in my son’s emotions. Rather than a typical panicked response, he seemed more calm. Sad… but calm.

I don’t want to raise a child who is blind to the realities of mortality and suffering. It pains me to see him hurting, afraid, sad, troubled… but I’ve come to realize that the vivid turmoil in my child’s heart is a GOOD sign. He will grow up aware. He will grow up passionate. He will grow up caring. He will grow up involved. He will grow up with a desire to make a difference. He will grow up knowing that any improvement that is to be had must come from US, because there are no blessings pouring down from an invisible deity. He will grow up knowing that ACTION begets change, not prayer.

Just as I can assure my son that there are no monsters hiding under his bed or in his closet, I can dispense with the fantasy of God. While I miss the ease with which I could provide comfort with stories of angels and guardian spirits, discussing reality on a six-year-old level of understanding has strengthened our relationship and provided wonderful opportunities to develop actual coping skills and mechanisms for easing anxiety. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, and we’re making the best of it. And I’d rather have that than a thousand fairy tales.