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I wake up every weekday morning at my usual 5am, brush my teeth, get changed and head out to my morning fitness class. After class, I shower, have a light breakfast and coffee, wish D a good morning and my workday begins. When I finish my day, I’m either out for a walk, making dinner, dining out with friends or running some sort of errand. Again, rather typical for most people. What’s hidden underneath my every day facade, is a hurt inner child. An inner child who wishes to be seen, heard and valued. It’s a painful realization to admit to, but if I can be so vulnerable, it’s extremely true.
Most who’ve suffered from Childhood PTSD know exactly what I’m talking about. Every day can feel like a struggle to challenge negative thought patterns, self-sabotaging behaviours and complaining. I meditate, practice mindfulness, and use a variety of different techniques to soothe the running mind, yet sometimes the wave of negative thought patterns becomes too overwhelming to even slam on the brakes. It’s like trying slow down a runaway streetcar all by yourself – it’s so powerful, you have no choice but to step away and let it take over. Even with the awareness of the onset, sometimes isn’t enough to step away from it.
And that’s when I get myself into trouble with blaming, lashing out, pulling away, critiscizing or complaining. Once in it, it becomes nearly impossible to slow down. Then my mind runs in circles, like a hamster wheel, or Netflix trying to buffer and all you can do is watch the round circle spin forever on the TV screen.
How do I get off this crazy ride?
CPTSD is an injury. It doesn’t define me, but it’s an injury I have to manage and heal. Some recover a lot quicker depending on their level of resilience. For others, it takes a lot more work. I’ve realized that fear and resentment are two of the most powerful feelings that take over me when I fall into this pattern.
I resent myself. I resent others. I resent my environment. Then comes the fear. Fear of abandonment, fear or intimacy, fear of trust, fear of others, fear of letting go of the feelings of resentment (because I’m so used to feeling it, it’s ironically comforting), fear of letting go of this fear.
It’s a strange place to be in and as Anna Runkle calls it, this is when my brain goes into dysregulation. I have tried her Daily Practice of systematically writing out my fears and resentments, and I must say that it has been quite helpful. When having CPTSD, it’s normal to have a lot of fear and security challenges. Given what we’ve experienced, forming safe bonds with others can be understandably challenging. The goal now for me is to learn how to accept the feeling of regularity and safety.
I’ve read that we can still form new neuropathways in our brains. For example, if someone says to you, “Nice haircut”, most will think of that as a compliment. However, if our brains are hardwired towards the negativity bias, some might take that as a sarcastic remark to hurt us. We react in defense and lash out, even though the intent was to say something nice to you.
Forming new neuropathways can be looked at like a dried up canyon, where for years, the river flowed through it, forming a natural pathway for the water. If we look at our negative thoughts as the river, it will always flow in that same direction, over and over again. If we learn to create a new river for the water to flow, we can provide an option for our positive thoughts to come through instead. It takes a long time for the new canyon to be formed, but it is possible with commitment and hard work.
There’s much hope with finding ways to create new neuropathways. Though some days it feels daunting or as if I’ve taken steps backwards, I like to celebrate the little victories and take note of when I did override the negative thought patterns successfully. The old saying goes, a day at a time. In my case, it’s a moment at a time.
With the World slowly crawling back to a sense of normalcy, there’s so many things we have to re-learn and get used to again. Will we ever truly be comfortable shaking hands again? How will we react when the person sitting beside us on the bus sneezes? Will masks be a normal thing for the average North American?
Only time will tell if what we’ve adapted during the pandemic will remain a permanent part of our everyday lives.
Does time heal wounds?
That’s a loaded question for a lengthy discussion. It depends on the circumstance and in the case of the pandemic, there will be many who would say that time alone isn’t enough to mend the sorrow, pain and loss they’ve endured.
I met D during the pandemic, and it’s been a year that we’ve been together. Despite the general consensus that this past year sucked donkeys for most people, for me, it’s been an incredible year. I’ve met someone who is my equal, and someone who is committed to being in a happy and healthy relationship. Together, we’ve made the most of this past year experiencing some of the things we both enjoy doing: hikes, bike rides, walks, eating at home, playing a bit of golf and watching movies at home. I’ve never felt this fortunate before being with anyone and most importantly, D is really starting to know me and knows when to call out my shit.
Yep, there it is. I said it. My shit. Listen up trauma survivors, this blog’s for you.
Listing out My Shit:
I’m finding D and I are experiencing some recurring patterns in our relationship lately. We’re disagreeing more frequently and getting into some heated moments at times, despite our ability to reground ourselves to a steady baseline afterwards. I’ve learned that these patterns in relationships don’t happen by accident. There’s something called a trauma bond where we want to subconsciously relive some of our past trauma with our partners to repair what was broken before. It sounds very unromantic in the dating world, but it’s a reality (I didn’t make this stuff up.) Also, it’s part of the dating world that everyone I feel should educate themselves on (no more Hollywood rom-coms or Nicolas Sparks books!) My list of things that trigger me isn’t even often related to D. In fact my shit, is really just that. These are past wounds creating some recurring negative behavior patterns in myself. Let’s see if you can relate to any of these:
- Complaining to my partner about the little things.
- Feeling insecure when my partner doesn’t text or call me back.
- Fearing my old abandonment wounds creeping up when my partner spends time doing things without me.
- Having a list of needs from my partner, that’s unreasonably longer than a grocery list for a family of five.
- Picking fights when there’s nothing to fight about.
- Interpreting anything my partner says to me as an attack.
You know about this list too, don’t you? The reason I’m listing it, is to first of all, own my shit. Taking accountability and having a sense of awareness is one of the first fundamental things one needs to do, if anything is going to change in the relationship.
Phew. I admit, that took a lot of balls to list my shit out (let alone publicly). It isn’t an easy process to take accountability for my own stuff, because I feel shame, guilt, unworthiness and self-loathing, all coming in on me like a wave. I felt the tightness in my brow, my chest and I noticed my shoulders tensed up. I also felt a tummy drop when I even admitted these things. I felt like a failure and I also felt broken. In short, I felt raw and vulnerable. There was a lot of resistance I needed to plough through in order to openly admit my shit.
But, by owning my mistakes, I’m not only able to lift the shame, I’m able to figure out some other important realizations and next steps to work through all this.
Things to Realize:
First thing to realize is that we are not our trauma. This has been echoed to me a few times by various helpful resources. My experienced trauma was an extremely trying time and there’s no denying that. But I am not my trauma. It is however a part of me. As Anna Funkle puts it, we are injured by our trauma. The more we dissociate our identity from our trauma, the easier it can be to work through it. We are many things besides our painful experiences. We are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, colleagues who are kind, loving, courageous, valued and whole.
I’m human. Alright, this may seem obvious, but what does it mean to be human? We make mistakes and poor choices sometimes, and we are allowed to do that! We are not meant to be perfect. I need to deal with the reality of what a lot of relationships go through, which is strife. It is hard work being in a healthy relationship, and that’s perfectly normal. It is normal for relationships to stumble at times, and that’s OK. However, I love this relationship too much to do nothing about it when we do stumble. I can’t wish the problems away, instead I choose to be committed to doing the work.
I’m learning to be comfortable with stability. Allow me to explain. If you grew up in a home filled with arguments, family violence and fear, your body is conditioned to be in a fight-flight mode in your intimate relationships. Anxiety creeps in. Fear seeps through the cracks. Rumination and doubts about the relationship enter the scene. All this can happen, even when there’s not rhyme or reason to feel this way. Nothing your partner said or did triggered it (although we might blame them for the slightest thing). Our bodies are so conditioned for instability, it craves the chaos. It craves the argument. It craves the fight. Hence, we self-sabotage and nit-pick at our lovely partners to satisfy the need for instability. After the argument ensues, our bodies become regulated once again. We then rinse and repeat. I grew up in a home of beatings, shouting, slamming doors and heart tremoring fear. At school, I was bullied for being me and for being Asian. As an adult, my mind and body are conditioned to the idea of feeling instability (subconsciously). Therefore, the idea is to learn to become aware of when my body is craving that hit for an argument (even when there’s no reason to). Once I have that awareness, I’m now learning ways to cope with the withdrawal symptoms by self-soothing and compassionately telling myself that I am safe and I am loved. I’m also learning to be in the moment and embrace when things are stable and safe, reprogramming my brain to a new way of seeing what love is.
Talking to someone about your shit is one way to work through it. Out it. The more you hold onto your vulnerability, the more it eats you up inside and before you know it, you’re constantly living in fear and resentment. It’s easier to blame others, I totally get it. If you choose that route, then know that it can be a very lonely journey filled with bitter resentments and a lack of trust. By talking to someone (professional preferably), you’re taking the first steps to owning your shit and demonstrating genuine intention to change. Also unravelling our attachment styles in relationships and understanding why we behave in certain ways is a good place to start.
Over this past year, I’ve learned a lot more about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. One of the goals to self-soothe is by regulating the running mind and bring ourselves back to the feeling of safety. If we can engage our vagus nervous system, which helps regulate our parasympathethic nervous system, we can achieve what’s called the rest/relaxation state (as opposed to the fight/flight state that’s engaged by our sympathetic nervous system). Deep belly breathing, body movement, meditation are all great ways to help activate that rest/relaxation state.
I’ve found writing to be a great form of release. Anna Runkle has a great simple tool that I’ve been learning to use recently. Any form of writing for that matter is cathartic. I journal often and in conjunction with other tools, getting out of my head becomes more manageable. The beauty of writing is that we all don’t need to be Ernest Hemingways. We can jot down thoughts, scribble, draw or get creative with poetry. Best part is, it’s for our eyes only.
I’m learning to establish a sense of self. What I mean by this is that we need to learn what our values and our interests are. What keep us going? What inspires and motivates us? Is it travelling? Gardening? Cooking? Running marathons? During this time of the pandemic, it’s been really easy to lose oneself. Discover and re-connect with the person inside you. What makes you, YOU? By estabilishing a stronger sense of self, you can find inward strength, and rely a lot less on external validation.
Lastly, we all love connection. There’s no denying that we all want to love and feel loved. Most importantly, we all want to be seen. With the pandemic hopefully on its last dying legs, I’m hoping to reconnect with the friends I haven’t seen for a very long time and enjoy some nice dinners, drinks and lots of laughter. And now with D in the picture, I look forward to introducing her to all my friends and making the social experiences even more enriching.
Healing old wounds takes time. Wait. Let me rephrase that. Healing old wounds takes time AND work. We have a part to play in the healing journey. There’s no absolute single method that will magically make our suffering disappear. Though we wish it would, we have to be brave and bold enough to accept that these are the cards we’re dealt with, and it’s time for us to make the best out of our hand. It’s a difficult reality, but we are not alone which brings great hope and a smile to my face.
We’ve got this.
In this video presentation, I talk about the importance of providing ourselves with the power of acceptance and compassion when dealing with powerful feelings. We can get consumed by our thoughts and feelings everyday, and this can be especially true for trauma survivors. The tools of acceptance and compassion validates our experiences which is necessary in shifting ourselves from a place of hurting to healing.
Saturday Feb 20th (10am-12pm PST) I’ve been invited to speak on the Advocacy and Empowerment in Mental Health Promotion webinar, hosted by the SSPC, alongside members from the Department of Psychiatry and Nursing from the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. The SSPC is a nonprofit organization devoted to furthering research, clinical care, and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness.You can watch me Live on Zoom, presenting “My Mental Health Journey – the Value of Applying Acceptance and Compassion.”
(and no, I’m not a MediCATION Coach…)Continue reading “Advocacy and Empowerment in Mental Health”