“The Fourth Anniversary” a writing exercise

phone pics 574We all have dark days we mark on our mental calendars.  Anniversaries aren’t meant to be only celebrations.  Sometimes they’re observed as the days of tragedy.

Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary I sat in a courtroom with a domestic violence advocate and a police officer at my side.

Ironically, it was my birthday that day.  I had just turned 40.  In a strange way, it felt as if it were a death day.  I haven’t celebrated my birthday since 2010 the way others would want to celebrate.  It was ominous and dreadful to me.  An anniversary of a dark time.  A remembrance of plague.

This year I tried it differently.  I celebrated my birthday a few days early.  The intent was to redirect my mind and be joyous that I’m alive.  We had a relaxed party with a handful of close friends and relatives, cake, Easter egg painting and a roaring fire.

I can’t say the joy was as sweet as I wanted it to be, for my child took her mads out on her bicycle as a guest arrived-  leaving bits of basket scattered, and banging her dancer’s ankle to bluish.  She was so angry, but couldn’t figure out what she was angry about.  She blamed it on the bicycle and so proceeded to kick and scream at it until it fell over despite the training wheels.  She hid behind a tree, sobbing.  She didn’t know what was wrong.  She just knew something was.

I never really asked the guest how he perceived the incident, for one minute she was smiling and riding near his car, the next minute she was gone and there was an angry child.  I never asked him how much he saw of the pink bicycle being beaten up.   I never asked him if he saw me drop everything and run to where she stopped.   I never asked if he saw me approach her slowly with outstretched hands, or saw me get down on one knee several feet from her.

I knew better than to grab her.  That escalates her and she runs.   She taught me the hard way to give her time to make sense of what’s happening.

She was lividly rigid, unable to speak coherently, cheeks pink, nostrils flaring.  This is the child others rarely see.   I wish I could say I was completely calm.  Maybe on the outside I seemed to be, but inside I was frightened.

Once the rage calmed and she came back to center, she clung to me for a long time, and I held her with love.  I carried her into the safe house.  She was crying, so frightened of how she’d behaved and if her bicycle would ever forgive her.

She hadn’t quite forgiven herself- but bound and determined, she jumped back on that bike later after we collected the broken parts and she rode it the rest of the evening.

I suspect for her this time is a dark anniversary, when everything she thought she knew turned upside down.  We seem to go through our cycles together around this time of year.

I was hoping maybe things would be different for her if it were different for me.   We collectively share the dark anniversaries, yet we are unique in our ways of handling our feelings.  As old as I feel, sometimes it seems like I should have tenure to control how she feels or what she thinks.

But, as young as she is, her feelings are valid.  As young as she is, she has the right to express her feelings- however dark and angry.  I have no control over her feelings, perceptions, or her thoughts.  I have no control over what happened.

But I won’t lie.  I wish I could snap my fingers and whisk away the pain she doesn’t understand.


The PTSD Mind-Body Connection

It’s taken nearly two weeks to convince Shirley Girly there’s more to life than hiding behind the couch with the dust bunnies.   The little wisp of smoke decided she could show her whiskers in public.

She’s becoming fond of  timidly claiming my lap in the evenings as the other two felines fight for the alpha’s lap next to me.  Though Shirley appears outwardly calm, her muscles tense under my hands.  She doesn’t like noise, or cats arguing who gets where.   She’s clearly afraid of children, fast movements and tall, loud people.  The sound of them turns her into an armpit ostrich, instantly – with a matching set of clawed boxing gloves ready to swing.  I often wonder if she’s having nightmares when she jolts awake for no reason.

Even though trauma happened to her long ago, she clearly has bad moments and spells triggered by little things.   Shirley is probably the closest animal I’ve seen to having post-traumatic stress.  She has psychogenic alopecia (a soothing method turned into obsessive grooming) and is missing about half the hair on her body.  On the outside it’s crystal clear she is anxious 24/7.  She grooms to keep herself calm.

It’s obvious we know anxiety affects us.  What happens to the body inside when we are anxious and afraid?  Have you ever wondered?

Every day it seems we hear on the radio or read online about the facts that too much stress can (k)ill a person.  We know this is likely true, because just about every one of us knows someone (who knows someone else that knew that guy) who died from a sudden stroke or medical mystery at a pre-senior age.

I’ve read dense medical jargon until my eyes were stinging roadmaps about the effects of trauma on the psyche.  It’s something I had to learn about in the last few years, because my body is indeed affected physically by the psychological aspects.  I truly wanted to stay blissfully ignorant at first.  I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t want to face it.

So, here you go.  This is what I know.      

stress_curve

How our bodies react to stress

THE PTSD MIND-BODY CONNECTION

It all starts with a moment of fear.  Something happens..

Oh, let’s say you’re walking home alone on a dimly lit street and you sense someone may be not far behind.  Let’s say you suddenly don’t feel comfortable because you remember long ago, you were stalked.   As you argue with yourself, your strides lengthen with faster steps and then for no reason you can offer, you feel so much panic that you’re running so fast your feet can barely keep up.  You’re feeling absolutely ridiculous, yet justified, and you’re running for your life.

The panic you feel is a body response.  During that time, our brain signals adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) to be released into our bloodstream from the adrenal glands.

Those beautiful little glands snuggle right on top of the kidneys and when the brain is yelling at the body to get ready, those glands send a powerful rush to the entire system.  Our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises with the feeling of a barometer rising in our chest and our muscles are ready for fight or flight.  Adrenal glands, put simply, are the body’s First Responders.  When we hear about people having moments of Superman strength saving another person, it’s the adrenals at work.

For the average person the adrenaline rush lasts maybe a few minutes at most.  The brain will tell the body to release the counter-agent (magnesium) into our bloodstream.    Once that happens, the show’s over folks, nothin’ to see here, move along.  The body returns to normal and resumes its usual functions.

Magnesium has made nearly front-page news in the last few years.  Not many people know what it does, or how it works or why we need it so bad.  All they know is that it’s not good when they don’t have enough of it.

Short and sweet, we literally can’t live without magnesium.   We have to have enough magnesium in our body for over 300 metabolic reactions to happen.   It also helps us keep calmly copacetic and helps us sleep.  Only 1% hangs out in your bloodstream (when a doctor checks your magnesium, he’s only able to check that 1%.)  The other 99% is in your bones, cells and organs.

The average “normal” person in a crisis will recover fairly quickly.    The body will balance itself out by telling the kidneys to draw magnesium out of the bones and wherever else it can to balance the 1% in the bloodstream back to that 1%.   As long as that bloodstream stays at 1% the body doesn’t care what organ or bone they borrowed the magnesium from.

Where things can go terribly wrong is when a person is in a crisis for a long time.  The stress hormones keep flooding our body.  At first the body can keep up.   The rush..cortisol; the calm..magnesium; the rush, the calm, etc etc etc.  But the body begins to show signs of wear and tear and it doesn’t work as well as it used to.  And it doesn’t like excess cortisol.  Still, the body’s a trooper and will fight itself for homeostasis.  The blood will stay at 1%, but the body… well, not 99% anymore.

Now add more crisis, more calm, over and over.   The adrenals are struggling to keep up with the demand, the kidneys are getting confused and tired, and your blood sugar starts to run a little high.  The body is running low on stress hormones, and running out of its places to borrow magnesium from your bones and organs, and that tightly regulated 1% is no longer balanced.

Here’s when the serious symptoms are screaming,  because of those over 300 metabolic reactions, magnesium keeps the heart beating.  Not enough magnesium means your heart will hiccup, and pause, and beat strangely.  Magnesium lets you absorb protein, calcium, and more.  Not enough magnesium means your body may eventually starve, no matter how much you eat.  Kidneys will fluctuate on reserve power.   In fact, most of the body may be running on reserve because without nutrition, there’s very little energy available to climb stairs, or run, or think.

Crrrrash.

Adrenal fatigue and chronic low magnesium are found in many trauma survivors with PTSD.  It’s a mind-body connection of disastrous proportions.  When we remember, our body experiences the trauma all over again.  And yes, if we can’t get a grip on ourselves sooner or later (sooner is best), over time we can become terribly sick.

Domestic violence survivors aren’t the only group affected.  Include high risk jobs to the list (firefighters, police officers, soldiers, etc), and anyone who is in a high risk group of being in a chronic, long-term stress situation.

So what can we do to help ourselves not get sick?

Part of the answer lies in self-care and self-awareness, and in our own methods of soothing and calming ourselves.   Some of us have less-than-healthy soothing methods (like Shirley Girly, for example.)  Humans are a little more complex, though. We develop some unhealthy habits trying to soothe ourselves.

If only we could lick ourselves all day long!  That would be such an easy fix.

 


Instinctual Red Alert

click here to learn more

A cat who excessively grooms itself from anxiety.

With Shirley kitty at home, watching her go through the phases of trigger to calm has been difficult.   Rescue Remedy has been a blessing.  I wonder if she’ll ever feel safe enough to play with toys or want to venture beyond the upstairs.  But we’re in baby steps and her body language speaks clearly.   She just wants to eat and cuddle with her one exclusive human and lick-lick once she’s alone.

One of the most heartbreaking (and frustrating) issues of a traumatized animal is that the human sees the big picture of why they behave so irrationally, but the animal does not.  We cannot use words to explain the disease or injury to the animal.   The light bulb will never glow in their minds of “a-ha!”.  There’s no understanding of themselves, no clarity, no logic.

It’s interesting to note that even our species runs on instinct and primitive levels when the chips are past being down.   The switch flips in our head and we become animals.  We behave as an animal does during red alert.  Some of us stay in that mode temporarily, some dangerously longer.

Imaging a soldier overseas, hunched down in the dense glade, weapon cocked and ready.  Every blade of grass that moves, he tenses.  Shadows appear ominous.  The soldier is on red alert, and everything will potentially end his life if his vigilance slips for a mere second.  Now imagine months later he is safe in his own back yard, sipping spiked lemonade and wearing flip-flops.  He is still vigilantly on red alert and relaxing is a luxury his brain can’t afford, so he sees a therapist weekly and takes his sleepytime medicine from the flask hidden in the toilet.   After barricading the front door with furniture he sleeps fitfully with a loaded gun.

Imagine a violence survivor at night, checking her locks repeatedly, tensing at every dog bark outside and the scrape of a breeze-blown branch against glass, her heart hammering loudly in her ears.  She wonders if her vigilance slips for a mere second if her safety will end.  She has 911 on speed dial, a safety plan and an escape bag packed and ready.   Her trauma happened well over a year ago and her assailant is serving time.  At night her mind plays with her so well.  She sleeps very little.  He could get out any moment.   Somehow…

Being on red alert can affect any living thing no matter what species you are and it does not discriminate.  It affects our brains.   It doesn’t change our intelligence, but it does change our reasoning.  It doesn’t affect our beauty, but it does change our perceptions of ourselves.  And most definitely, it changes our view of the world, permanently.

For the next week,  we’ll be focusing on the physical and emotional consequences trauma continues to inflict long after.  Thank you for reading.

 


When instinct becomes a hazardous habit

psychogenic alopecia

example of a cat psychogenic alopecia, a behavioral compulsive disorder of excessive grooming

For the last few evenings, a scamper of a little feline has snuggled in my lap.  She is a wisp of smoke, a peripheral shadow, hard to coax out of hiding and so easy to love.  Her name is Shirley.

According to the rescue workers Shirley was abused at some time in her young life, before she appeared in ours.  She is spooked by sudden noises, flinches at sudden hand movements and ostriches her head under my armpit as if to say it’s simply too much.  Her method of soothing is, well… grooming herself.   Recently she’s groomed about half the hair off her body.  She has a low threshold of tolerance.  If I didn’t know better, I’d speculate my little bald-bottomed lapwarmer meets the criteria for PTSD.

Last night as my hands gently stroked her sparse fur, it got me thinking about abuse survivors and how we soothe ourselves when we are overwhelmed – and I thought even more about it.  Shirley is a good example that even on the most instinctual level, we will do whatever we have to do to calm ourselves when we are triggered or frightened.  Even if it means licking the fur clean off down to the bare flesh.

Self-soothing is meant to be naturally healthy for us and is critical for stabilizing emotional levels, grounding us and bringing us back to center.  It seems though even in animals it can go terribly awry.

For the human survivors of domestic violence, it’s a little more sophisticated and dangerous.  Studies show many rape and violence victims resort at some point to substance abuse, self-destructive behaviorals (such as cutting or promiscuity), binge eating, etc.. the list goes on forever.  Not every victim resorts to the list (and most of us walk the edge) but yes the potential always exists, for we are desperate.

How do you soothe yourself  when you are desperate to escape the pain?

 

 


Writing in my Head

It is undeniable that this is a blog devoted to survivors of domestic violence.  It’s clear that the blog targets the sexual trauma a victim battles.  It’s painstakingly obvious that on this blog some hard subjects are discussed, even though I haven’t even quite scratched the surface yet.

Honestly, if you are on this blog reading this you are seeking help for yourself or someone you love.   You are in the right place.

As most of you know, I’ve been on a long tedious journey of healing myself emotionally from domestic violence.  I mean, this is what the blog was intended for – talking about the abuse allows the festering wounds inside to scab somewhat.  Talking about it helps to put the past into perspective instead of reliving it in silence and fear.

Writing about it validates the reality.

I have been silent awhile…

There are times when a survivor simply decides to shut the book of Past and tuck it on a high shelf, just for a little while.  We test ourselves to see how far we can live as “normals”.   When we are ready as survivors to do this, it is a disconcerting feeling.  We have lived this way of life for so long, we hardly know what to do with ourselves without it.   It’s a strange mixed feeling of semi-freedom… like wearing shackles with no chains attached.

Even through the silence  I was writing in my head.  Beyond the silence were those prompting me to return to writing, and barely visible behind them, my goals glimmered in moon slivers on a turbulent sea.

It took me a long time to face the facts that it happened.  It took me an even longer time to accept it.  The truth, is that I know.. the bittersweet, is that I’m aware.. and the silence when my voice failed me outspokenly… so perhaps saying I accepted it is wishful thinking.  Perhaps writing in my head was my voice to make up for what my lips cannot form.


Giver for A Day

120516_0005A twinkle crept across his face as he held the burgundy filigree in hand.  Perhaps a trick of the dim light.  I could have sworn they were tears of happiness.  He muttered softly that I was the first relationship to reciprocate on the one Almighty day of Love.  I was his first Valentine gift(er), ever.

Needless to say, I was shocked but at the same time, I understood.  This person is exactly like me – emanating peace, love and happiness as a giver, but never receives.  And what is interesting is that we are both in recovery from abuse.

It’s sad that givers attract users, abusive personalities and empty spirits.  We givers are always hungry for what we do not get in return, so we sustain ourselves on the satisfaction of the little things in life, until we find a giver nearly identical to ourselves.

And then??  Oh Holy Mary Mother.  It’s bliss, baby.   When givers fall in love, it’s magnetic, inspiring, and the stuff dreams are made of.

If you’re a giver, then you get what I’m saying.  We love offering a piece of ourselves just for a smile, or a thank you.  It’s the little things that get us out of bed in the morning.

People in recovery (like me) nourish ourselves with the simplest notions that will love us back the most with the least amount of collateral damage.

I could talk about givers all day long, but today this post is more meant for people that aren’t givers.  They’re not bad seeds.  No one is ever born evil, or stingy, or angry, or selfish – but somewhere along the way, they got hurt.

Brick, mortar, scrape

up  uP   UP

forms a nearly impenetrable wall to mask the pain that a giver can’t climb over, reason with or  dissolve  with giving and loving.  And sometimes the more givers try the tougher that wall gets, for the wall is safety, protecting their vulnerability as if they were ribs lovingly encasing a heart.  Only the mason- the master builder of that wall- can tear it down or carve a vulnerable niche of openness.

Today is one of the best days  (besides Christmas) to be vulnerable, if only for a moment.  Vulnerable doesn’t always equal harm.  Yes, there is risk involved.  You might not get what you give.  But you might just get a glimpse of how it feels to be a giver.  There are so many hungry souls out there and we have so much love to give.  Giving is one of those little gestures that helps heal us from the inside out.

The best places to start are in the simplest places with low risk, and the best giving is the free kind.

~ Give a moment of vulnerability to a nursing home – sit with an elderly person whose heart is tired and hungry for acknowledgement.  You may hear that same ol’ story  over and over,  but the warm peaceful feeling inside will long outlast the momentary irritations.

~ Volunteer at a soup kitchen for a day and talk with those less fortunate – sit with them, share a meal, a story and a smile.   Make a friend outside of your comfort zone.  You don’t need to offer money or possessions to connect with people.  The most true-blue friends are found in the strangest places, and many of those people have lost everything by something beyond their control and have been exposed to being treated inhumanely.

~ Visit your animal shelter and love love love those dogs and cats on Death Row – there’s reciprocal love in every tender purr and lick n’ drool – and it may be the last time they’ll get to love on anyone.  So give them all you’ve got, for they’re not there to steal your heart but to overflow it with unconditional love.

Just for one day, open your heart.  Today is a great time to try.

Happy Love Day, everyone!


“Those People”

As 2013 begins its slow descent to its final destination, please put your seats in their upright position.  I wanted to thank all of you who read my blog.  It has been a scary year, full of self-doubt and revelations.  I’ve have more V-8 moments than I could count!  But I couldn’t have gotten this far without you.

This post is dedicated to all of “those people” who place themselves at risk to protect others from harm.  From an outsider’s perspective, “those people” are the tattlers, the dirty rats, the spill-beaners and secret-tellers, and or/liars.  “Those people” can’t be trusted.

“Those people” are called mandated reporters.  There are many of us out there.  Some of us look official and others are disguised as ordinary people.  We all share one common goal.  We are watchful, and sworn to report.  Whether the abuser is  friend or foe, our lover, our family- no status will protect the abuser, even if we desperately wanted to.

Certain employment positions place us in the awkwardness of being a mandated reporter, whether we want it or not.   By law, we cannot turn the other cheek.  By law, we can be held accountable if we do.  And so long as we maintain our job that keeps us in the role of mandated reporting, we are bound to an oath to report abuse or suspected abuse of children, disabled and elderly.

In all seriousness, many mandated reporters were once victims of abuse themselves or were witnesses.   Whether consciously or not, we swore we would never let anything like that ever happen to another person or child.  Two of my close friends are prime examples.  One was severely beaten by her boyfriend and not long after, she enrolled in college to be a social worker.  My other friend just landed a job  as the one who shows up on doorsteps with the police to remove abused children.

I would never call myself an angel by any means.  My halo’s crookedly hung,  my wings are PTSD clipped and surely my rags are far from snowy white.   Some days I’m a penny short to rub two cents together.  I could be making more money, doing something that means less, but somehow I keep coming back.  As much as some days my stomach churns walking through the door, I am a part-time private home health care worker.  As soon as I signed the dotted line, the Mandatory Faerie waved her magic gavel, and wa-la- I became a “those people”.

Sometimes I get labeled just a “housekeeper”.  Other days, it’s a blessing that they have guaranteed help to cook meals, help with personal tasks they can no longer do, and someone to cry on when they’re hurting badly.  Their life is not ideal, their friends or friend-of-a-friends are unsavory, and they get used often.  They are vulnerable to financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.  And it happens all the time.

Being a mandatory reporter.. well, it’s a hard thing to do.  You get scared.  You don’t want to get involved but you’re compelled to, morally and legally.  It’s risky, and it doesn’t always pan out.  You are protected by law, yes, but your name is not always anonymous.

This year I reported a man who was financially and sexually abusing his wife, and because children were involved I was under oath to make the call and turn over all correspondence as evidence.  I’m in contact with the wife sometimes, and her life is slowly improving.  I had guided her through some negative perceptions of herself sexually, and she was able to discover self-love even though she was getting treated badly.

I remember the first time I ever reported abuse.  At the tender age of 10 I was a witness.  Age 12, I spoke into an investigator’s microph0ne recorder, helping to uncover a child sex abuse predator who had been molesting a handful of children in our area.  As many times as his time was near parole the families rallied together, protesting, and the predator spent the rest of his life behind bars.

What I was too young to understand then – but do now- is that our experiences in life set us on a targeted course.  One day I realized that every event in my life pointed to what I am now, and what I do.

I’ve become one of “those people” and I’m okay with it.


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