April 2009 Archives
This is a representation, drawn after the fact in pencil, of what one particular 24 hour period looked like for me. I have written about art therapy before and this is a good example of how helpful it can be to visually represent a state of mind. Of course, art is not the only medium one can use. Music, poetry, writing, and talking are probably the most common additional ones. My only point is that psychotherapy tends to restrict itself to just talking. I believe that's limiting to a number of patients.
In this image, the timeline doesn't really correspond to actual events. It's not literal. Despite the huge fluctuations, the timeline is not broken. This is one of my major advances. It isn't always this way, but it is more so than not.
Several days later I drew something very similar. But this time I put labels at various places along the timeline.
For me, the answer has always been both.
If I view dissociation in terms of my early life experiences, I definitely say it's a miracle. But when looking at the present, it's a disorder because it gets in the way of where I want to be and who I want to be.
Like many other inventions, dissociation has limitations. It's not scalable for me at this point the way I would need it to be. As I evolve, it doesn't evolve with me. Plus, as I become more aware, I begin to experience distressing dissociative symptoms that would probably otherwise be ignored, or at least be perceived very differently in the past. So, for me, at this point, dissociative identity disorder mostly causes suffering. At some point there was a tipping point. I cannot pinpoint exactly when that was. But it was probably when I realized that some of what I was doing that I was not aware of was actually harmful to me. I had only limited awareness before that. I came to realize that I had a life I had to live and I had to be safe. Being a father and husband was not compatible with hurting myself. Somehow that notion evaded me for many years. Maybe that is processing the trauma, I don't know. Maybe it was coming to terms with everything and being able to move forward, finally, after so many years.
To give you an idea of why I view dissociation as a disorder, consider the following account from a couple months ago taken from my private journal. The scene is that I was with my 10 year old daughter at a fun public event.
There were some dicey moments when I felt like everything wasn't real and started to zone out and drift away. The experience is like I can tell I'm drifting away and I end up trying so hard to get back. I think sometimes that trying really hard makes it worse because you end up panicking a little. I'll try to help you imagine what it's like. Imagine that you are swimming in a nice little pool on a warm sunny day and you are happy and everything is great. You don't have a care in the world and this goes on for some time. Then all of a sudden you realize you aren't in a safe pool at all but rather in the middle of the ocean and it's raining and dark. Then you think how stupid you were for not knowing this before! You should have prepared for this. But you cannot prepare for it for it catches you out of nowhere. You see a boat that can rescue you off in the distance and you swim desperately to get to it. As you do, the riptides are pulling at you and you seem to be going backwards and taking on water. As if that's not bad enough, imagine that while most of you is in a panic and working intensely to try to get to that damn boat, there's a part of you that doesn't even know what's going on and another part of you that knows but doesn't care. That's kind of what it's like. It's a huge experience. Completely overwhelming and draining emotionally and physically. Even when I do get back, I don't fully recover. I'm almost traumatized by it and something bad sits with me for a long while afterwards.
Notice the account has nothing to do with DID (or parts). This is just your average dissociative experience that is in no way a fun one.
It's important to be able to label something as a disorder because then you can be more motivated to change it. I have learned that the goal is not to focus on the trauma, per se. My path allows me to not focus on what happened to me to make my mind disorganized and partitioned, but rather focus directly on how to fix my mind's partitions. Now one could say that you have to address the cause in order to find a solution. And, that's partly true for me. Of course I do revisit the past. But the focus for me is on skills and how to reteach my mind so that it works in the way it was intended.
As I work to heal, I keep the following truism in mind. Seemingly intractable problems can sometimes be solved. Sometimes they can even be solved quite easily. On the flip side, "little" problems can go unsolved even if one tries really hard. I say this because sometimes one may think more abuse equals more injury equals harder to heal equals need the best trauma specialist or really intensive therapy. I have met many who feel there is no hope. I have come to a position that not all of this is linear. There is always hope. There is always a solution. Sometimes it's just difficult to find.
I know I have written several letters over the years, for Christmas cards and sometimes when I leave the unit. In an effort to reduce the chances of being repetitive, I'm not looking at the past letters and I promise to be as succinct as possible. I'm writing a letter for everyone, as opposed to singling out individuals. Those who really helped me know who you are, as I've already expressed my gratitude for what you have done for me while I was there. What I feel in my heart is enormous gratitude for the entire unit and everyone who makes the unit the special healing place that it is.
I had a difﬁcult hospital course of 11 days. I was only ready to leave not because I felt "ﬁne", but because I did enough work. My usual tendency is to just "regroup" within a couple days and get out of there as fast as possible. This was different. What I grappled with in the hospital was the result of many years of struggle. I discovered things about myself that I had simply not known before. Some have been monumental. Given the distance I allowed from my normal "life", it became easier to come to these realizations. I know I have had similar productive stays before, but probably this one stands out as one of the most important. Put simply, I gave myself the chance to do work that I could only do in the hospital. The result is that a great weight has been lifted from me. This gives me the strength to move on and to do the work I need to do to heal.
While all of you have different degrees of knowledge of what I grappled with there and had different roles to play, all of you contributed to helping me achieve what I achieved. I am indebted to all of you.
I want you to know that I realize how difﬁcult a job you all have. But I also want you to know that what you do can make a difference. What you do can change people's lives. I know that most who come to to the unit do not get the beneﬁt of what the unit has to offer. That's okay because thatʼs the way the world works.
I got to experience the weight of the hospital. Many of you know that I made a special effort to get to know and open up to some of the patients. It shocks me what people have gone through, how they struggle, and how they move on. I cannot imagine doing what you do.
I know that for many of you the changes you see in people over the years is what allows you to do your job so well. I used to be sad about the fact that I would always recognize patients from prior stays. But I now think this is, in some way, good. While it makes me feel bad, it allows you to see the changes that occur in individuals who come there. The hospital really isn't like a hospital emergency room where you almost never see the same person twice. It's also not like a therapy relationship. It's somewhere in between.
I reprint this letter here because I think it's important for people to realize that psychiatric hospitals do have a real role to play in helping those in crisis. I understand that many are petrified of hospitals, as we've all heard some horror stories. But there are many good hospitals and many good therapists ready to assist. One important requirement is that you have to meet them halfway and be open to receiving help.
This article appeared in the April 2009 newsletter Many Voices.
I have read Many Voices off and on for the past 18 years. Wow! That means for at least 18 years I have been on some sort of healing journey. That's a little less than half my life. Mind boggling when I think about it because sometimes it feels like I've accomplished absolutely nothing. I still have flashbacks, body memories, I switch and struggle with self-harm, but rarely act on the urges. However, everything is different now.
The biggest change is that I've made a commitment to be alive. When you can honestly make that level of commitment, you will know you are on a different, more sturdier path to healing. Suddenly you are forced to deal with the pain of all of you (yourself and your parts). You are forced to find healthier ways to push through, like breathing or drawing or writing or crying. You are forced to learn about all the parts of you and not just push them away. And you do it because you know it's the only way!
Healing from trauma, though, is kind of like learning. You don't start out knowing how it is that F=ma, you build up to it. I have had many helpful people tell me that if I just do this or that, things will get better. But none of that made any sense until I found my own way. I didn't used to think I could communicate with parts of me. I never really believed I was in it with some of the darker parts. A lot of times I didn't even believe in parts or that I was abused.
Flashbacks and body memories are sometimes more debilitating now that I don't "act out" and because they are attached to feelings. But I have new skills. I can sometimes say to myself that this is a memory and not be too caught up in it as much as I used to. I can curl up with my stuffed animals. Be comforted by loved ones. I can change my plans and say to myself that it's okay.
The largest area of growth is how I deal with my somewhat fragmented internal structure. I often denied that my "system" existed. I still do that to a degree, but I am beginning to empathize with parts and the result is increased sharing and communication and trust. The barriers, I am finding, don't need to always be so severe. So while I ask myself why, if I am getting better, do I have to experience so many bad and painful feelings that used to stay with the parts? My answer is that I am stronger now and able to experience them in a more whole way and not be destroyed. I guess that means I'm healing. This is why it's important to take a step back and assess. My knowledge that I am healing gives me the strength to go on.
Healing, though, goes hand in hand with safety, which is the topic of this issue. I have done more over the past year to create internal and external safety than at any other time in my life. I have finally been able to recognize triggers and take steps to keep myself safe. I recognize my awesome responsibility to my wife and two young children (and to myself and the children within). I do things now that I never would conceive of doing. I let my parts have time to experience what makes them feel comforted. This could be playing piano or writing or drawing or talking. And I take my internal work and therapy much more seriously now. I don't go back to work after therapy. I sit in the safe library for a few hours before therapy to write and draw and to figure out where all of me is at.
All of this change has come quite quickly for me. And this is what I want to tell all you MV readers. Only recently did I find a new therapist who was able to work with me in a very different way. This therapist works with all of me and she uses a range of methods, from talk to drawing to music. It's not been easy. The commitment is huge! But I now know everything is about safety. I finally found a safe place inside, after many years of being "told" to do so. Last September, I experienced an incredible state of consciousness, not unlike I suppose what people hope to achieve through meditation or yoga. I saw and experienced the infinite nature of the universe and my whole being was bathed for several weeks in a rich energy. That experience was my awakening. A gift, I said, for all the hard effort I had made and for the way in which I shifted my healing focus. I have not stayed at that place, but have achieved glimpses of it since. I now have something to reach for.
A few weeks ago, in a dream, my inner family took me on a journey to show me their safe place. It is a wonderfully rich place not unlike "Camelot". Now when I meditate with myself, in a safe place, I can close my eyes and go back to this place and stand alongside my parts who have finally let me in. Sometimes I do it by being quiet. Sometimes soothing music helps me get there. This is not, by any means, the end of my journey. In fact, in many ways, it's only the beginning. My parts inside are finally trusting me enough to share. We are beginning to gain a sense of family. Even darker parts that I have wished away many times are being accepted and accepting others in return.
It can be remarkably healing to accept your inner structure. But you cannot just stop there. You have to accept and make an effort to change. Only then can you experience healing.
Many Voices has been a reality check for me over the years. I have read about survivors who have immense struggles. And survivors who have integrated. Sometimes I cannot understand what I read. And often I say "These people aren't me!" But I am here to say that you are me! You are my sisters and brothers. I, like many of you, have suffered inexplicable childhood trauma. Denying is such a barrier. And today I am not ashamed to even say I have parts inside.
I also want Many Voices readers to know that, if you haven't already, you can find a path to healing. My awakening experiences were gifts that come with a responsibility. I am here to tell you that there is a safe place. You can find it. Trust yourself, work hard, and open your heart. It's right in front of you and it's incredible.
The drawing above represents my internal safe place. The striations represent energy flow from right to left and show how the safe place deflects everything and keeps the inside protected.
Shortly after I wrote this contribution, I had to go inpatient for nearly two weeks. My hospitalization was extremely difficult for me as I began to come to terms with the body memories and the pain. The words I had written above finally sunk in and I realized that sometimes you need to ask for help. Sometimes the pain is too much and you need pain medication in order to just keep going. But above all, I came to fully accept that the abuse I suffered has had a major impact on me and I sustained a major life threatening injury. My work is about healing from that massive injury, by keeping me safe, my parts inside me safe, and those loved ones around me safe. Then quite suddenly, I began to grieve for the first time ever. My therapist said this is "monumental". I now am truly healing.