Recently in Dissociation Category
Exactly a month ago, I wrote about the perspective of my entire life, all in one neat package. The only way that was possible was because I did so from a totally honest place. I had never been able to do that before quite in that way. I read it aloud in therapy that same day, and we both were full of emotion, with some tears of joy.
It was certainly a huge healing step for me, yet it was also an internal risk. I did not consider that at the time. I have no regrets. It was necessary. I needed to know it, feel it, and write it.
I quickly found that having all that perspective has nothing to do with arriving at any particular destination. While it may have sounded "feel good", it led to a chain of realizations and internal acceptances as well as some massive conflicts. From a purely human psychological perspective, it was kind of astounding to me how that happened.
A lot started coming at me quickly and I tried my best to hold onto the entire perspective all along. It was not easy. There were a myriad of inputs reverberating throughout.
All parts of me were listening—indeed trusting—and they were all over the place. There were onslaughts of memories from different periods which were coming at me and hitting me in different ways. Parts of me were railing against everything in quite dramatic ways. There was massive acceptance, but also massive denial.
Some of the perspective was about being suicidal and the ways in which I had tried to kill myself long ago. Some was about the ways in which I have hurt myself. So, while there was a total dedication to safety all throughout, there was also a constant internal chatter about suicide and self-harming. Some was also about abusive events I felt I "should" have had control over, which led to guilt and shame.
I kept my focus on containing everything and keeping what was happening somewhat balanced by paying close attention and reality checking. I was constantly trying to assess my safety, which is never easy. When guilt and shame came up, I challenged that through an internal message of forgiveness. When denial took hold, I tried to focus on simple truths. And I practiced self-care all the time.
However, the containment only worked for so long as the internal stressors became greater and greater. It became clear that the containment was at odds with the perspective.
Containment was winning out, so it was decided to face the perspective head on. I pushed. Hard.
Less than a week later, I found myself in the hospital. I got here safely and I knew precisely what the job was I was here to do: "we" had to push harder.
Since I have been coming to the same inpatient unit for over 20 years, and know so many of the incredible people who work here, it was not difficult to get back to perspective. I did it in a very direct way. I was able to focus on trust with others and within. I spent nights in the "quiet room", the room one goes to for a "time out" but also the room ones goes to when "losing it" and needing to be physically restrained. Not all great memories.
I struggled some with opening up enough to where I felt I was close to losing control. It was not really a struggle of willingness but rather a struggle of how to do it. And while I did feel like I lost some control, it was never like it used to be, and I was really in control the whole time. I let rage pour over me. I touched immense sadness. I laughed harder than I had in a long time too, which may sound weird, but sometimes it is better to laugh hard if the alternative is to sob. There were "volcanos" erupting inside me. Physical pain. Mental exhaustion. Inability to ground.
While it may sound odd to some, a significant piece of the work here has been about changing the name of what has always been perceived as the scariest part. This had been something in my consciousness for a while. It has happened once before a few years ago. It is not an easy process. It is not just "done". The goal was to achieve a new name for this part which more accurately reflected the healing that has been accomplished over the past few years as well as the part's true essence. It took 7 days, but it was done. It felt like a part of me was reborn; that I had given all of me a new direction or at least a stronger path.
Then the perspective took on new meaning because of the hard work. Then there were a few more days of settling that in inside. Sort of like the glue drying.
This has been amongst my most healing (and most difficult) hospital stays. And now, I am ready to go.
My apologies to those who posted a comment here. The site has been having spam problems. I changed the settings on the filter too high and could not figure out which of the 40,000 comments marked spam were from real people! I finally solved it. Comments are now working.
There is so much happening in my life and I do not know where to begin. But I will. I so want to write here because this place has always been vastly different from my journal. Writing here is always about perspective, taking a step back and making sense. A touchstone. A rung on the ladder.
As with all of us, when life becomes truly complicated, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Life can become one giant load of crap. It can easily not make sense. The metaphor I have been using for the past year is a "hole." It is not a new metaphor for me. Hole in the Sand was a poem I wrote 20 years ago.
But I am not where I was 20 years ago. Or 10 or 5 or 1. I am here. In this moment. Now.
Five years ago, when this blog was born, I was finally able to say "I am not going to accept the status quo any longer."
I said "I am not going to fight for my life only when it's convenient for me or someone else."
I said "My safety has to come first."
I said "I am the number one priority in my life, not any other person including my family."
I said, rather loudly, "I am going to do everything in my power to not fall into that fucking hole!"
But to say that, I had to first know and say, even louder, "I have power."
Twenty years ago I had no ability to make statements like these. But in 2009, just a year after saying such statements, I had finally brought myself to The Contract—my truths. Every day is now about living up to and building on that contract.
Lasting change requires embarking on a journey. A long, difficult, painful and joyous journey which requires scaling mountains, moving mountains if need be, doing the impossible, never saying never, and most importantly never giving up. This journey requires such brutal honesty and an unfettered willingness to look directly into the depths of your psyche and soul. It requires facing anything and everything that is difficult, no matter when it comes up. There is no picking and choosing. There is no putting anything off. The stakes are too high. It requires constant commitment, especially when you are stuck in reverse.
And even with all of that, change is painfully slow. Change is not linear and does not always move forward. That has been such a painful lesson, which has allowed me to cultivate patience.
Eventually, the truth becomes firmly established, and denial falls away. Then if your truth is ever questioned inside or out, you will always be able to stand up, maybe not in that moment, be certain of your truth and speak it, and not look back. For truth is not borne of arrogance or ignorance, but rather strength, perseverance and knowledge.
While I know it is not fair to compare my life or my journey to others, there is a simple reality that I will say just once and then leave alone. I am saying this because it is sometimes how our truth can be questioned—either we or others minimize, normalize or outright dismiss. Challenges some face are harder than others. Some journeys are more complicated, have more mountains and are longer. Some experiences are more traumatic than others. There, I said it! That is just a simple reality. That is life. It just is. It does not mean someone is better or worse than someone else. It just means that what we each face is different. For example, I cannot envision a life without legs (or arms). That, to me, seems impossible. I cannot envision a life where all your children die in a car accident in one fell swoop. And I certainly cannot envision a life where my bathrooms are not clean!
But I can envision a life of an adult who as a child of five was sexually abused in kindergarten, was sexually and spiritually abused by a priest for years in elementary school and middle school, and was sexually abused at the hands of other men through high school and college and beyond, even though I suppose I could have "chosen" to escape it. I can envision a life where religion was perverted and distorted at the hands of others. I can envision a life where the take home message from abusers was that I am worthless (despite the language of "love" sometimes used). I can imagine a life with an ever-present fear and, yes, terror. I can imagine a life where one abuse makes it easier for the next abuse, because my vulnerability was exposed and ripped open and manipulated. I can imagine a life ruled by guilt and shame, mostly because even when physically you escape abuse, inside you do not think you deserve better and you can seek it out. That is very easy.
That was my hole. I did not choose that hole. I was put in that hole.
That was my life—past tense. This, my healing, is what my journey is about—present tense.
My challenge is not so visible. This is the single biggest lesson I have learned from my friends because I always assumed it was in plain sight for the entire world to see. But if you look at me on the street in my day-to-day life, you will see me with my legs and arms. I try to dress nice and be presentable. I smile. I laugh. I love. I always try to be kind to others. I talk to friends. I have a family. I volunteer at my kids' schools and take them to their activities. I keep my yard and house neat. I play piano. I work. I am not perfect at all of these. But I try and I do the best I can. And, yes, my bathrooms are clean!
My challenge is the injury inside my head and the injury to my soul. My scars are mostly inside and they are deep. To survive, to stay alive, I had to do extreme things inside my head to compensate for the emotionally intolerable real-life situations I had to endure. To survive, to simply see another day, I took the different facets of my psyche, which every human being possesses, the different compartments we all hold memories and emotions inside, and drove them into another realm, another dimension. For me, it really has always been about life or death. That may sound overly dramatic, but it is entirely accurate.
We call how my head is structured dissociative identities. These days it is frowned upon to think of them as different people or even to say different personalities. I fully know they are not different people. But I also know the experience of them in the past, much less so in the present, is that they can feel like different people, act like different people, and can be in situations that if you objectively looked at them would say are the lives of different people.
I do not like to call how my head is structured a disorder. I would rather call it dissociative identity injury. Others can call it a disorder and that is fine. But it is an injury, plain and simple. While I often view it as a disorder myself, I must think of it as an injury first and foremost. I am not ducking anything by saying that. Saying that is not a cop out.
Imagine, for a moment, what a typical 24 hour video of my life back in the day may have looked like. Take a day that begins with me as a child not being able to wake up and not wanting to face the world; a day of waking up to fear. I go to school and have lunch and recess with my friends. It's an early release day, so I go to church with the priest where I serve as an altar boy then "hang out" with him in a twisted kind of way where I get sexually assaulted. I come home to milk and cookies and a loving Mom and Dad and friends and street hockey and dinner and studying. I struggle not to throw up (and sometimes fail). I feel terror building as bedtime nears and then I lay for hours staring at the clock minute by minute while trapped in fear. I would often get a phone call from the same priest on the second phone line in the basement and race down to get it so my family will not hear it and find out the whole truth. Because it's all my fault. Because I'm supposed to protect the secret. Protect him. Back in bed, I reenact the assault of earlier in the day until I bleed, purely to have my body be in my control (whatever that meant). Finally, at some hour in the middle of the night and still trying to will the clock through to the next morning, I fall asleep to nightmares of being chased by a murderer. And that is how I wake up, in terror, the next morning. While the details changed, that was the cycle. That was my hole.
Of course because of the way my head was structured, I didn't know all of this video with such perspective. Every piece of it existed in its own place. I could not tell you the "whole story" back then. That was the entire point of how I survived it all.
The sad reality: this is not a rare video. I have met countless others who endured similar intolerable abusive situations. It is not even a video that could only happen many years ago. It happens in the present. Every day. In our neighborhoods.
How I know the truth of this 24 hour video is that I have healed. I have learned how to bring the walls down between the parts of me who exist in different dimensions by building internal trust. I have learned to communicate between them—installing phone lines across "continents." Parts have learned to share—building bridges between "mountains." And the truly cold reality of how I know the truth of this 24 hour video, is that even though I have come so far, my journal in which I am constantly recording how I process my life, will often record such titanic shifts of experience and consciousness which makes it all so real. That is what is my reality. That is my truth.
A long time ago when I met others who said they were abused over and over again by multiple people in different contexts, I would immediately have a judgement and think "There is more to this. Surely, lightning doesn't strike two or three or four times." For years I chose to focus on what was "easy" and what was irrefutable. I was abused by a priest. It was simple. It was known. It was neat. There were records. Sure, I knew about the pieces of the bigger picture. But I was not willing to tie them all together. Until this past year.
That is when I came face to face with the hole last fall. And that is really what never giving up is all about. I stood up in the face of terror. The hole I wrote about 20 years ago came back to me full circle.
As one person, I am determined to live, to thrive, to heal, to be happy, to never wear my past on my sleeve, to never use being a "victim" as an excuse, to make the right choices, to do the right thing. I take responsibility for my actions. I don't have to try that hard to never ever whine about my past. I will not be beat. I will not give up. That is who "all of me" is.
But I have parts of me in a way that is drastically different than most other people. And the reality is that parts of me were broken in a way that I have come to accept is different from other parts of me. I am certainly not, as one person, broken or in a hole. But some parts of me are. Always. That is their existence. That is what they know. They know being hurt. They know how to be hurt. They do not see a way out.
Sometimes the walls go back up and the phone lines are disconnected. Sometimes the past is the present. Sometimes I fall into that hole. Sometimes I am not safe. Sometimes, as one person, I do experience being broken. Because that is reality to some parts of me.
While I have come so far, my journey is not by any means complete. It just changes. I keep going. I keep fighting. I fight for these parts and for all of me.
I hold onto the hope that they are not truly broken. They are still alive after all. I hold onto the hope that there are other parts of me near them willing to reaching out. That they can see, maybe across a long, narrow and tattered bridge, to the other side. I work to reconnect the phone lines. I hold onto the hope that they will connect. That they use their anchors. That they will ask for help. That they will not give up.
And when my fight is not enough... I fight harder.
A friend of mine on Facebook posted a picture that said "Be brave enough to tell your story and kind enough to not tell anyone else's".
Then along with it said this: "At its best, truth telling is a healing art - not a weapon. There is a world of difference between shameless truth telling and reckless truth telling and that difference is love."
In the comments, someone mentioned this TED talk by Glennon Doyle Melton, which I found very helpful today. It's about being honest and genuine and telling your story. There is a message here that should heard by all. It's a distinctly human message. Wherever you are in your life's journey, or whatever your past, there is meaning in her story.
She speaks about "superhero" capes as walls to keep "who we are" hidden and deflect the struggles of life. For many of us, our young minds learn that being hidden keeps us safe. The walls are meant to protect us after all. They are erected naturally and for good reason. Few of us grow up without building walls of some sort. Walls come in all manner, shape or form. They can be addictions. They can be a state of mind driven by constant appeasement and avoiding conflict at all costs. They can be defensiveness and belligerence. Or gossiping. Or constantly working.
They achieve the same goal as dissociation and are closely related. Dissociation is all about building walls too. It's a normal psychological response. But, as I have written before, for some the ingredients are such that a dissociative response is taken to another level. The walls can become very real and very large psychological constructs. For those of us who dissociate extremely, the true capes for us are the distinct parts of our psyche. And that is what we focus on healing.
But whatever the walls are about, whether they are more behavior based or psychologically based, they are walls. That is what we all share.
Our new life begins when we realize that the walls are limiting and we decide a new path. Sure they helped keep us safe, but the cost is the loss (or diminishing) of emotional connection within our selves and with others. The cost is a difficulty to emotionally mature. The inability to achieve any true wisdom. The inability to be fully authentic. The inability to achieve a long lasting sense of joy. The inability to achieve a full sense of self worth. A loss of health (for addictions). The inability to fully embrace being human.
For many of us we come to realize that our walls are holding us back.
If walls can be built, they can be taken down. That is the leap of faith. You have to take the first step. The important piece to remember is that they can be taken down safely! Dismantling the walls is the hard part of life and healing. It requires risk and making mistakes. It requires commitment. It requires facing fears. It requires reaching out. It requires making connections. It requires putting yourself out there. It requires trusting yourself and others.
I only have my own experience, which first involved being in a mental hospital when I was 21. As Melton says, the hospital for me has always been the most real place in the world, and where I have learned about courage and bravery, because it was all around me. That was where I took my first steps towards authenticity, vulnerability, removing shame and facing fears. I have often talked about the hospital as being like open heart surgery, except it is with emotions. Slowly, I learned how to translate my various "emotional surgeries" into my "real life". But I had to take that step.
As the walls come down, our feelings become our friends and not our enemies. They set us free instead of keeping us bound. They give us answers instead of only questions. They give us light instead of darkness. They give us truth instead of fiction. They give us reality instead of fantasy.
If this is the journey you are on, I welcome you. Share your story. Trust. Be genuine. Open your heart. Tell others who you are. Hold your head up high. Be proud. For you are human.
The centered space I found myself in the morning after Halloween did not last. I hoped that maybe the difficulty would recede and that the safety risk would lessen. But it did not turn out that way. Instead it became more rocky. I was oscillating between functional and non-functional and safe and unsafe and cohesive and fragmented (which was orders of magnitude beyond frazzled or scattered). It was a roller coaster and had become too much of a risk.
I held on to see my therapist Thursday evening, the day after Halloween. That, in an of itself, was a strong indicator of how tenuous a situation I was in. Holding on like that is not all that common these days for me. When we met, I told her that if this escalates to what it was like on Halloween the night before, then I was not able to go through that level of distress on my own. I said once was enough. Plus I assumed the risks would be greater because I would be weakened by the other night. That was our agreement.
My time with her helped. I had a spurt of being functional that evening. At that point, I thought maybe that I was on a positive trajectory. But after my functional Friday morning at work, I started falling apart dramatically in the afternoon when I got home. I knew clearly that I rallied simply to do get through my responsibilities. I so quickly knew that it was serious and that I could not solve it by adding more and more responsibilities or tasks to my schedule.
The "plan" from the other night on Halloween was coming up again, but with greater force, just as I had feared. I was certain it was not just an expression or idle threat, and I knew I had to get help while I still was able. There was too much at stake.
I was remarkably decisive. I had to be. At 3 pm I texted my psychiatrist: "Can you find out if Proctor 2 has a bed?"
It was a struggle to tell and allow my wife to drive me. I knew that meant the option of serious self-harm was removed, though I never told her that was the issue. She knew I was having a hard time, and mostly, that is all she needed to know. So, I made it past that hurdle. As we were leaving, I told my kids who took the news in stride.
My wife was stressed about it all, and I promptly changed my mind on the drive in. I wanted to go back home and try harder. But by this point, despite my growing panic, the decision had been made. The admission was all arranged. They were expecting me. Changing my mind was not an option.
Just a couple hours later I made it through admissions and was on McLean's Proctor 2. There are few words to describe how it feels to be in your home and then a few hours later on the same psychiatric unit I have been coming to for over 20 years. It is surreal and, as always, conflicted. While I felt safe from self-harm or worse, I did not feel safe "in my head." I know coming here means I have a lot of work to do so I can leave in a place where I am grounded and confident in my ability to stay safe and live the life I have built for myself.
Because it was all surreal, I needed to reality check and assess what got me here.
First, is that I was able to get to the hospital without actually hurting myself. It does not usually happen that way.
Second, is that I was able to have the accomplishment of getting through Halloween on my own, whereas in the past that kind of experience would have landed me in the hospital, and many times in restraints. Being able to prove that I could get through that kind of off-scale internal response was enormous for me.
Third, and perhaps the most important, is about trust. I wrote this in my journal:
"Do you realize how much awareness I had to have and how much presence I had to maintain in order to make all the decisions I did safely? I think parts of me know that there could not have been a more perfect chain of events. Parts of me were majorly triggered. I held on, even though it didn't feel like I had much control over the "internal slider." The threats of imminent self harm would have happened and would have been extremely serious. I think part of it was that we had had enough."
"Internal slider" is a new analogy to help me think about and experience the active process of staying centered. Last January, in a post titled Unity, I wrote about thinking about my psyche in terms of "parts on left" and "parts on the right", and how my challenge is to find a bridge between them. The real world experience is of sliding back and forth. Sometimes there is more activation of parts on the right and it becomes harder to stay safe and live in the present. Sometimes the focus is on "work" and I lose touch with everything from the past and enter denial. A visual image of a slider and a bridge is realistic, and it is consistent with the view that dissociation exists on a scale. Where someone is on that scale is different from person to person, and also different for a person over time.
Coming here does not mean that certain parts need to go nuts or dump a lot of memories or any of that. In other words, they do not have to continue the trajectory I was on. I came here precisely to change that trajectory.
I knew how to get all of me to safety. I knew when the time was right. I knew it had to be after Halloween and not before. That has to have created a huge amount of internal trust.
I know this past week or more was very dicey. I get that. But the payoff has been enormous.
And now my work here begins.
Halloween is a notoriously difficult time for me every year. Two years ago I wrote about how this time of year accompanies extreme activation so much of me that deals with conflicts like life vs. death and good vs. evil. And every year my internal reactions feel so off scale.
Over the past few years I have learned to prepare myself more for what to expect. I have become much more vigilant. I make every attempt to stay as grounded as I can so that when I am eventually triggered, I deal with it from a more stable place.
It is difficult for me to really know what is going on during this time. There are some rather unique qualities to Halloween: like people dressing in costume and pretending to be some one or thing they are not, like kids venturing out into the night in masses going from house to house asking for candy from people they have never met, and the endless scary imagery.
One way I look at it is that I have had to deal with a good number of scary situations in my life. While scary situations in fun create an exhilarating adrenaline rush in some, for me scaring for fun is often a trigger to the past. Of course this was not always true. I used to relish haunted houses and the sort, but that was before I had a broader awareness of "all of me."
This year was on target to be managed better than most. I ramped up the reliance on my supports, and I took other measures. But, just like last year, a freak ice storm lead to the postponement of "trick or treating" in our town until today. So, that meant, like last year, we effectively had two Halloween holidays. I did not handle this all that well.
Halloween is more complex for me than simply the imagery. There are very specific internal responses and internal activations, and a corresponding assault of off-scale "memories." As I have said many times before, I do not think it is helpful to validate every memory as historical fact. In the past when these memories came up I would say something like: "Oh no! I can't believe that happened! I can't live anymore!" I had such a black and white way of approaching them that never really helped.
Because I have a psyche that can be massively compartmentalized, over time I have learned to accept that there are "realities" of parts of me that are very real through their own lenses. So, when I get bombarded by all that comes up, I try to be committed to a non-confrontational stance, an open-minded stance, a down-the-middle stance. This is never easy because we are, by nature, biased and judgmental. I strive to be mindful nowadays, precisely because I know what the stakes are for me.
Every self-harm event or past suicide attempt or mental breakdown (if we can use that term) or maybe even a dissociative switch is about a falling into a vortex, or a polarized position, and away from a more centered mindful position. Conversely, every success in healing has been about finding my way back to a more centered and mindful place. It seems so simple, but in many ways it is not.
The good news is that by repeating this over and over again, in word and in practice, as I have done now for years, it has stuck as a skill and has become enormously helpful.
I knew that such an approach presented an opportunity for getting through Halloween, but it also presented some rather significant risks. Every opportunity has associated risks. This is universally true. Artists take creative risks, athletes take sports risks, politicians take political risks, businessmen take financial risks.
Halloween, for me, represents a period of significant safety risk. Safety is not simply about the perceived external threat. It is not just in my head. The threat becomes so overwhelming that an expected "solution" is to turn it inward.
It quickly becomes a battle to just hold on. To not hurt myself. To not do something drastic. All the while there is an attempt at reality checking: I have kids, a wife, a job, people care about me.
But severe stress, especially in certain contexts, does crazy things to people. If one is pushed hard enough and far enough and long enough, you can get to a place where it is nearly impossible to reality check.
That is where the real risk lies.
I took that risk this year. I knew that was going to be my experience. I knew there was a very fine line between being able to hold on and stay safe and not.
Tomorrow, in Part II, I will post about my experience on Halloween day and evening.
The hallmark of having a dissociative psyche is that drastic and off-scale changes can, and will, occur in the blink of an eye. It is often called "switching", referring to switches in personality states. I have certainly come a long way towards accepting "parts of me" and know that acceptance has been necessary and helpful in order to live with such titanic changes of state.
However, when push comes to shove, and especially in times of trouble, acceptance is sorely tested. In times of difficulty, there are some subtle differences between an acceptance that works and one that does not.
I will start with the one that does not. When certain aspects of me are massively triggered and there is an increase in symptoms such as intrusive memories or emotional distress, there is a natural tendency to isolate and compartmentalize. I will often say that I still accept these parts of me, that it is not like the past when I would try to erase them—a full scale denial.
I will often normalize how I think about parts or aspects of me. I minimize. This can be a sort of denial and a protective mechanism and leads to an increase in internal conflicts because it does not embrace who I really am. I often believe that my "moderated stance" is perfectly appropriate (and in many ways it is). These are the kinds of statements I make: The parts of my personality are all part of one person. They are "facets" of me. There is a continuum, and since I have healed so much and have more awareness I do not have "parts" in the same way I used to have parts. That then means what I call parts of me are not really important. Switches are not really switches but generic mood swings.
Because I am more functional than ever, I am still able to, for the most part, make appropriate shifts to keep up with my life. I end up walking on a metaphorical tightrope until I realize that what I am doing has become a continuous strain.
This type of tepid acceptance tends to work externally but erodes internal glue and cohesiveness.
Where I often get tripped up is that the "acceptance" that works is not so much different from the one that does not. I can still stick with many of the "moderated" positions about parts of me, but if the intention is there to walk through life more collaboratively with a whole scale acknowledgement and acceptance, that is what really makes the difference. In the past, I have described this kind of internal collaboration using the analogy of water.
The key is intention.
The issue is really not whether the statements I say to myself are true or untrue. It is how I set them up. I can take "true" statements and beliefs, put them through my
To use another analogy from sports, these two forms of acceptance are the difference between a good team and a championship team. They are both teams. What is interesting from sports, is that even if the team is loaded with outstanding talent and highly played players, they are not necessarily champions. To win, talent is generally not enough. The championship team must have that extra something, which is often difficult to quantify, to put them over the top.
This is what makes dissociative identities and childhood trauma recovery so difficult. The difference between what works and what does not is often simple to articulate but can be very hard to put into practice, especially with so many different pieces in play in dissociative systems, just like team members on the sports team.
Another reason why it is difficult is that the the stakes are very different. For many of us, it is not about whether we come in first place or third place. Rather it is whether we stay safe or not. Stay functional or collapse. Have a positive outlook on life or are suicidal.
The reason I share the art work above, is that I did it the same day I made the last post here. I was feeling particularly "open". I felt I was not working hard enough at healing or addressing what was below the surface well enough. And so I shared in art (and during therapy) the feelings associated with the memories which were coming up at the time.
I saw that as a positive step forward.
Yet the very next day I hurt myself.
I have not hurt myself since, mostly because I have understood that the breakdown in safety was about the difference between these two types of acceptance.
I write today because I know I am trending away from the acceptance that leads to safety, and I want to find my way back.
My last post was a system map, a tool I first wrote about last October. The ability to make such maps is something I have worked to achieve over the course of many years, and I find it to be an invaluable tool.
I am finding it difficult to write in the ways I have become used to here. I do not seem to have a sense of confidence in understanding much about how I use dissociation and how that may be related to others' experiences. I also seem to have difficulty sharing much of anything that is even remotely personal. I feel very much alone in my struggles.
So I will write about what is going on for me somewhat abstractly via the most recent system map from this morning with labels of aspects of me removed for safety.
My system maps change regularly, as probably anyone who regularly dissociates. That is not anything new or surprising. In fact, it is one of the more validating tools I have available to me that paints a crystal clear picture of how drastically the elements of my psyche can shift over short (and long) periods of time. It is validating because to make such a map, I need to really be able to check in with all aspects of me, and it is clear that what is happening is not simply a mood shift or a influx of thoughts.
This period has been dominated by the resurgence of a particular part who holds an enormous amount of information as well as power. My psyche is very complex right now, more so than usual which is saying quite a lot. Safety has been compromised, but a good deal of information is being shared and connections are being made that I had not even considered in my now two decade journey of healing.
The timing of these shifts is clearly related to the Easter season. They came to a climax on Ash Wednesday last week, a relative benign day when compared to Good Friday or Easter Sunday, holy days which have been dominated in the past by conflicts within and beyond me; about good versus evil, God versus Satan, and the like. These are some of the core conflicts which have never been resolved in relation to my past experience (or understood or even accepted).
They are now pressing for attention. There is no alternative but to dedicate myself to addressing them. Until last night, I felt like a fish out of water. But I was able to communicate internally and information was shared that helped these conflicts be a little less difficult. This system map, then, is a sort of visual representation of how the information has been shared.
Information sharing, a form of internal communication, is perhaps the single most important tool we can have in healing from the unhealthy aspects of a dissociative existence. That is a statement I would have scoffed at just a few years ago. I would say "What are you crazy? You have no idea what you are saying!" But I have found that it is true.
I have hurt myself, sometimes quite seriously, many times. It is difficult to rank serious self-harm and suicidal events because one must take into account both the physical and psychological damage. But while there is a good deal of subjectivity involved, there is no question that what I did to myself last week ranks up there as among the most serious in my lifetime.
Physical damage is what most use to rank such events because it is quantifiable. Like many others, I have taken dozens of overdoses over the years. Two of them were objectively different from all the rest. They were the ones which were especially calculated. They involved taking many times the lethal dose. And they were preceded by taking sedatives so that I would not be able to change my mind and go to anyone for help afterwards. Those were obviously serious physically and I was lucky to have survived them many years ago.
Hurting myself in the present often involves recreating past abuse. This has gone on for years, is often an instinctive response, and is something I am ashamed of. It has been damaging because I have perpetuated the abuse done to me and has led to all sorts of problems. What makes it difficult is that most of the problems are psychological and comparatively easier to hide.
As I have healed, the more I appreciate the extent of the psychological damage of this kind of self harm. To put it into some context, long ago when my psyche was much more separated, these self harm events were more isolated. While it undoubtedly caused psychological damage, hurt aspects of me had little or no understanding of where their distress was coming from.
Without question, increased awareness and internal communication—whatever level one dissociates—are necessary components to healing and tools to help keep us safe. But there are no guarantees of safety. When safety is breached, the increased awareness leads to a totally different perspective of the effects of self abuse.
What happened last week was arguably, for me by my own scale, the most serious event of its kind ever by many measures. To call it self harm or self abuse is not even adequate. Self harm was the terminology I used a decade ago. Self abuse is the terminology I began using a few years ago. What happened last week was a psychological suicide attempt. I think it is important for me to be as precise as possible and not cloak what happened with more sanitized terminology.
A couple days ago, I did an analysis of both the events and feelings which has led me to label what happened in such a unambiguous way. While a lot of the actual events are lost or in flashes, I have enough information to know that what happened was in a totally different class from past events. I also have hard data, which was able to give me a perspective that is much clearer than any similar event before.
But the saddest piece comes not from the actual harmful events. Not from what was done to my body or done to my psyche.
The plan from the night before was to be admitted to the hospital, where I am now. I had become too unstable, too fragmented, and too much at risk. I told my therapist I needed some time to tie up some loose ends at work and do some last minute preparations.I was supposed to be in hospital admissions by 6 pm. That was the agreement I made.
It turned out that I was not grounded enough to be trusted with such an agreement or such an amount of time on my own.
I know there was internal conflict about getting hurt that day. That conflict usually is what keeps me safe. But there was very little sense of reality and no sense of ground. And, so, "safety" and "getting hurt" existed as their own isolated parallel threads. That dynamic of polar opposites existing simultaneously increased the safety risk manyfold.
At one point, I was at a tibetan arts store to get my wife, who is into yoga, a Christmas gift. Amidst all the confusion and fragmentation, at 1:45 pm I wrote these words in my journal: "Healing. Went to the tibetan store for a present. Big shift now towards safety. But confusion and conflict too." That nearly led to a change of course to not get hurt. But it was not enough.
At the store, I also searched for a gift for my therapist, my "healing guide". I thoroughly explored the shop and what I found for her was a compassion stone. It is a small stone from India with the "Om mani padme hum" mantra on compassion in Tibetan script . This is sad because it is proof that there were enormous coexisting efforts to be safe and also to be hurt.
While it certainly feels like my "gift" to my therapist is tainted, I hope we can take from this something positive.
This stone, then, obviously has critical significance. It perhaps should sit in my therapist's office, or be accessible to us. We should use it as a reminder of how the desperate effort to be safe and compassionate was destroyed—within minutes.
For me, that stone will probably be my most important icon in the world. It is something tangible from that horrible day. It will mean more to me than the medical records I have from the major overdoses. More than poems I have written from long ago about sad events and abuse. More than any art work I have made. Even more than records I have from the Catholic Church.
That stone represents the fact that I made a choice. That stone embodied all of my hope. It embodied all of my compassion. And I, and I alone, made the choice to destroy all of that.
I will never forget that.
And now I have to pick up the pieces and recreate what I have destroyed.
All of us live in a world of cycles.
Cycles, I think, are meant to be double-edged swords. They are the necessary friction of life that I have talked about before.
In the best of cases, we use these predictable cycles as a means of helping us navigate through the phases of our lives. Many of us probably recognize how these are sometimes referred: familiarity, teachable moments, evolution, wisdom, maturity.
We are probably all aware of how a new cycle can serve as a clean slate. When I was in school, every September I was fond of saying "I don't have a single poor grade!" Or, we are probably also aware of a sense of comfort in what is familiar. Every Spring is a time of renewal. Most every Christmas has been a time of magical wonder. I live in an area of the world that snows right around Christmas-time and that serves as a metaphorical punctuation mark.
But, anniversaries of traumatic events and triggers are also types of cycles. And therein lies the friction. And the dichotomy.
Speaking for myself, I know I can very easily find myself trapped in a new cycle and have little or no perspective on it. In other words, the cycle can be strictly seen from a historical point of view. In still other words, parts of me can be stuck in the past.
I so dislike admitting that. I would rather believe that I am full of awareness and am fully healed and fully safe. Period.
But that is simply not true.
For those of us who have lived many years using dissociation as a core means of coping or navigating through cycles or triggers of past trauma, this is not really difficult to fathom.
I have not written here in over a month, and during that time I have experienced many triggers and not navigated all of them well. Just ticking off some of the highlights, there was the perennial Halloween "holiday", with all its normally charged associations, plus we had a rare crippling snowstorm. Then the relentless news of the US college sports sex abuse scandals, which have rocked me to my core. It was not really much of a surprise, but I was caught unprepared by the impact of the late November "anniversaries" of major suicide attempts from the early 90s and the connections to where I was last year (in the hospital). Finally, "church abuse" news, direct or indirect, seems to always crop up.
Reflecting on the past month or two—I have lost track—I can easily say life has been more tilted towards disconnection and chaos and "living in the past" than it has been towards awareness and looking towards the future. My life has certainly not been in any sort of balance, and I have not been safe from purposely hurting myself. As a result, life has become extremely distorted and unstable, and what feels safe also does not feel safe, sometimes simultaneously. Some of you know will know what that statement really means.
I have been living precariously. There has been a thin line separating safety and harm, connection and disconnection, giving up and holding onto hope.
What is most scary, is that I do not even think I realized this!
But this afternoon, the seas have calmed. The compass appears to be working. The ship's wheel isn't spinning out of control anymore. The ship is moving forward. With direction. With purpose. I can see land.
Despite what our psychological "clocks" tell us, we arrive at a new cycle, but always at a place in time that is ahead of the last one. We may not appreciate that as a statement of fact in our times of struggle. But it is a fact. No matter how "in the past" parts of us may be, I strongly believe that we are destined to heal, to find balance, to learn from our past, to build a better future.
This is the first photograph of mine that I posted here over 2 years ago. When pondering about what I would share as my "Hopes and Dreams" for this month's arts carnival, I thought about doing something new and creative. But this image captures the essence better than any other. So, I thought I would come back to it, but write about it in the present.
At the time I made this photograph, I was blossoming in terms of my commitment to external and internal awareness. Prior to this time, I had focused almost exclusively on intellectual understanding of my problems. And while that pursuit yielded good results, there was something missing and it was not enough. I quickly learned an important lesson: that the most healing comes from a balance between intellectual understanding and exploration on the one hand and emotional understanding and exploration on the other.
The context for this image is that "becoming one" or becoming "integrated" had dominated my thinking for many years. That was my clear goal—or hope or dream—for so long. I finally realized that, for me, that set up an unresolved series of internal tensions. Becoming "one," in a strict sense, is not who I am. It never was. So, I said to myself: "Why make a goal for myself something that is not who I am?"
Rather I see as a goal for me a fluid collaboration based on mutual respect and understanding. In this view, there is more flexibility. It creates the opportunity for various aspects of me to flourish and be laser-focused if they need to be or work together to accomplish what we cannot separately.
Having somewhat separate parts of my psyche is not at all the major problem facing me. It is having separate parts and that contributing to not being able to be safe that is the problem. Or having parts and having there be no communication or collaboration, thereby rendering them fully isolated. I cherish my ability to be able to accomplish goals in life that I know are borne from my compartment-based system; goals that I feel might not be possible without such a system.
So, the question for me has always been how to maintain safety and at the same time cultivate collaborations and communication leading to a more fluid existence? That is what this photograph represents. I had thought "becoming one" would automatically lead to safety and was the ultimate answer. But in many ways I believe that to be a draconian solution, and not even the best solution. I also thought it would someday just happen. After all, I have read stories of how others "integrated" and how it can happen very quickly.
The truth is, while I am not at all glorifying having more extreme forms of dissociation, I cannot not ever imagine a simple "become one" solution for me. The more and more I get to know parts of me, the more I appreciate who they are, what they represent, and appreciate their own individual hopes and dreams and hurts and desires.
This photograph can be seen as "one." It is one wall after all. But it is made up of many pieces. On one scale, all parts of me can be seen as one, and this is how most people in my life see me and this is what I want most people to see. It is absolutely true that together we make up one person. One system. But I also acknowledge that the parts of my psyche are not just aspects of one personality. They are more separate, and I accept that.
And it is through that acceptance that I have learned to move towards a more balanced existence.
In my post from over two years ago, I wrote:
So, my hope and dream is for my life to be more representative of this image. That there be collaboration. That parts support other parts. That when viewed on a macro scale it appears as one. But on the micro scale it appears as many. That each part is different yet has similarities to others. And so on.