As a country, as parents, as loving people, we are all trying to make sense of the tragedy that struck Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. I have been trying to figure out how to best write about it. The reactions people are having, the statements people are making, the articles being written all cover the gamut of what one would expect from such a horrific event.
I want to share a bit about my process the past week or so.
This touches me partly because I have two daughters in elementary and middle school, and I am very involved in the elementary school as leader of its parent-teacher organization. Two days before, I was at a PTO-sponsored arts and culture event with kindergarten kids. I was struck by their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their sparkle, their following directions, and their innocence.
Added to this was the fact that what had come up around Halloween was still very pressing for me. I was dealing with some very acute details from the past which had only become more complicated and magnified since I left the hospital.
For me, this was the backdrop to what happened.
When I got the "breaking news" flash on Friday morning, while it was happening, I notified our school principal to give him a heads up. Then I immediately had a window into panic.
But that window closed quickly and I saw the tragedy through the lens of someone who has done a lot of healing work. I reassured myself. I knew I had my own daughters to attend to. I wanted to be strong. So, I configured myself to be strong.
At a meeting at a friend's house that day, none of us really knew the extent of what happened. But while there I read "The Living Tree" poem that was hanging on her wall. In all the healing work I have done over 20 years I have never read this poem before. I was stunned. It was so perfect in so many ways. It read:
Reading that gave me an enormous boost. I felt as though it was a gift to me. Just a couple hours later our public statement from our PTO went out on social media:
When my girls got home, they did not have much to say. They knew about it. My older daughter seemed not to be impacted, but my younger daughter wanted to know that her world was safe. I answered her questions, which were few, in as direct a way as possible but that were also child appropriate and focused on reassuring.
We went to our neighborhood Christmas party that evening, and nobody mentioned the tragedy at all. I said to myself, "Everyone handles these things in their own way." I did not judge that. I tried to be social. But I had a heavy heart and I felt very out of place.
That night, my youngest daughter wanted me to go into her room to read her a book to get to bed because "I want to know my room is safe." So that is what I did. "Mission accomplished" I said to myself. I read her "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" in an english accent, and all felt right in the world.
Of course over the next couple days there was a lot of sharing via social media. There were some amazing quotes, wonderful articles, a few "angry political outbursts", but mostly everyone was supportive and focused on compassion and healing and hope. That felt like such a positive step forward.
A friend of mine sent me this one: "Don't be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward."
I wrote in my journal:
It's too easy for people to get caught up in thinking the world is not safe. It's not safe. But it's not as unsafe as one thinks. We have so much control over that. Not all the time. But we often do. Yes, there is always risk... driving in a car is riskier than this kind of event today. Others make it into something else and ask the wrong questions and go in the wrong direction. It's the wrong direction to say "Our school isn't safe either and we have to do more and more..." which is what some parents are saying. That's feeding into fear. This is a time to be strong and confident, yet also grieve for what these families must go through.
This quote has that perspective in it. That's why it's so perfect. We are human. The world is sometimes dangerous. We go on in the best way we know how.
The very next day was the holiday concert for my community band and chorus that my youngest daughter is in. It is a huge concert for me, and was so significant last year because it was my first concert of that sort in well over 20 years and I felt it was a giant leap forward for me in so many ways.
But this year I was not myself. I got nervous in ways I had not ever been before and in ways I did not understand. Eventually, I was able to see the concert as part tribute, part putting some hope and love into the world, part being with my family and friends, my band-mates, my community.
I wrote: "The world is most certainly not a dark and evil place."
However, we are human and we cannot always hold onto that place of compassion, no matter how hard we try. It's not always about effort. Sometimes we are not in control.
There was a dramatic turn I did not expect. I was not really paying attention to all the ways in which parts of me were not feeling so safe. The school shooting started to trigger my own past fears. I started having flashbacks. The events of my own past, directly related to what I had been dealing with the past couple months, started overlaying with what happened Friday. I could not make sense of anything.
I do not think this would normally have happened were it not for the case that my daughter's Sunday evening youth orchestra concert was in a church and she was on the altar. I struggled with that a bit last year when she joined, but I have come to feel safe there.
But from that moment on I started to spiral out of control dramatically.
I could not hold onto that healthy place anymore.
Everything became a problem. The girls fighting became overwhelming. Seeing the president cut in to speak during my "protected" time watching the Sunday night football game felt like worlds were colliding. I panicked that this was going to immediately become a political issue and we would lose sight of the human loss and suffering and compassion.
Then when the game came back, merely an hour later, there were movie commercials showing extremely violent gun shooting with the shooter aiming right outside the screen as if the bullets were coming towards me. That completely sent me over the top. Could this really be happening?
I was reeling and trying desperately to contain it all.
Meanwhile I had not been sleeping. I tried to force healing skills to "fix me." I played piano the entire night Monday without sleeping a wink. I played every "emotional" and healing song I knew. But it did absolutely nothing.
I was overcome with growing feelings of terror, and finally realized on Tuesday that the problem was that I knew what massive terror felt like as a child. Repeatedly. Over years. I, of course, knew the situations were very different, but I knew directly what it felt like to think I was going to die from what was happening to me, and worse, that I preferred to die.
On Tuesday evening I met with my therapist and I was able to say all of this. That helped enormously. I was able to gain some perspective and ground.
But it was tenuous. I still was panicking at times.
On Wednesday morning, we met with the school principal about what we were going to do jointly to help. I was absolutely petrified to go into the school. I knew our school was safe. I knew I was an adult and the level of fear I had was not rational. But so much of me did not trust that. So, I asked a PTO Mom to come with me, but did not say why. It helped tremendously. Everyone who worked there was just focused on being kind and caring, and that helped to reassure me.
But I was still reeling. Proof of that was just last night. My wife and I went to a group Irish music session. It was at someone's barn in a remote area. I focused on the positives at first. But I quickly became overwhelmed by all the people. I felt trapped. I did not know where I was. I started to dissociate. Sounds felt like jet engines. I could not see very well. All the telltale signs of stress overload.
I panicked, but was able to not let my wife know about it. I kept it hidden with the excuse that I had a neck ache. I am not really sure why. Maybe I did not want to be seen as weak. Maybe I did not want to hear a judgment. I just was not sure what her reaction would be and did not feel I could risk it.
After the chaos last night, I knew I had to focus on myself. I had to change my approach.
In many ways I feel it is completely selfish to focus on myself in the face of a tragedy which killed innocent kids. I feel guilt.
But, as I tell my friends all the time, the same ones I have confused the past several days, we can only help others when we are also helping ourselves.
So, that is my new focus. I took something to help me sleep last night and I went into work late, just in time for my lunch meeting. I would not normally make such changes. I would have forged ahead like normal. But I need to take care of myself. I need to be more gentle on myself.
I have a broken heart for the lives lost and shattered in Newtown. But I also know that part of my heart being broken has to do with me and my past, and that I cannot ignore.
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.
On the day of Halloween, I was very much on edge. While I had planned for weeks and dealt with a steady stream of internal messages, I was still not prepared for what was to come.
A conflict had been building for days about staying safe. That is not particularly unusual. However, I knew the level of risk was. Even with seeing both my psychiatrist and therapist that day, which were both helpful, I did not have a real grip on staying safe.
My first order of business was to get back to my house. That was a battle in itself. I made the decision to go home not because I pushed parts of me away or ignored what was coming up or issued an ultimatum. I have learned that none of that works. I got home because I kept my hand on the "steering column" even though the amount of actual control felt minimal.
I like to use metaphors. Felix Baumgartner jumped last month from 24 miles above Earth and in the process he broke the sound barrier. What interested me the most was his press conference after his landing. When he jumped, he almost immediately ended up in a uncontrollable spin. It wasn't clear to him what to do. He said he reached out with one hand and it made it worse. He then reached out with the other and it made it better. All the while he stayed the course and kept trying.
Now, I'm not equating was was to come during my Halloween evening to this historic jump. But, for me personally, there are similarities. The similarity was that the risk was so great and it was not clear that what I was doing was enough to get me through without serious harm.
I have not often shared writings taken directly from my journal, but as I am trying to get across my experience, this seems to be the best way to give some context for what was going on:
5:58 pm: "It's getting very loud inside. It's ramping up big time. Having hard time staying home."
8:11 pm: "The night has taken a nasty and dramatic turn. All the internal struggle to keep contained what was beneath the surface is gone. It's as if that content is gone. It now has nothing to do with Halloween or anything of the sort. It's now just about getting hurt. That whole dynamic seems to have replaced everything that has been the struggle up to now."
9:09 pm: "It's not going well. Drive to get hurt is huge. It's dwarfing any ability to see what's really going on. I'm flipping about trick or treating and the Halloween party being now Sunday. This feels like an eternity."
9:14 pm: "I'm now in bed. Starting to be more in touch. I'm aware of huge physiological swings: hot cold hot cold, searing pain no pain, loud noise and silence. I'm way too overloaded. This is too much even for me."
9:15 pm: "I am adamant about no medicine. I know that stance is not helping me."
9:21 pm: "It's now escalating."
9:26 pm: "Enormous ringing in ears. Feels a lot like when I've taken massive overdoses. It's some physiologic chaos mirroring mental chaos. It's got to be a good barometer. This doesn't happen that often. This is akin to a medical crisis. It's clear cut now."
Here "clear cut" refers to needing the hospital. The discussion I had with my psychiatrist that morning was about why it is often clear cut for going to an emergency room for a medical crisis, but not for a mental health one. The reality, we both agreed, is that I have been able to get through many mental health crises safely without needing to go to the hospital. But there is always a safety risk. There are many mental health crises I have not navigated safely. Despite those realities, I felt strongly that trying to get through on my own was what I needed to do.
The closest parallels I can think of to this experience are the times I have lost control in the hospital, was not safe, and had to be restrained in the "quiet room." But I was not in the hospital. So my safety was totally up to me. What happened then was that my journal entries got more sparse and, at the same time, much more bizarre.
Because I do not have a "memory" which corresponds to these entries, I will not share them here. I do not think that is fair to me. But suffice it to say that my reading through them is extremely difficult. They were off scale.
But at 6:01 am the next morning I made this post:
"I woke up moaning. I am not leaving house today. Not going to work. Last night was too hard. I need to recover. I can't believe how hard last night was. It was so risky because in the midst of all that was going on, there was a parallel planning to get hurt very seriously. My body feels wrecked. Like I have been beat up. Everything hurts."
At 10 am I wrote:
"Despite how wrecked I feel, there was a huge sense of accomplishment about having stayed safe last night. It was not just that we went through something really hard and came through it, though that is a piece of it. It's way more than just suffering through with all of me. Maybe it was a sense of internal trust. But I haven't been able to hold onto it. The gains from last night are not enough. This is not over. Not by a long shot. I'm way overstimulated. I'm jumpy. Hypervigilant. I'm not settled down. It's only continuing."
Just a few minutes later, four to be exact, I wrote: "I have found my way back to center."
I have a policy to avoid language specific to self-harm or suicidal behaviors. In this post, 'safety' refers mostly towards the latter end of that spectrum (i.e., suicide). Tomorrow's Part III post will focus solely on the aftermath.
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.