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.
I have been having a difficult time knowing what to share here, how to share and whether I even want to share anything at all. It is not something new. I have struggled with this in various ways over the years.
I originally said to myself "What more do I have to say? I've already said everything." I have also seen that the blogosphere can be quite dysfunctional and I became scared of saying something that would create a conflict.
But in the end, those are just distractions. I know I have more to say because I keep writing in my private journal and often remark to myself "This would be nice to write about on the blog." And I have long known that the Internet is a unique medium with a lot of unpredictability. I have mostly been comfortable with that by working at maintaining healthy boundaries.
I also started having broader issues. This blog is one aspect of my life that I keep somewhat separate by being careful not to share, for example, my full name. But aside from that, I have been very honest about who I am, what I think and what I feel. From the beginning I said if I could not be honest, then what is the point in having a blog in the first place?
But that was nearly four years ago. While there has always been the question of what feels safe to share and what does not, my life is not the same now. Back then, my life was clearly more centered around my mental health. I was struggling to keep my life going. That made it much easier to make the decision on what to share. I had little to lose.
Now, my career has become more significant and required much more attention and I am doing more in my community, the largest of which is leading a public non-profit organization. Those have definitely driven me to be more private about my mental health.
It would be perfectly fine if the only outcome was not writing on the blog and I was comfortable with that decision. But I am not comfortable with that decision and the increased privacy has come at a cost elsewhere. In the last post, I asserted that my increased privacy did not mean I am ashamed of who I am. That is just not true.
I am stuck because that shame forces me to be mostly silent, when this is not my true nature. I have kept saying to myself that I am sharing in therapy and with my wife and with very close friends. But that is not enough. This blog has been hugely important for me and helped reduce the shame. It has been critical for me to have a voice. In fact, I have long known that my leap forward in healing coincided with speaking out on an abuse scandal that happened in my home town back in 2007.
On the whole, it has been incredibly helpful for me to repackage some of my longwinded views and awareness in my private journal into more concise statements here on the blog. For the past year or more, with my life becoming more private, my private journal has become merely a record of day-to-day happenings and is not helping me make sense of my life as much as it once did.
I had convinced myself it was not necessary. "I don't have time," I said. "And I am not struggling to keep my head above water." I also know that I have learned a lot. So I do a lot of things mindfully, do more soothing activities, and am more involved with my family and friends. Those are all positives and not to be minimized, but can lull one into complacency.
At some point, it would be nice if I could live the life I want to have (and deserve to have) in a more easy way. But it has slipped my mind that healing is a journey. A long journey. Probably a lifelong journey. And not a lifelong journey that you come back every now and again. Instead, I have been satisfied with where I am right now and have not really been pushing myself to heal more or achieve more internal awareness and personal insight.
It really only takes a second to reality check that I have plenty more work to do. I am still massively influenced by triggers, can quickly become emotionally destabilized or fragmented, struggle with recurring memories and flashbacks (even new ones), still have some significant issues with safety, and still very much am held back by negative core beliefs.
I cannot get around the fact that healing requires a focused type of effort.
It all hit me when I saw this TED talk. The story about Nick, the autistic boy who self-harmed, struck me the most. Giles Duley, the speaker and photographer, said: "He described his life as living downstairs at a party. He said he could hear the party in the kitchen. He felt like he was always trapped in the basement in his own little world. Wanted to be part of the party. But not able to walk upstairs." Then it also hit me that it took a personal tragedy for Duley to realize what was important in this world.
That is the power of telling ones' story. The extent of NIck's self-harming was not known and minimized and he did not get help. One man simply took a photograph of the boy's bloody face, shared it, and got the boy the help he needed.
One could argue that it was a small change for humanity even though it was a huge change for Nick. But what would our world be like if nobody shared their story?
The bottom line is that it is not about one's own individual impact. But rather it is the impact of collective voices. And this blog is one piece of that.
Yet another month has passed and I still find that I am having trouble writing publicly. Last month I wrote about it perhaps being a worry about being unoriginal after nearly two hundred posts. But I think has more to do with being public. I definitely feel more private about this aspect of my life nowadays. That does not mean, however, that I am ashamed of it. Rather, sharing publicly does not feel as safe as it once did.
That said, it is perhaps ironic that I have started several articles on a range of different topics, many of them have been explored in my private journal. Mind Parts has always been about providing me with an opportunity to synthesize my journal "wanderings" into clearer statements. So, we will see where that goes and how I sort this out.
For this month, I will share another piano recording of mine. It is in the key of G-minor, a key I almost never play.
The process is simple. I noodle around at the keyboard, then come to some chord progressions that I like. I write them out, then I improvise over those chords. The process is very much like an internal check-in. It has the effect, usually, of helping me become unstuck and create a flow of feeling. It is very much a "wandering" but it also has a sense of direction.
Near the beginning of this month, I recorded these same chord progressions. Back then it was about having many aspects of myself contributing. The recording had a little bit of everything in it. At the time, I wrote about this immense internal flow, which felt absolutely incredible. But I was not able to sustain holding all those parts of myself in the fore at the same time. Shortly after, it all broke down.
I am now recovering, and it is no surprise that this recording from last night is more reserved. It may not have as much interest as the last, but I feel as though I am in a much better place. This place I am in does not come at the cost of restraining parts of me. There is just more balance now and the "temperature" of me as a system is much lower.
I hope you enjoy it!
I have had a difficult time writing publicly. I am not sure why that is. It may be that when I start to write, I realize I have said something quite similar before. I cannot stand not being original! I think they call that writer's block or not being very creative. I am not really sure.
Lately, however, my music has been original and creative.
A couple of years ago I would cringe to record, let alone share, me playing classical music. That is not the case now. In many ways I was stymied by the expectation that performing classical music be precise. That was how I was taught. No teacher ever told me that it was all right to "interpret" the music in my own way.
So I did that on my own, in private. And when I had lessons, I tried to play it "right", as the teachers "expected".
There is a life lesson in there.
In so many areas of life, we are taught to not be creative. Creative students are often looked at as nerds by other students. They sometimes make their teachers feel uncomfortable. They are different. They stand out.
Sports are probably one area where one is almost always positively rewarded for being creative. If you get the basketball in falling backwards, shooting with your non-dominant hand, as the opposing team fouls you, you're a hero.
However, if you make a painting that doesn't look like any of the other kids in class or you know π to 100 places, well that's most likely a different story. And that's unfortunate.
Not only did I have to hide the fact that I "interpreted" classical music in my own way, but it has taken me a long time to share it with others. I think that is because I have trouble sharing something this personal about myself. In this piece, for example, my emotions are directly attached to the music.
The Chopin Prélude No. 4 is probably the most emotive classical piano piece I have ever heard.
There is also a lesson about healing.
I believe healing from deep emotional wounds also requires creativity. Often, the problems we face are just too large to be solved by "one size fits all" approaches. Ultimately each of us learns that if our commitment to healing is solely going to therapy once a week, we will probably not heal.
Each of us must find out own path, whatever that is. Some of us may find healing in riding horses, in a certain type of yoga, in a sport, in art, in an intellectual pursuit, in love.
And that path is unique to each of us, which by definition makes it creative.