Recently in Safety Category
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.
There are endless comparisons one can make between failures in technology and psychological "failures." I will not bore you with very many examples, but I have seen quite a few error messages in my day from the computer side, mostly stemming from memory issues. "Segmentation fault", "Stack overflow", and "HeapDumpOnOutOfMemoryError" are just a few. "Core dump" is a common Unix error that can be a bit intimidating, especially if it is on a computer mainframe that hundreds of users depend on. One of the more scarier messages came from the old Mac computers. Imagine a window popping up with a clip-art image of a bomb. Yes, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak envisioned what has become arguably the slickest computer operating system ever created. But back in the day, you got a bomb along with a message that said "Sorry" and a frozen computer.
Computer memory is made up of individual bits that are either zero or one. What could be easier than that? Sure there's quite a lot of physics in there, but memory storage is conceptually simple. Of course, the computer needs more than one bit. Modern computers have many gigabytes of memory. 16GB of memory is also 138 billion bits of information. To give some perspective, that number is about 20 times the entire current population on earth or roughly equivalent to the number of human beings who have ever been born! All those pieces on one little laptop running a Web browser and Word!
What makes memory complicated is that there are management techniques that programmers must take into account in their programming. Every time a programmer creates an object in their code, they are asking the computer to assign memory for that task. Programmers have to know things like how much memory to allocate, whether their code is causing a memory leak, and sometimes when to dump memory. There are also tools that the tech-savvy among us can use to analyze the state of the memory.
Of course, many times memory errors cause a total system failure, sometimes known as a "kernel panic." The computer will hang and you have to restart it, fix it or in some cases throw it away and get a new one.
The reason why I bring up memory errors is that I have been having a lot of them lately. I wrote not even a week ago about the firm ground I found myself on. A lot fell into place for me. I had crystal clear perspective and was able to look at my life at any scale, from the big picture to all the small details. That firm ground lasted for what felt like a microsecond, but was actually about a day. It is almost impossible for me to believe now that only a few days have passed. Over the past week, I have been writing in my journal about the enormous swings of knowing and not knowing, connection and disconnection, wonderful tingly sensations and searing pain.
I have often seen the ability to attain what feels like a internal wholeness, with accompanying clear sense of safety, as touchstones or experiences to strive to achieve more regularly and for longer periods of time. They have been motivators.
But this week has not been like it has been in the past. This week I am hugely discouraged. I have lost hope. I am angry. I am checking my calendar and journal constantly, looking back on what I did and only vaguely able to make sense of it. But my problems are more than just a memory errors.
To continue the computer metaphor, memory, along with other layers of computer architecture, are managed by the operating system. I can easily think of myself as an operating system. My treaters are encouraging me to enlist others (inside) for help, saying I cannot do it all alone. But that kind of advice is really falling on deaf ears. As I have told them: "I know that, but I can't do that." Or, more precisely, "I know that, but I can only do it for very brief periods."
I also know I have a responsibility for safety, and that complicates everything. Safety was severely compromised last month and I am in many ways still reeling from that. Sharing responsibility, for me, means that I must put myself in a more vulnerable position. When I allow parts of me to come forward, so to speak, I put a lot on the line. I know full well that many parts of me do not worry at all, or even know much at all, about safety issues.
I now find myself in a huge bind. I have a wealth of experience that tells me that collaboration and communication internally lead to more wholeness and fluidity of experience. I know that I do not have enough resources to manage my life without the contributions of all parts of me. But I cannot do what is needed without internal trust. Because of the safety breach, that trust is simply not there now. I simply cannot take that risk. Yet I do not feel any safer.
So, I am doing exactly what a computer operating system would do.
A "kernel panic."
Image is from Dmitry Vostokov's Dump Analysis blog, who has many very amazing visualizations of memory. Click on the "Art" category.
In what was the first real post on this blog, a bit over two years ago, I wrote about safety and the healing I had done to that point. How fitting that on the two year anniversary of this blog, I am coming back to safety. Indeed, I posted this month's Carnival activity on safety—which will be published Saturday night. At the time, I did not think it was going to be terribly hard for me. Was I wrong!
I had no idea what to submit for my own contribution. The last couple of weeks have been enormously difficult, tumultuous, and confusing. I experienced some instability around the time I posted Hallelujah Piano Cover. But since then, I have experienced massive time warps, huge amounts of lost time, safety concerns, fundamental rifts in awareness and perception, as well as accomplishments that I thought were not possible anymore. The only point in telling this is that life has been too complicated to even contemplate how to capture safety in any way.
But, the ship was righted today. Almost precisely in the same way it was a month ago, except without needing to go into the hospital.
I decided that for my Carnival submission on safety, I would look through my photo galleries and try to collect images that are most safe for me.
There are many pictures of my daughters that show them as safe. Two, for example, taken when each was born, show them swaddled in the hospital blanket with the sock on their heads in the nursery crib. There are hundreds like that. All safe. And while I know I felt a huge sense of safety at the time, the images tell a story that the safety is really on their end. Plus, I did not want to imply that safety is only at infancy which, of course, is not even true for many.
So, I started looking for different images, going through each gallery to see which "spoke" safety to me. I quickly saw pictures of my now-deceased grandparents. Since I was extremely close to them and have often said that I have felt most safe with them, I knew I need to focus my attention there. But as I began gathering images to show, I started having an experience that is evolutionary for me. There are tears. But so much joy and so much awareness of safety.
We always did a lot as a family with my grandparents. There were the customary Sunday dinners, Christmas Eve with Santa Claus every year, our annual family apple picking trip, Papa teaching me how to do yard work and plant flowers, hanging out at Papa's barber shop, endless "silly banter" with my Nana, and, what I remember most, lots and lots of hugs and kisses.
When I was 22 and my life collapsed, I moved to the family home with my grandparents and parents. I was mentally very unwell. I tried to commit suicide, and nearly succeeded twice. And while life was nearly impossible for what felt like an eternity, I always felt a complete sense of safety with them that was unique for me. After a few years and a lot of treatment and effort, my life got much better and more stable. That was around 1994. I met my wife in 1995. Got engaged and bought our first house in 1996. Got married in 1997. Had our first daughter in 1998.
Those years were huge for me and my Nana and Papa. I had hundreds of dinners with them. We talked for hours. We laughed. I took up golfing with my Papa. We bowled together; he would take me to his weekly bowling league for a time. He had a 35mm Minolta camera that he did not know the first thing about. When I got into photography, I started teaching him and he would go with me to the local camera store. I taught him about different films, about lens filters, composition. He attentively listened. He took up art in his 80s; taking painting classes. At the time, I had no interest in making any art myself. I did not realize that now I would incorporate art—as well as photography—as important aspects of my healing.
While I was better, I was still severely internally partitioned. And while I told them I loved them a million times, I was really not able to see my relationship with them in a larger context. I was in the moment with them. All the time. I just knew it was love. I just knew it was safe.
But, on the day I got married, I gained perspective on what they meant to me. And this is a memory that I have tried very hard to learn more about, but could not. Until tonight.
We got married on a picturesque lake 6 hours by car from where we were living, in the town my wife grew up in. I remember that they were staying in a guest house with all my immediate family, including me. I was there a week before finalizing the wedding festivities with my then-fiance. My family came up a couple days before the wedding. It was all fun and relaxing.
On the night before the wedding, I think it was after the rehearsal dinner, I left them a card and a handwritten letter in their room. This is where the memory gets hazy. I remember I wrote something along the lines of "you saved my life" and also "you taught me what love is." But, aside from that I do not know what I said. And I do not remember their reaction, which was most certainly extremely emotional for all of us.
I think the writing of that letter was a transcendental experience for me. An aligning of sorts. Somehow, I was able to have perfect clarity and perspective on not only how much they meant to me, but also on what getting married to my wife meant in relation to my life history which included them. After, that perfect perspective went away. We partied at the reception and it just became a party, just as it was supposed to be.
When my daughters were born, they were a source of my grandparents' happiness. We only lived 30 minutes away and, so, we continued to see them all the time. Life changed for me in relation to them. It was no longer just me and my Nana and Papa. They died in March 2004 and January 2006 respectively.
Almost exactly two years after my Papa died, my healing journey changed course, and that is what this blog chronicles. My internal and external awareness blossomed like never before. I started using words like healing.
I like to think all these gains are closely connected to my Nana and Papa.
You see, I do not need to know what those words were in the letter I wrote to them when I got married. Because of the process of looking through their pictures, I now know precisely what I was feeling when I wrote it. And it is the feelings that are key.
I am having those feelings right now.
Of love. Of safety.
And that is why when they died, while I cried, I had absolutely no regrets. I told them everything I wanted to tell them. And they gave me everything they needed to give me.
I settled on three images of them. The first is my Papa outside on the patio posing—he was a ham—with my elder daughter. The second is of my Nana outside the hospital as her health was failing a little less than a year before she died. I was trying to cheer her up by taking a picture of her wearing my daughter's hat. She was not a ham like my Papa, but she reluctantly humored me. The third is most meaningful to me. It is a picture of my bedroom now. The chair was one of a pair that my Nana and Papa sat in every night in their own bedroom while watching television together. It is my safe chair. In the background are three paintings my Papa made. It is probably the safest spot on the planet.
That is their gift to me.