As someone who finds comfort and relief in knowledge, I try to do my research on whatever issues might be pertinent to my situation. On September 11, 2001, while everyone watched the news, I was at the obstetrician’s office learning that my unborn child was likely going to die at birth due to a birth defect they’d detected in the ultrasound. I immediately went home and used the internet for one of the things it is useful for, I researched the hell out of my son’s birth defect and, as a result, was able to get him the best treatment and ensure his likelihood of survival.
Later, when I left my abusive husband, I researched the hell out of abuse. I wanted to learn everything I could so I could prevent it and keep from falling victim to it again. I had been raised in an extremely abusive home and, contrary to what the church was telling me about God protecting me, or conversely, God letting it happen to me, I learned that I fell into another abusive relationship *because* I was raised in an abusive home and my mind was wired in such a way that it automatically submitted to abuse.
In both circumstances, I was sometimes admonished that knowing too much was actually a detriment. With my son, people told me to just listen to the doctors. With my ex, people told me to just trust God to help me and that learning more would just upset me more. Both groups of people were, to be quite frank, idiots.
When I had my breakdown, I went to see a psychologist at school. She told me that under no circumstance should I research what was going on with me. She assured me it would make things worse. I should just do as she told me. In hindsight it is obvious that my reaction to this showed just how bad off I was. I did as she said. In fact, I still have trouble researching mental breakdowns because of her words.
It is difficult, I won’t lie, to do research on the mental health issues that plague me. I find that so much of what is out there is just a bunch of tripe most of the time. My experiences with meditation are all negative, yet that is one of the first things people write about today when talking about PTSD and anxiety. I have a full blown anxiety attack whenever I try to use any form of meditation, especially guided meditation. It feels like someone is trying to take over my mind, and it triggers severe flashbacks which spiral me into an anxiety attack. I tried to explain that to the psychologist. She ordered me to meditate and to power through those feelings…alone…at home…a place that triggers many flashbacks.
I’ve mentioned before that my experience in therapy is overwhelmingly negative. Most therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists I have seen have what they think will fix me. I must do things their way and recover at the rate they think I should. If not, there is something wrong with me, not them or their method. It reminds me so much of religion.
As a result, I have, on my own, cobbled together systems that kind of keep things under control. They work about 25% of the time. Which is better than nothing in my book. I’ve done this on my own, because I can’t find a therapist who is actually interested in me or how to help me.
Up until Monday, I had my suspicion of why. I felt as if, in each experience with the therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, they were trying to protect themselves from my trauma. I’ve had so much, they didn’t know how to handle it. I was severely abused by my parents. I was to a lesser extent, though not much, abused by my extended family. Church was not better. I was molested and raped as a child by two different people. My husband abused me. I had some abusive teachers in school–it was the 70s, abusive teachers were actually the norm, not the exception. In short, my life was one long, unending traumatic event. I have never known a period of time when I was not being traumatized at some level.
My trauma is now, as it was then, inescapable. I cannot break free from my ex’s control because he and his parents will put me out on the street. I live under that shadow of fear constantly. They, however, are “upstanding” members of their Christian church. Everyone loves them.
I do not believe that there are many therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists who are truly trained enough in trauma to deal with it, let alone a situation like mine where there is no end. So the people I have seen protect themselves from me by doing things like dismissing my concerns, being passive aggressive, yelling at me (yes, I had a therapist who actually got in my face and yelled at me through the whole session), being very controlling, and even shaming me.
Still, what options do I have? How else would I be able to get any help so I can do better than 25% better?
I considered all of this as the term took its usual dive by the third week. I thought, well, maybe I should just call and try to get a different psychologist than the one I had last time.
Then last weekend hit and I honestly wasn’t even sure if I’d make it to Monday.
I have a list of things I do when I spiral. Under normal circumstances those things are a benefit. They will slowly pull me out of that pit and I can get moving again. By Sunday night, however, I was on the last thing on that list–watch non-scientific nature documentaries–and nothing had helped.
In January, I shared my list of books I want to read this year on the blog. One of them is The Body Keeps the Score. I looked at several books on mental health and this was the most highly rated and the reviews were more than just “hey, it’s great.” From the reviews it sounded like it might be helpful. When my email from Audible arrived with my monthly credit, I ordered it so I could listen in the car, which, when I’m this stressed, is about the only reading I can do.
I turned it on after I dropped off my son on Monday, and I cried all the way to school.
I am not sure I can adequately explain to someone who has had a loving family who supported them and cared for their needs, how good it feels to have someone validate your traumatic experience and, especially, your reaction to it. I hate to “other” people from those situations, there are obviously those among them who do try to understand, but I don’t know if there is any description to describe the relief, how it feels physically and how it feels mentally. But that relief is what I felt before the first chapter was over. Everything the author, a psychiatrist who has had a career helping patients with PTSD and trauma, said was exactly my experience. He might have been talking about Vietnam veterans, but so many things that I had felt in my ongoing trauma were the same. He was the first person who made every single one of those feelings valid.
I am five chapters in now and trying to figure out how this guy can nail every single problem I’ve had my entire trauma-filled life, when I have been to several of his colleagues and they just made me feel like it was all my fault that I couldn’t recover. I had one therapist tell me that I wanted to feel this way because it made I enjoyed it. She never wanted to explore what I was feeling beyond that, just told me I had to get over the trauma.
As I read, I fluctuate between relief, and disgust and anger at the profession. How lazy they are when it is obvious from this book that the answers exist. They just didn’t want to be bothered. It was more important to shame me and push me aside, obviously to protect themselves, than to every do anything about the problem.
The idea I’d considered, that my therapists were all trying to protect themselves, was one of the first things the author validated. He actually points out in the first chapter that it is even within the profession that people do that. Nobody, even medical professionals, and definitely not religious professionals, wants to hear about severe trauma. They want the traumatized to get better quickly and/or go away. It’s a sick truth, but knowing it was a relief. It’s not me, it really is them.
It is the hardest thing in the world to find a trauma-informed mental health professional. I feel like my boss, with only a Masters in English, knows more about suffering than most psychs I’ve seen. Not that I take that stuff to her, just that I have talked to her about certain things and she is definitely aware. Mental health professionals seem don’t know what to do with people who have PTSD beyond medicate them and send them away.
But knowing this now, I can look back on each of those circumstances and stop asking myself, what did I do wrong? I can instead change the narrative and wonder why these supposed professionals ever bothered going into that line of work when they are obviously not cut out for more than doling out colloquial advice.
Which leads to the second thing I was validated in–my trigger.
My trigger is one that I’ve known about for a little while now but have had no power over. I had tried to talk with a few, non-professional, people about it, but they just told me to get over it. With no validation, it’s hard to get a handle on it. My trigger is injustice, any and all injustices, real or perceived. If you want to get me to fly off the handle and get more angry than you can possibly imagine, just point me in the direction of an injustice. Now, when the injustice is against me, I can generally reign myself in after a short while. If that injustice is against another person, well, good luck getting me to calm down.
I’ve known this, but until I started reading this book, I couldn’t get a handle on it. With that trigger acknowledged and looking directly at it’s cause, along with learning that flying into rages at some little provocation are actually a real part of PTSD, not some moral short-coming on my part, has actually made me feel less reactive. I’m not gonna be perfect any time soon, but I can already see that I will be able to learn to talk myself down from the ledge.
And then there is the left and right brain. The author talks about several studies he has worked on in his career and the brain scan studies have been the most helpful to me. They explained things no mental health professional I’ve seen since I started my breakdown could.
The first important thing I learned is that when a person with PTSD has a flashback, their left brain completely shuts down. This part of the brain is where we do math, where we reason, etc. The left brain shuts down, and the right brain goes wild. As he talked about how the two sides of the brain normally work together, it explained all those things that bother me from the breakdown. First, my total loss of math skills. Kind of a huge deal when that is your job. Second, why math helps me in the first place.
I need to explain how math helps me so you can understand why this was so important. The first line of defense against any of the anxiety or depression associated with my PTSD is often math. I do math problems and I feel better. I feel more under control. It turns out that this is because using my left brain, getting it activated like that, helps it to control my right brain. It calms it, reigns it in, and I settle down.
During the breakdown, and during flashbacks, which are actually a pretty regular occurrence, math goes out the window because my left brain shuts down. This probably exacerbates things more quickly for me because math is often my first line of defense and losing that probably makes my right brain even more crazy than other people who do not use math and reason to calm themselves.
I read that chapter as I headed into work yesterday. It was an exam day and I was giving a review session before class, and then I was planning to take the exam with my students. The previous week, my last session with them, had been the single worst session I have ever had in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this job. It was what had thrown me into that bottomless pit over the weekend.
I had worked on what I was going to say to the students, and had come up with a way to talk to them without blaming or shaming. But I was still nervous going into it. To top it all off, I had the most students I’ve had in a session since I first started math, and a lot of them were new and hadn’t even been there on Thursday. However, my mind kept reminding me why I reacted the way I did on Thursday, that it was a normal response to the perceived threat that my PTSD insisted was real because most of the people I ever knew before I started school three years ago have been useless and abusive asshats.
It was singly the best session I’ve ever had since I started this job two-and-a-half years ago.
I went up to take the exam. I was still nervous because, truthfully, I didn’t study anything more than the review problems the professor had given the students so I could be ready if they had any questions for me during my own review session.
When I took this test the first time last summer, it took me a little more than an hour. Yesterday I was done in 30 minutes. I don’t expect to have all the answers right. But, I feel confident on most of them. I was able to recall so much, I think, because my mind finally knew what had happened to it. There was no longer any doubt as to what was causing these “math blackouts.” There is a reason. It is a normal response.
If you have ever suffered any sort of trauma, or if you know someone who has–and trust me, you know someone who has, the book points out that in the US, 1-in-5 people are sexually molested as children—you need to read this book. I don’t think it is a cure, but it is a start to healing. You will learn that what you are seeing in your head is a normal response to what you experienced, despite what your family, friends, church, and even therapist insist. And if you are a friend of a trauma victim, you will learn, hopefully, how to help them a little more, or at least understand them if you can’t help them. That can make all the difference for a trauma victim.
I will finish this book by the end of the–oops, I was gonna say week, but I have a book to read for Lit so, lol–month. I have no doubt it will be both painful and helpful. Then I will read it again. I don’t ever say that about a book. I rarely read a book twice. Except for reference books, I’ve never found the need to do so. But this book will be worth several reads.
Everybody REALLY needs to read this book.