Dissociation

I remember very little from ages 11 through 13. I had been through a lot up to that point. Raised by a single mother, never knowing my father, never seeing one penny of child support, and relying on welfare, I always felt the financial stress radiating off of the head of my household in large, turbulent waves. The earth never felt quite stable beneath my feet. It was as if we could all be washed away at any moment.

Then, when I was 7, she married my stepfather, mostly as a financial hail Mary, and it worked for a time. I was uprooted from my life in the projects, a known quantity at the very least, and transported to mansions and vacations and rooms full of presents. It was all very disconcerting, especially while being an outside observer of a mutually beneficial yet loveless marriage.

Then at age 10, they lost everything. And by that I mean everything. My stepfather lost his job, and everything came tumbling down like a house of cards.

We wound up camping our way down the east coast, and going to Florida, where we hoped to find a better life. This was a culture I didn’t understand. I was taken away from everything I knew, everything that made sense to me. We continued to “camp” for 7 excruciating years.

During my whole childhood, I buried myself in books. Books were my shield against the instability going on around me. A recent meme that I saw on Facebook really hit home. It said, “Reading is just staring at a dead tree and hallucinating. This happens to be my favorite hobby.”

Books were my safe place in an unpredictable world. I carried one everywhere I went. Disappearing into a book was good practice for what was to come.

At age 11, the sexual abuse started. I was unable to cope with having my stepfather, an adult who I was taught would always know best and do what’s best for me, do this. So I went away. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. It’s just what I did.

Oh, I was still there, physically. Unfortunately. But “I” was gone. I had crawled deep inside myself, where no one could touch me or hurt me. I hibernated deep within my mind. I checked out. For two years.

And the funny thing is, no one around me seemed to notice. In fairness, my whole family had a lot to deal with at the time, but from an adult perspective, I find it exceedingly strange that no one saw that I was just going through the motions that entire time.

During that period, apparently, I was learning how to multiply fractions in school. To this day, I can’t do it. People have taught me over the years, and what they say makes sense, and I get it, for about a half hour. Then it’s gone again. Fortunately it is a skill I’ve managed to live without.

I remember “waking up”. Suddenly, one day, I became aware of what was going on around me. It was a very abrupt transition. It was like having the lights turned on and realizing, whoa, there are things happening outside of myself.

I think it had to do with the fact that at age 13 I threatened to kill my stepfather if he ever touched me again, and he looked at me and realized I wasn’t joking. I’d have done it.

And just like that, the abuse stopped. (And yes, I told my mother. She told me I was making too much of it, and she stuck to that opinion and carried it to her grave.)

My stepfather and I maintained an uneasy, awkward, uncomfortable and distant relationship until my mother finally wised up and divorced him when I was about 23. They both died within a month of each other three years later. I kind of expected that to be liberating. It wasn’t, really.

To this day, when things get too much for me, I go away. Usually for short periods. Often it’s just a few minutes, so that I can gather myself. Mainly it manifests in the desperate need to be left alone and the desire to pull the sheets up over my head to take a nap. Sometimes it’s just escaping into a game app.

I also attribute my continuing love of books and sleep, my healthy imagination, and my need for travel and all other escapist pursuits to a minor form of dissociation. So is the fact that I thrive while working alone on my drawbridge. I don’t think that’s particularly unhealthy or destructive. No one gets hurt. The bills get paid. For the most part I’m really happy now, which is very unexpected and never ceases to feel like a miracle. I’ll never take that for granted.

As a psychologist once said to me, I was born 30 yards deep in my own end zone, so the fact that I’m playing on the field at all is pretty darned impressive. Dissociation was an effective coping mechanism for me, as such things go. I survived. I doubt I could give up this lifetime habit at this late date.

Dissociation comes in many forms. At the extreme end, you have multiple personality disorder. I’m fairly positive I never went that far. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you call in sick from work, stay in your jammies, and binge watch Game of Thrones for several hours. That’s not so bad, is it?

Now, if I could just shake the feeling that I’m much weirder and more out of touch than the average person. That would be nice. That would be heavenly.

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Let’s Just Say He’s Innocent

I had a nightmare last night that I was held down and sexually assaulted, and when I tried to speak out, I was mocked, threatened, lied about, and publicly humiliated. And a huge group of white men smiled approvingly while it happened.

“Can’t you just investigate?” I asked. “I’ll let the facts speak for themselves, if only you’ll take the time to look. I have nothing to hide. Do you?”

So they pretended to look, but they were in a hurry. They had other priorities. My pain, my trauma didn’t matter. They didn’t care.

I felt like I was brutalized all over again.

If only I had been taken seriously, if only a full investigation had been done. Even if my attacker was deemed innocent, I would have felt heard. But that’s not what happened. These men didn’t care about me in the face of their agenda.

Let’s just say Kavanaugh is pure as the driven snow. (We’ll never know, now.) Why not take the time for a full investigation, then? What harm would it do? In fact, it would do a great deal of good.

Because, today, I’m every woman who has ever been assaulted. I just want to be listened to, with respect. I want the world to acknowledge that what happened to me matters. Couldn’t Kavanaugh’s inevitable confirmation have waited a bit longer for a thorough investigation so that sexual assault victims the world over could feel acknowledged? What harm would that have done?

Before any justice is appointed, we all should be justly taken into consideration. That’s it. That’s all.

And that’s what didn’t happen. Instead, every aye vote felt like a stab to the vagina. Rest assured that we will all bleed our way to the voting booth.

Shame on all of you who were so busy praying that you’d get a judge that would vote your way that you were willing to step on millions of women to do so. Shame. You have shined a light on the darkness of your soul, and none of us will ever be the same.

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

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Vicarious Trauma

You know shit is getting real when your doctor actually prescribes that you don’t watch the news for a week. Between North Korea and Puerto Rico, my blood pressure is higher than it ought to be. So let the news blackout begin.

For those of you in the helping professions in particular, vicarious trauma is a problem that should be taken very seriously. Counselors, health professionals, firemen, police officers, social workers, soldiers, even journalists get exposed to other people’s trauma on a daily basis, and unless they have hearts of stone, these experiences, albeit secondhand, impact them as well. More and more, as all of us have greater access to disasters on a global scale, I’m beginning to believe that every single one of us is exposed to vicarious trauma.

Do you ever feel like you just can’t listen to one more news item without losing your mind? Are you convinced that one more presidential tweet just might send you over the edge? Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, forest fires… the overwhelming number of Youtube videos showing animal abuse and neglect… it is just too much to take in.

Think of trauma like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples that flow outward from that pebble effect all of us. It feels like we can never do enough. It’s exhausting. It makes you feel guilty, or afraid, or angry, or cynical. Sometimes it makes you feel numb, or helpless, or hopeless.

All of these are natural responses to vicarious trauma, but they’re not particularly helpful. It’s important that you learn to practice compassion for yourself as well as for other people. Give yourself a break. Be kind to you. Be sure to give yourself opportunities to engage in things outside your work, or outside the news. Set the burden down every now and then. Center yourself with family and friends. Get local. Allow yourself to have limits.

Most of all, talk to people. You are not alone. We are all getting a bit burned out. We need each other to weather the storms.

hang in

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Facing Forward

I’m on the brink of amazing change, and it all stemmed from a giraffe. You just never know when a figurative cue ball will send your eight ball careening off in an entirely different direction. That’s what makes life so exciting.

I have been watching April the Giraffe’s live feed on Youtube since February. I watched her pregnant belly as the baby kicked. I watched any number of contractions. She kept me company at least 8 hours a day. She became a big part of my life. So when I woke up on April 15th to discover that the birth was in progress, I got really, really excited.

Unfortunately, I still had to go to work. I broke all land speed records getting there, believe you me! And then I immediately logged back on again. Fortunately, the front hooves and the head where the only things that had made it into the world up to that point, so I got to watch the rest of the birth, live.

I’m not ashamed to say I cried some ugly, joyful tears when her calf finally made his entrance, and even more when he stood up an hour later. Life, man. Life! You know? What a miracle it is.

And just like that, I realized I hadn’t been living, not really, for quite some time. It occurred to me that life is like a flowing river, and we float downstream with it. As we go, we see things come toward us and we experience them and then they recede into the past.

But that’s only if you’re facing forward. Many things can cause you to face backwards. Trauma. Grief. Fear. Depression. They all cause you to focus on the past. And if you’re like me, you get stuck there, and try to recreate the past in your present. You want to get back to where you were before everything went so wrong.

The problem with that is you’re still floating down the river. Life goes on. But now you’re not seeing it. Because you’re facing backwards, by the time current events flash past your peripheral vision, they’re already a thing of the past. That’s no way to live.

Time to face forward again. Live in the present. Plan for the future. And don’t do so as half a person, presenting yourself to the world as a broken shadow of your former self.

For example, if you’re grieving, don’t avoid music or experiences that you shared with the person you lost. Why are you narrowing your horizons like that? Would the person you lost want you to only be half of yourself? No. You’re still alive, and to have healthy relationships moving forward, you need to be able to give the next person ALL of you. Yes, grief changes you, and that’s okay. But it shouldn’t limit you, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for continuing down the stream.

So I’m making a conscious effort to face forward again. I’m house hunting, and I’m exercising, and I’m eating right. I’m trying really hard to live in the now. Because life is happening right now, and it’s a precious and limited commodity. I plan to make the most of it, rather than putting it on hold.

And I got all that from a giraffe. Imagine that.

As my friend Carole likes to say, “Onward and upward, into the future!”

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There’s an Adult in Here Somewhere

Do you ever find yourself overreacting about something, and even you aren’t sure why you’re doing it? If you’re at all like me, it’s not unusual to be triggered by trauma you’ve experienced in the past. Smells, sounds, even behavior that is remotely similar can cause your brain to shout, “Danger, Will Robinson!”

A very common coping mechanism in these instances is that the part of you that experienced that trauma and somehow managed to survive will now elbow his or her way to the forefront and “handle” it. So if it happened when you were 12, for example, years later you will find yourself acting like a 12 year old. It’s gotten you this far, right? But it’s not always the most rational, effective way to function in the grown up world.

It may take practice, but there are things you can do about this. First, start identifying your triggers. What’s going on around you when you overreact? What is it reminding you of?

Once you’ve gotten a handle on what your process is, you can become more adept at being “present” while it’s happening. Then, when that little voice inside you says, “Whoa. I’m really overreacting,” you can actually heed that voice, take a breath and have an inner dialogue with yourself.

This is going to kind of sound silly, but it really works. Talk to yourself as if you were an adult trying to reassure a child. Here’s a conversation I had with my inner 12 year old recently. “Hey. I know what’s happening is scary. Thank you for wanting to take care of it for me. But I’m the adult here, and I should be the one taking care of you. So it’s okay for you to take a break and let me handle this.”

I’m not suggesting you have multiple personalities. But I do believe we all have an inner child who deserves to be acknowledged now and then. Give it a try. You’d be amazed at how liberating it is. Your secret is safe with me.

Danger

PTRRD

After having lived in Florida for 40 years, I have much to be traumatized about, believe you me. Hurricanes, scorpions, rising sea levels, gun-toting vigilantes, insane politicians, free-ranging pet boa constrictors, rampant conservatism… you name it, Florida’s got it. But as is often the case, it took leaving my toxic environment to discover just how seriously it had affected me.

Even though I’ve been in the Seattle area for a year and a half now, and know that I could leave my door wide open 24 hours a day and nary a harmful bug would enter, I still have residual anxiety from my Southern roots. There, you have a constant battle with disease-laden, gravity-defying, hyper-multiplying, two inch long, DISGUSTING cockroaches. They crawl over your bed while you sleep. They get in your hair. You can’t leave any food out, even for a minute. It really freaks me out when they run across the dashboard while I’m driving down the interstate. I’ve even had them scurry into the shower with me when I’m all naked and vulnerable. Shudder. I have no doubt that there are at least a thousand cockroaches for every human in that state. It almost feels as though these creepy creatures have invaded my brain.

Although my rational mind knows that the odds are very good that I’m not going to see one of these things crawling across my pizza ever again, I still am terrorized by them at least once a week. One of my dogs tracks in a dead brown leaf and I see it out of the corner of my eye and nearly jump out of my skin. The brown hair that I slid to the side to unblock the tub drain but forgot to dispose of makes me shriek like a little girl.

You’d think I’d have this all figured out by now, but it seems to be a gut reaction that is ingrained in my very soul. I’m calling this syndrome “Posttraumatic Roach Reaction Disorder”, or PTRRD. It’s debilitating and pervasive. I need medication.

So, imagine my horror when I discovered that these bugs are so novel here that they have their very own display, complete with a domestic straw broom to scuttle over, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. I watched the locals gaze at them and say, “Ewwww… gross.” and I wanted to scream, “You people have no idea what a dangerous game you’re playing!!!” If even two of those things get out, this city will be up to its ears in roach droppings by sundown.

I can’t even drive past that zoo now without feeling something creeping across that place on my back that I can’t reach. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

I think I need a hug.

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The American Cockroach Display at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Shudder.