Out in the Backcountry—Post Traumatic Stress

At the moment I am again in the disconcerting backcountry of PTS.

I know this place. The terrain is ugly, but it is also familiar. I can predict where most of the attacks are likely to come from, and what is needed to mount counter-attacks.

It is not a safe place, most of it mined with the risks of flashbacks and a sense of doom that has the power to stop everything in its tracks. Both have the capacity to blow up in your face at any given moment, often without warning. And in the foreground there is the constant war playing out between Life and Despair.

Despair is a guerrilla enemy, setting cruel ambushes, attacking when I feel the most bruised, naked, unprotected, and vulnerable. Life tries to fight back in a more old-school way, holding ground, sending back messages from the frontline that the situation is under control, that Despair is being pinned down under fire.

For a moment I believe the message being sent by Life.

I relax.

Yes, all is going to be okay. I just have to stick with the steady routine of sleep, eating well, exercising, and paying very close attention to what is actually going on, even when being constantly knocked back down, each time Despair launches another ambush, and then another, and another.

Every part of the daily round feels as though it is a challenge demanding more energy than there is available. Another cruelty of PTS is that is does not distinguish between the important and the mundane, between having to pick up something at the supermarket, or take on some major professional task—both seem equally fraught with threat, everything open to attack.

Each morning, every re-entry into consciousness from sleep, means the weight of dread falling back down around me. And so the battle begins again: attack, counterattack, attack. On it goes, until I, we, everyone who lives with PTS reaches the time when we do not think we can fight anymore.

Taking Back the High Ground

But unlike so many I have the lucky advantage of a carefully-tutored awareness of what is actually going on.

This is my work. It is what I do.

I was trained to observe thought, and to rigorously separate what is real, and what is not; between the present and a lie branded in the mind by violence that repeats its dark story over and over, to the point where you cannot separate between the dark lie and the truth.

Even out here in the backcountry I can still experience joy—the temperature of the cool summer air in London on my skin as I run in a park, the scent of the lime trees, the sharp good taste of coffee drunk beside a lake.

I know those things are real even if the message the mind keeps sending is that the only thing that is real is violence—the people shot down, the wailing of those who are wounded, or of their families as they die, the sucking silence after a grenade has been thrown.

The daily battle in this backcountry of PTS is trying to find the balance between these two, between life and despair. Our challenge is to find someone or something that gives us the ability to be able to distinguish between the two. Then we have to persuade ourselves, over and over, that the cool air on our skin, the scent of linden blossom, the taste of coffee, is the present, and that the recurring memory of violence is a part of our inner landscape that must not be the inevitable winner.

And even if, at times, actual violence again becomes our present, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is not the only reality—that it will end.

I am going to put a part of that again, in another way. Please, if you are someone who battles it out in the backcountry, find someone or something that will train you and your mind to be able to engage with the world around you as it really is, to help you know and believe that the back-country battleground is indeed a battleground, but it is not your life.

Autonomy and Control—and our human need for both

It’s interesting thinking about autonomy, sitting here now, in Kashmir, the whole valley curfewed, everyone confined, shut in, locked down. And it was another version of interesting when flying out of the United Kingdom a few weeks ago, just as the reality of the vote to leave the European Union began to set in.

The first, this current curfew, could be called a draconian denial of autonomy. In the case of Kashmir this rapidly becomes steeped in layers of complex regional politics and duplicity. So, let’s just leave it at the point where curfew is an action that stops people from leaving their homes, and that there is the threat of severe punishment if they do.

The second example, the ‘Out’ vote, claimed to be a bid to be unfettered from the bend-of-your-banana dictates of the EU.

The first is seen as a serious loss of autonomy, the second claimed to be a reassertion of economic independence.

But this is not about the politics of these two things. It’s a dig at both in order to look at the driving human intentions behind these two things—our human need for both freedom and also for a sense of control and order in our lives.

Life in Four Parts

If we look at our lives in four basic parts: early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age, both the desire for autonomy and the need for control play out, continually.

For many of us our early childhood is entirely controlled by our parents. They provide safety and nurture, and they make almost all decisions on our behalf. It is this part, the decision making, that we push back against in adolescence. Whilst the teenage fug and funk isn’t exactly the best method in advocating for increasing autonomy, it is all part of that pitted road towards adulthood.  The hardest bit is that, while flailing to find the way through the doom-laden teens, demanding more freedom means also being prepared to take the responsibility that goes with this great prize.

Of course most parents claim to long for obedient teenagers, but if teenagers aren’t rebelling, how can they take that first step towards adulthood, and towards that vital double act of maturity—freedom and responsibility? Teenagers are supposed to demand increasing levels of freedom whilst resisting responsibility. It’s all part of the game, almost as if this rebellion is the last chance to put off the inevitable drudge of adulthood, whilst playing pretend grown-ups.

And then, after those years of feeling constantly misunderstood and nagged, along comes real adulthood, head-butting us into its endless round of having to make choices, and then take responsibility for them as well. In the constant round of this there is, of course, a natural tendency towards wanting to have a sense of belonging, to be respected for what we do, to have a sense of control over our lives, and to feel safe within our world.  Many do not conform, but the majority of us run roughly along these lines, feeling overly controlled by bosses or paymasters, and by the responsibilities that we have taken on, whilst usually feeling that we don’t have as much control over our situation as we would like.

Then comes old age, defiant in the face of the rush of time passing, pushing back against some of the controlling aspects of the long middle chunk of life. As we age we seem to need bits from the first and second stages, both control and autonomy. As we crumble we need to be taken care of, and increasingly so, and yet those who age the most resiliently seem to do so because they have been able to retain a vital sense of independence. They continue to be able to look after themselves, finding meaning and purpose in the detail that is so often missed when we are busy being younger. It can be the satisfaction of being able to manage daily life without the help of others; or still being able to nurture others, whether children, grandchildren, a dog, a prized tomato plant, the robin that comes to sit on the kitchen window sill every morning; being able to really enjoy the company of others with the luxury of time to do so; or a deepening sense of the value of life with the poignant perspective that it is beginning to run out.

I suppose we just want it all because, well, we are human—to be free to live as we wish, but with the security of feeling that we have control over our lives.

And beyond these two, a great truth, that we really have no control, but that we do have the freedom to choose to acknowledge this, to embrace it, and to control our fear of it.

‘Good-bye’ – to anyone who is graduating

You’re there, that place that glimmered so far in the future that it was almost impossible to imagine.

Do you remember arriving, that freshman moment when you first saw all those seniors? They seemed so full of worldliness, glossy with it. And you were floundering, trying to find your room, the student centre, the various lecture halls, the laundry, struggling with student IDs, which classes you should take, how to find friends, missing your old ones, missing so much, wary of so many things.

Do you remember feeling alone in all the newness of it all, finding it unimaginable that you could ever get anywhere near that glossy knowingness?

But you did, and here you are, except that often it doesn’t feel as burnished now that you’re here, now that it’s your turn.

How can it feel golden whilst juggling the toxic mix of sleep deprivation and finals deadlines, both looming over you like some horrendous interactive 3D horror flick, body and brain scattered in all directions?

How can you find a way to hand in a thesis, an independent study, an essay or paper, when it feels so far from the sparkling version that you had imagined in your mind’s eye?

How can you sit an exam, your brain frozen for fear of questions that you did not revise for, or based on that book that you never had time to read?

And how can you deal with the seemingly endless round of rushed good-byes? Everyone leaving, friends whose lives have intertwined so intensely with yours—that moment when you have pulled yet another all-nighter, and then one of your best of the best friends knocks on your door, heading for an early train, and you can’t tell whether you are blinded by exhaustion or tears as you hug ‘good-bye’.

On top of all this, how can you even begin to see beyond the finish line of graduation to what lies beyond, that endless savannah of ‘the future’ that you feel so ill-equipped to face?

Then comes That Moment…gowned, hand on head, holding in place the strange sitting there. In this particular blur of time how do you juggle your parents, the endless photographs, diluting family with your friends, keeping boyfriends or girlfriends away from family, or introducing them for the first time, hand still on head, trying to hold that bizarre mark of academe in place?

You can’t

That’s the most important thing to know. The best, the most you can do, is to find a manageable compromise and to find a way to allow yourself to accept…

  • that you are simply exhausted, possibly irritable, probably volatile, but this is how it is, and it is how it is for everyone else as well.
  • that you cannot achieve the imagined standard of work, and that there is a victory enough in being able to hand it in, or in sitting papers at all, considering that you are probably functioning as about 35% of your full capacity, the other 65% mired in lack on sleep.
  • That, well, to use statistics for a moment, the highest percentage of lasting friendships are formed in college. You may be saying bleary ‘good-byes’ now, but they are, for the most part, temporary. Away from the crude statistics it is just humanly right to feel emotional at this point because you are bidding farewell to something else—that delicate and rich space that hovers between childhood and full adulthood. It is a time that will not come again. It needs to be marked.

And then there will be a commencement speech—someone inspiring, booked to stir your soul, and to make your family or supporters believe that their money was well-spent. There may be wise words, a life-enhancing feel good send off, perhaps some cautionary tales, or perhaps you will barely even hear it, the words fall down around you, your brain too tired to make sense of them.

The Future

This is where the last part of the graduation list comes in. The commencement speech might tap into and enrich your excitement, but it could leave you uninspired, and simply dreading what lies beyond.

The future presents a kind of freedom that you may well not have experienced before. For some it means being able to make decisions for yourself for perhaps the first time. It an be  when you begin to find your way towards your future relationship with those who have watched over you, perhaps paid for you all the way, and hence held sway over many aspects of your decision-making to date.

Some relish this idea, this freedom to choose, and to take responsibility for those choices.  Others can be paralysed by this, sometimes just because of a lack of experience in decision-making.

Graduation is symbolic, however much it may have been diminished by time and fashion. It still marks the point when you step away from the main structure of your life to date, those seventeen or so years of education that have led you to this point, sometimes gladly and sometimes kicking and screaming.

This entry point to the future needs anchor points.

Writing it down

I am not particularly in favour of suggestions, and certainly not advice, but I have never regretted being forced to write down how I felt about my life when I was 22. I thought it was a slightly bizarre idea at the time but I still did it, mainly to humour the slightly scary person who had prescribed it.

Sometimes I re-read what I wrote then and realise how, in spite of all the spinning emotions and exhaustion of that time, I did have a clearer sense of myself than I realised.

I do remember feeling that almost every aspect of my life was out of control, and yet I still managed to put down what mattered to me at that moment. Some of it directly reflected what was happening around me at the time. Many of those things have fallen away over the years.  Yet there were other aspects of my life that I seem to have had a clear sense of then. These have lasted to the extent that they have been the central drivers of my life.

The good and the bad of it

Perhaps you have been disappointed? Maybe this whole process has failed to be the gleaming experience that you had hoped it would be. If so then you may be in for a surprise. The future may be easier than you anticipate because you have already learnt how to handle disappointment. This gives you an advantage, even before you put on your mortar board and gown.

But if it has been a golden time, you may need to understand that another lesson lies in store—learning to absorb disappointment because life may now not match up to these past three or four heady years.

There is a good reason why so many people refer to their college years as the high-point of their life. Some found that everything after graduation was a disappointment, and  instead of learning to face this, they were defeated by this sense, simply because they had not experienced it before.

But disappointment and perceived failure have the capacity to be rocket fuel. It’s about switching your point of view, and finding a way to see both as resilience-builders, psychological training for the mind that prepares you for anything and everything—the university of life in its fullest sense.

So, if you can, if you have the energy, write down who you are, and how you feel about life, now, at this turning point in your life.

The future will then have its first compass setting.

And for those I know who are graduating now…

It has been such a pleasure to work with you, and to learn from you.

Thank you

The Power of Negative Thinking…because it’s the result of millions of years of evolution…

Take a day, any day.

Ten good things might happen. Perhaps these aren’t big deal good things, but they are ten things that create a sense of contentment. Perhaps you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a while, and realise how much you enjoy talking to them; the cup of coffee at the usual place is better than usual; the train arrives on time, you get a seat; someone tells you that something that you did at work, or at school, was good. These are the small things that can build a quiet background buzz of well-being.

And then one thing happens, one negative thing. Your entire focus gets pulled to that single thing. All the good things seem to have been erased, rendered unimportant in comparison to this one bad thing.

This one thing is not some terrible catastrophe. It is just one negative thing, only equal in proportion to any one of the other ten good things that have happened.

Let’s use one of the above things from the ‘good things’ list, and turn it the other way, from a positive to that one small negative.

So far it has been the day of good things for you—bumping into an old friend, good coffee, the seat on the train and so on, but then you overhear someone at work talking to a colleague about you. Perhaps it is something along the lines of ‘I’m not sure if X (your name) has really done enough work on this. What do you think?’

You don’t have a chance to hear the answer because you have to duck into another office to avoid being seen. For a moment you stand there, horrified by the idea that your work quality is being questioned by people who you had thought of as colleagues.

Maybe the next thought is whether you really did do enough on the bit of work that you think they were talking about.

And then the spiral starts to spin.

  • Did I get something wrong?
  • Do they know something that I don’t?
  • Have they been talking to someone above us?
  • Do they think I’m going to mess up?
  • Could I lose my job because of this?
  • If I’m fired what will happen?
  • No job, no salary, no mortgage payment.
  • No house.
  • Nowhere to live.
  • No home.
  • What if my friends find out that I’ve been fired?
  • They will shun me because I’m a failure.
  • I’ll have no home and no friends.
  • My life will be shit.
  • Every bad thing that I have ever thought about myself will now have come true.

 

 

How does that happen?

Why do we spiral so fast?

We overhear one comment and spin into a wild vortex of negative thought. We can plunge from overhearing a small work slight to being completely convinced that we are about to homeless and friendless, and all that in about four seconds flat.

Why?

Evolution.

We were designed to survive, a self-protection system that has enabled us to continue as a species, to avoid extinction, and not only to survive but to thrive and become the dominant species. It is a highly evolved protection system and when it perceives a threat it goes into overdrive, scanning for other threats.

This is part of the flight, fight or freeze response that we are always hearing about. It triggers a flood of hormones into our system that allows us to fight off the enemy, to run like hell to get away from them, or to freeze because becoming completely still can put off the kind of predator that locks onto movement as it hunts.

This is going to serve us well if we’re walking down the street and someone runs at us with a knife. Primal survival systems will kick in and serve us well, pumping adrenalin into the system to fight or flee. They do not serve us so well when the brain reads something as a threat that is not actually a threat. It is a misread, but it will go on checking obsessively, just to make sure that what it misread as a threat really isn’t one, and it will go on and on checking.

This obsessive checking is the negative spiral.

The overheard criticism does not actually threaten our life, but it does have the power to jeopardise our fragile self-image. So our evolutionary reaction reads it as an actual threat and it keeps checking and checking again, sending out another negative thought, and then another, assessing, checking, checking again to try and work out the threat level. The overheard comments twists from what was actually heard into being something that has the apparent potential to rob us of our livelihood and well-being. It has been assessed as having the potential to end in a worse case scenario that we need to be prepared for.

Except for one thing.

It is based on no actual evidence.

It is simply evolution in overdrive.

This pattern of negative thought has the potential to stop us in our tracks and to trigger mounting anxiety. Both of these are irrational responses but they feel very real as we experience them—very, very real.

How can we stop it?

We can’t stop negative thinking, but we can be aware of it happening.

If we can see what is going on we have the opportunity to choose not to engage with it as it spirals down.

The first reaction to an overheard criticism might be shock, followed by a thought such as, ‘What is this based on, where does this come from?’

That is a good stopping point.

The rest of the negative downward spiral may keep on going but we can acknowledge what is happening.

Meanwhile there is the chance to stop at the first reaction, as in ‘What was this criticism based on?’

At this point we can start checking. In a way it is like the old journalism rule:  check your sources.

Check your sources

Just those three words—simple, yes, easy no.

It means acknowledging the nature of negative thought, and the speed with which it can plunge us into despair, fear, anxiety, depression, but those three words allow us to step back, to ask ‘what is this based on?’

Let’s apply it to the downward spiral of the example:

  1. In the face of this overheard criticism, do I trust the people I overheard? Check this on what you already know and understand about these people.
  2. If they are not known as stirrers or office gossips, why am I reacting this way? It is because you didn’t do enough diligence on the work they were talking about? Are they are in some way right and do I need to own up to myself about this? Check what can be done to remedy the situation and that is within your power to do. .
  3. Did I get something wrong? Check this based on the work that you did, and what you were asked to do.
  4. Have they been talking to someone above me? Check whether this is really something that is possible, or is this now tipping into irrational thinking based on mounting anxiety.
  5. Do they think I am going to mess up? Check whether this is based on a fear of whether you are actually going to mess up, or is it your habit to always be anxious about work that you have responsibility for?
  6. Could I lose my job as a result of this? Check whether this is actually possible in relation to the expectation of this particular piece of work. Is this really a fireable offence? If you think it is, what is this based this on?
  7. If I am fired I will have no salary? Again check, but now in a physical way. Stop, take a breath—not just in the conceptual way, but an actual slow breath, in and out. In the space created by one breath, notice the downward spiral, the speed at which it is spinning.
  8. No salary, no mortgage payment? Keep checking, in the knowledge that this spiral is spinning, and that you need to keep stepping back from it because it serves no purpose.
  9. Keep taking a breath, another breath, stepping back in the moment that just one breath gives you.
  10. Try not to underestimate or undermine the moment of perspective that one breath can give you.
  11. Know that the momentary perspective will very quickly be undermined by the weight of negative thinking.
  12. Try to find a way to trust the tiny moments of perspective.
  13. Keep checking.
  14. Keep breathing.

Simple. Not Easy.

There it is—a response to negative thinking. It is very easy to write. It is even quite easy to think about, but it is very hard to do. It takes a lot of practice, and the courage to just show up and challenge the negative spiral as it starts, rather than taking the painfully more familiar path of following the spiral down.

The irony is that this flips right back to the previous post and means rising to the challenge of saying ‘no’ to the negative, cruelly persuasive thinking pattern.

It starts with the first check, the first challenge.

 

Rejection

‘No!’.

This is not a word that we are particularly good at using well.

And it’s not the one we want to hear, at least most of the time.

Of course there are the times when we skew a question because we actually want to get a ‘no’, as in something along the lines of ‘Are you going to yell at me now?’, but this is not about that version of it.

Most of us are not much good at saying ‘no’ when we most need to.

Version One

‘Would you like to have a coffee?’ asks a man or woman we’ve been talking to. This usually happens in a situation where there is no choice—classic examples being conferences, enforced office socialising, the long-postponed neighbourhood meeting about recycling. The common theme here is that we probably don’t want to be there.

Every cell in our body is screaming ‘no’, but we smile, make a vague excuse, the ‘that sounds nice, but…’ kind, and then we think it’s over.

We think he or she will move on, quietly we hope, but we realise that they are waiting for a time and date. Somehow the vague excuse has been re-interpreted as a ‘yes’.

We now have about a second to choose whether we are going to find a good way to be less vague about our excuse (is there ever a good way?), or we go along with it, working on the basis of, ‘oh, it’s only about an hour of my life, how can it hurt?’

Is any of that at all familiar?

Version Two

We have been standing in the doorway of a room full of people. Actually we have probably been longing to be invisible because this is uncomfortable for us. That is another understatement—this is painful, both physically and mentally.  More than almost anything else, this is not something that we ever want to be doing, but we felt we had to test ourselves. We agreed to go, even though the people, the committee, organisation, or whoever it is that asked us, has no idea of the kind of disabling anxiety that crowds of people induces in us.

We are confronted by a wall of noise, a heaving mass of fear-inducing people, and every instinct tells us to flee, to go and find a quiet, dark place where we can curl up and hide. There may only seem be a few people in the room to someone else, but to us this is terrifying.

And then someone smiles at us—a lifeline, a welcome. We edge towards them, tentatively, and they are still smiling. We override the voices screaming at us to leave, and we approach.

We ask a question, horrified by how stupid it sounds, even as we ask.

But they reply, still smiling.

They are speaking to us, and it does not seem so bad. We know we are sweating but they don’t seem to have noticed, and even if they have, they are being kind enough not to show it.

We relax a little.

A while later we are still talking. For the first time for a long time we feel something that to us is so unfamiliar that we almost miss it.

Is it a tiny flicker of confidence?

Can we, could we, do we dare?

How bad will it be if they say ‘no’?

Maybe with this new, unfamiliar chink of courage the idea of ‘no’ doesn’t seem so bad. If they say ‘no’ it could be that they are just busy, or going on somewhere else.

That wouldn’t be so bad would it?

They say ‘yes’.

We can’t quite believe it.

And now a whole new arena of anxiety opens up, fraught with every social agony that has ever eaten into our sleepless nights.

Every ‘what if?’ rears its ugly, leering head, taunting us with the possibility of failure.

We are frozen to the spot by panic.

Why we don’t do it well

Let’s go back to the beginning, and to our reasons for being bad at saying ‘no’ in ways that are honest and thoughtful.

This is about turning down a situation rather than rejecting the person, this person in front of us, who seems so nervous.

We are designed by evolution to leverage situations that make us feel superior. Being asked to do something that we don’t really want to do plays into this, as in the idea that we are superior because we are being asked, and we don’t want to go. What can follow is a sense that this means we are desirable, and so, whether we mean to or not, we think of the other person as being less desirable than we are.

  1. Do not trust this sliding scale of desirability because it works on a purely evolutionary basis. The person that evolution thinks you should breed with may be good for a one-night stand with a higher chance of impregnation, but this primal arousal is a very poor indicator of whether the other person is actually someone you would want to spend time with, outside of the rutting season.
  2. We don’t want to offend or hurt people by saying ‘no’, or that is what we tell ourselves. Actually the truth is usually closer to the idea that we do not want to say ‘no’ because we might then be judged as not a likeable, or indeed desirable person.
  3. We simply don’t know how to say ‘no’, for any number of reasons that would require a bucketful of posts around confidence, self-esteem, early damage, the list goes on… (plenty of earlier posts on all of the above.)

Is there a better way to do this?

Let’s take both points of view.

First: the person who was asked for coffee, and who failed to say ‘no’.

  1. When in this sort of situation, an emotional subtlety is to really look at the person who is asking. What about considering about how hard it might have been for them to ask the question about having coffee?
  2. If we find it difficult to say ‘no’, why is this? How honest can we be with ourselves about why we don’t want to say ‘no’? Again the bucketful of possible reasons comes into play.
  3. Do we become irritated in these sorts of situations and simply find it easier to say ‘yes’ because trying to find a polite and honest way of saying ‘no’ seems too hard.
  4. Did we just never learn to say ‘no’ for yet another bucket load of reasons?
  5. Do we just need to start learning to say ‘no’? And if so, should we start practicing. Now.

Second: the person who asked the question.

  1. When summoning up the courage to ask this sort of question do we really look at the person we are about to ask, or is the moment too nerve-wracking to be able to actually look up?
  2. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by being unrealistic in asking someone who is probably going to say ‘no’?
  3. And if so, is this because there is a part of us that wants to get a ‘no’ because this plays into our sense of ourselves as being someone who just gets turned down by everyone, who will never find it easy to make friends, who is destined to be alone.
  4. If we do have this doomed sense that we will always be alone do we know where this stems from? How well do we understand our own patterns of negative thinking? (And this is going to be the next blog posting…)

So this is what it comes down to two questions: asking ourselves why we can’t say ‘no’ when we should, and also asking ourselves why we ask for something when we know the answer is going to be ‘no’. And there is nothing wrong with that second one, as in asking, even against the odds. Sometimes people are surprising and say ‘yes’ when we assumed they were going to say ‘no’. Sometimes they say ‘yes’ because they are simply impressed that we have had the balls to ask. And sometimes they say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’, and so back we go to the beginning.

In short, we have to take responsibility for the misunderstandings caused by saying ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. And we have to be frank with ourselves about how much we will be affected by a ‘no’ in reply to a question.

‘No’ is not a rejection of who we are. It is a rejection of one question.

‘Yes’ is easier to say than ‘no’ and so we keep finding ourselves in these messes that we then have to dig ourselves out of, usually feeling increasingly resentful as we do.

This is beginning to go around in circles when much of this comes down to one thing, where this began—most of us need to practice saying ‘no’ to others, and perhaps more importantly, to ourselves.

Numb or Raw—the pain of feeling nothing or everything

It was an odd argument, except that it wasn’t one—it probably just sounded that way—animated, two bodies leaning in towards each other, engaged, buzzing, hands waving, freighted silences as the right words were scrabbled for. We were like dogs digging in sand, ideas flying, making a lot of mess.

The subject: feeling nothing as against feeling everything.

To those sitting beside us it may well have sounded tub-thumpingly earnest. But how can you not be hand-wavingly consumed when examining whether it is more humanly painful to feel nothing or everything?

We were talking about young men stuck in claustrophobic refugee camps. They may have escaped from violence, but many of them see a return to it as the only option for their future. Some see the only way out of their numb isolation as joining a band of brothers, brothers-in-arms, with guns, by continuing the killing.

That’s the extreme version, but let’s bring this out of the over-topical refugee camp situation, and into the rest of life, all life.

Numb or raw

When something shatters us, a sudden death, illness, divorce, loss, or it can be a more existential splintering—a sense that everything that once meant something no longer has meaning, there is a wide range of immediate reactions. How we first react to devastation often dictates how we will absorb the psychological battering that we are going through, and how we will find our way back from it. Out of this wide range of initial reactions, this post is about two: numbness and hyper-sensitivity, as in feeling nothing or feeling everything.

The numbness can be loosely explained in part as being the loss of empathy. Something so huge has happened, or is being experienced, that it’s as though there is no spare human space to be able to sense or imagine how anyone else can be feeling. Your pain, your experience, has overtaken everything else. In the extreme version, the disempowered young refugee, it can manifest in an apparent ‘f*** you world, you’ve f***ed with me, so now I’m going to f*** with you’. So, picking up the gun, becoming part of a radicalised and armed group might seem the only thing left that can cut through the numbness. Or there is suicide—that other kind of killing.

How ugly is this paradox: that only taking away other lives or suicide are perceived as having any sense of meaning?

This is a nuclear form of numbness.

From both sides

For you, for me, for the young man in the camp, what does that numbness actually feel like?

To those around the numbness it can come across as extreme selfishness, a kind of inexplicable level of self-indulgence that causes offence, frustration, hurt and anger, the ‘I don’t know who you are any more’ variety.

To the one who is numb there is only an experience of utter aloneness that is unimaginable if it has not been experienced. It is perhaps too rinsed down, but it does so often come down to that one-liner, ‘no-one understands me’. This is simply how it feels, that no other human being can begin to understand this pain.

On the opposite side, feeling everything is a raw, over-exposed, wincing, cowering, wounded animal experience. The sound of a firework becomes a bomb blast, a soft warm wind holds the threat of becoming a tornado, a puppy’s whelping cry sounds like the end of all life, a mobile on vibrate in someone else’s bag becomes a personal attack. The nervous system seems to have lost a layer of protection, no, more than one—it’s as though several layers of emotional skin have been ripped away. The closest I can get is that it is like living in a glass room where all the walls are constantly shattering.

If it is you

How should we react to this numbness or rawness if it is happening to us?

Some of us want to be saved from it.

And some don’t.

The second line is misleading. It can seem that those in pain don’t want to be saved, or to save themselves, but asking for help can feel harder than living with the agony.

That is the cruellest part of this because there is nothing—almost nothing that anyone can do from the outside to influence this decision. A hormonal surge, or a chemical one, a tiny human shift in a split second, can be all that it takes to make the decision. For one is might be to join a killing machine group, or it might be suicide. And then there is there is another decision, a radically different one, the enormous human choice to do something to change your relationship with yourself.

It will almost always come down to a single act of courage, one that is made with the partial realisation of how hard it will be to walk back into the world of real feelings, ones that we will have to take responsibility for.

And if it is not you

If you are the one on the outside, wanting to help but unsure how to, what can you do then?

I put ‘almost nothing’ earlier, as in there is almost nothing that can be done from the outside, but what does that ‘almost nothing’ mean?

If you are the one standing in the pain shadow of someone you love or care about, it means being able to hear and understand when they are asking for help. Sometimes it comes out arse-about. It can sound aggressive, or loaded with criticism and hurt. For you this means side-stepping the insults while trying to see the anger for what it is, and the pain that fuelled it. If you know the person well it can mean learning to read between the lines, becoming an interpreter of anger or monosyllabic answers. It can mean something as basic as going for a walk with them, without talking about the problem—just allowing them to feel normal for a bit.

You do not have to save anyone, but another sort of courage is needed—the kind that means you just have to be in the room with the person who is numb or raw. By just being there it can allow them to feel safe enough for a human miracle to happen—the decision to save their own life.

The Divided Self – the inner civil war that we wage

Just to clear up an important point, by divided I don’t mean those mental agonies that gets whacked with labels beginning with bi-, split-, schiz- or borderline-something-or-other.

I want to look at another divide that can and does happen deep within our core.

We all have a greater vision of ourselves, the one that most of us are too wary to voice because we’re afraid that it will sound too showy-off—a case of inflated magical thinking. And this is not the version of ourselves that’s about fame, fortune or power—the ones about starting the unstartable start-up, or running a town, a state, or a country. It is not the ambition to be regarded as the greatest of your generation, the brightest, the best, the richest, fastest, sexiest, kindest, prettiest, or even the meanest or cruellest.

It isn’t any of these.

This is the version of ourselves that stems from the core beliefs that we hold, the integrity that resides far enough inside that sometimes we forget that it is even there. These are internalised convictions. Some of them may have been inherited or, by contrast, formed in reaction to the belief systems or religion that we were born into. Others may have formed slowly, little by little through study or practice, by seeking out something that gave us a sense of meaning or purpose. Some may have been fire-branded into us in a single moment, a lightening strike of truth experienced in the face of death, violence, birth, joy, or sadness. Whatever the route to these beliefs that are, in their very essence, our very personal sense of what is right, and what is wrong.

That is the centre of self that I am trying to describe, the one that is our ethical foundation. It is that ‘still small voice’ that tries to speak to us when we know we are about to do something that we do not believe in, that we know is wrong, and yet we justify it. We tell ourselves that we have no choice; that we will lose our job, our relationship, or our position in society, if we do not do this thing that the core of us knows is wrong. It is the same quiet voice that also tells us the right thing to do, and yet we ignore it, or override it with the loud noise of justification.

This separation from the self has the capacity to destroy us. Sometimes it happens slowly, one small transgression against self at a time. Or it can happen in a second of fractured time—a trigger pulled, a button pressed, a sentence yelled, a dream crushed, love trampled, innocence destroyed.

The greater the separation, the harder the journey is back to the self.

If it’s been just a few mean things said to friend in a moment of jealousy, then it’s not that hard to fold up the ego and apologise, with that true sense of ‘I am sorry’. But if the divorce from the ethical core has been huge, played out from a position of power, one from which lives were destroyed, the deaths of countless and faceless people ordered or enacted, how can any human being find their way back from that? Is redemption possible, as in a return to an earlier sense of self, the one that once had a cleaner understanding of what was right and where wrong began?

To strip this right back: if we do things that we know are wrong, and contrary to what we believe in, we lose ourselves.

Once we are beginning to get lost it takes a very particular kind of courage to face the truth of this.

And with this realisation comes another moment of bravery, the one when we reach out for help because we know that we are lost and we’re not sure if we can find the way back alone.

All of this runs into the dangerous territory of sounding preachy. It is not intended to be.

Within my own experience and work this just keeps leaping out as a major aspect of mental health that is rarely talked about. I’m not sure if, in part, this might be because it is a form of hard won empowerment—that of taking personal responsibility. This is something that can fly in the face of the prescription pad and indeed some of the mainstream therapeutic methods. I just do not really see that any therapeutic healing and recovery journey can be made without this link back to our inner value system and sense of purpose.

With it comes an aspect of control and responsibility for our own lives, and so of course it is something that I champion.

Shame

Why don’t we ask for help?

I want to tell you about shame.

It is like sea mist, rolling in silently, obscuring us from the world and the world from us. Shame clings, pervading and invading, blinding our ability to know what is true and what is not. Shame has been used throughout history to destroy individuals, groups, even whole societies by isolating themselves with its stigma.

I will tell two stories about shame, one is a tapestry, the other a true story.

One

A young man was given a talent that set him a part from others, a creative sensitivity that enabled him to create magical worlds so elaborate that it was impossible not to look at his pictures and be drawn into the scenes that he conjured up. His pictures transported people, reminding them of the better versions of themselves, the ones in which they did the right thing, and stood up for what they believed in.

The young man was lauded and applauded for his wild and tender portrayals of human frailty, family life, and love.

Only the young man knew that the great driving force of his creativity was his terror of being cut off from the very things that made his creative heart beat. He believed that this could really actually happen because he was hiding something from everyone he loved.

He adored his uncle, his father’s younger brother. While his father was a carefully studious and dutiful man, his uncle was wild and fun. He made up stories that made the world seem better, more exciting, a place where everything was possible.

The young man was this uncle’s favourite nephew. He once told the boy that as long as they were friends everything would be well in the world. The boy wrote this down so that he would not forget. He drew around the words, until the whole page was filled with the magic that he had felt in his uncle’s words.

When the young man was eleven his uncle forgot his birthday. He was furious. It was so important. How could his favourite uncle forget something that mattered so much to him? He hated his uncle for this failure and imagined beating him with his fists until his uncle cried out in pain.

Three days later the now twelve-year-old boy’s father told him that his uncle had been killed in a fight.

The boy believed it was his fault. He believed that had caused his uncle’s death.

Shame crept in over him like sea fog, hiding him from the world and the world from him.

Now this young man can only connect with the world through the pictures he creates of the world his uncle made him believe in.

He still believes that he is responsible for his uncle’s death.

He still believes that if his family knew the story they would cast him out from their lives.

Two

A woman lives in a place where extended families still live together. There is an expression there, a threat that ‘every girl will lose her virginity to her uncle’. When the woman was ten years old it was not her uncle but her cousin who took her virginity. He was twenty-one.

The clearest memory she has of the first time was seeing her school bag hanging over the chair where she had just left it. She remembers staring at it, imagining the books inside, her homework, separating her mind from what was being done to her body.

Her cousin went on abusing her until she reached puberty, and then he stopped. The girl had already closed down in so many ways, and when the abuse ended, she stopped speaking as well.

She believed that no-one could ever understand. She did not know how to ask for help. She was ashamed that she had never cried out when he was touching her, forcing himself into her. She could not make sense of anything that she was feeling.

Shame fogged her whole world so that she could no longer find any words to express how she was feeling. Numbness followed.

When she was sixteen her younger sister was ten. She knew that her cousin had started to abuse her sister because she recognised the blankness in her eyes, the disconnection. And still she could not find any words.

The shame was so strong by now that she would pass out, sometimes for up to an hour, and still she could not ask for help.

 

One of these people does not exist—they are a conflation of a thousand people, a hundred thousand people melded into a one, a human plea imploring others to ask for help. The other has agreed to let me tell their story because they tried to kill themself as this was the only way they could imagine escaping from the agony of the shame.

Societies have codified shame, but individuals compound it. We create the stories that we tell ourselves, stigmatising ourselves, fogging the truth—that an adored uncle just got into to fight, that childhood sexual abuse is the fault of the abuser, not the abused, not the child.

This is why reaching out for help when lost in the fog is the most important thing to do, because someone, and something will guide the way out of the shame.

The loneliness of alone

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Why is being alone so hard for so many?

When someone crashes mentally it feels as though they are in a living death that no-one else can have experienced, a torture that only that particular person can be suffering. There is a truth to this sense of a totally separate experience because each of us breaks down for a slightly different mix of reasons, and each of us then experiences what feels to be a highly individualised mix of hellish symptoms.

There are common elements in this cruel mix of misery: sleep disturbance, or wanting to sleep all the time as a form of escape; feeling unable concentrate as well as usual, if at all; emotional over-reactions to most things, or total emotional numbness; paranoia; an inability to make decisions; restlessness; greatly increased anxiety; a sense of despair of the ‘what’s the point’ variety. It is a list that goes on through every aspect of our lives, ranging from a hatred of every part of our body and mind, to a terror of everyone and everything. But I want to pick one out of this list—loneliness.

No-one understands

Among the many things that I hear over and over as people try and tell their story is the following, sometimes forced out as though even just trying to say this is another form of torture too:

‘You don’t understand…no-one understands…’

It would be patronising to put that it is as painful to hear as it is to say. That would be as disingenuous as the boss who says, ‘this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you…’ just before they fire you. But I do understand, even though I cannot say this as someone claims not to be understood. I understand as much as any human can understand the pain of another.

And as each person says this, from their particular place of pain, the subtext is, ‘I am so totally alone in this, no-one can possibly understand how alone I am.’

One of the conflicts of being human is the need sometimes to be alone and at other times to be with others. There are times when we long for space, whilst we also scared of being alone. We crave company at times, human contact, warmth and understanding, whilst, at the same time, wanting to remain unique in who we are, independent, different.

Evolution again

Evolution honed our minds to send us the continual feedback that we are unique and different, that others do not understand as we do, or experience as we do, that we are as individual as our fingerprints. Yes, we are a variation on a general human theme, but we are different, very different to everyone else. In the terms of evolutionary design this is all part of the self-protection mechanism—a constant mental tick reminding us of our separateness.

This is a fine design when all is well in our world, when this sense of differentness feels right. Yet everything changes when it is an apparently unique kind of mental suffering that is setting us apart from others, a feeling of being alone that can only be destructive. It makes us want to hide away, to curl up and into ourselves, for this pain not to be visible to anyone, to hide this shame. And yet, at the same time, we so desperately want to be heard, to be seen and understood.

So, it is in this one line, in it’s varied forms, ‘No-one can understand how I feel,’ that we make the evolutionary statement of our uniqueness and also of our very own particular kind of damage and pain. With this statement we seem to be saying that we want to hide the shame of all that is wrong with us, but that we also want to be helped. Or, I could strip it down further to this: we feel utterly alone in our pain, but we are desperate not to be alone, and we have no idea how to find our way out of the overwhelming fear of loneliness.

And loneliness has this overwhelming power because it cuts to our greatest fear—death. It links directly to the human terror of dying in pain with no-one there to witness the end of us, of all our pain, and all our joy. It is the vast fear of dying alone, unmarked, without having made any impression. It is the terror that all the pain, all the joy, meant nothing.

It is a very deep fear that overrides almost everything. As we begin to understand how deeply this fear is ingrained in us we begin to dilute its power. And so we begin to realise that being alone does not always have to tap back to that fear of death. That sometimes it just means we need to curl up for a while, as a wounded animal. Then, when we have healed a little, we can emerge again, and be amongst others without feeling alone in the crowd, isolated by our pain.

There will be a second part to this looking at why the sense of aloneness and isolation stops people from asking for help when they really need it.

Recovery

This is the third post of a series on childhood sexual abuse, examining what recovery really means. Earlier posts are here and here.

Recovery is a word that once had an almost talismanic meaning, a power that seems to have faded. It has become folded in with the easily-used jargon of what it sometimes called Recovery Inc. That is not a cheap shot but the media-dubbed term for the wide range of recovery programmes out there, everything from the broad spread of 12-Step versions to juicing detox programmes. It is a huge machine, and I am not trying to undermine it in any way. Well-known programmes save lives every day, important numbers of lives.

The point I want to make is that a lot of us now put ourselves into so-called recovery processes without actually having decided that we want to recover. It is just another process that has to be gone through, and so the power has gone out of the word.

The burning desire to really recover is where the power lies, and it is what this post is about.

We have diluted the important truth of recovery—the profound wish to return to a normal physical or mental state after, well after what? In theory it is after anything that has taken us out of the normal state. But in practice most of us don’t even start out from this odd conceptual idea of the normal state, normal meaning balanced, healthy.

What is normal?

If a child has been sexually abused, if their entire sense of themselves in the world has been defined by an early experience of this kind of human corruption, then how do they return to a normal state if they had never experienced one in the first place?

There is such a lot of media chat about all of the many and varied levels of mental disability and scarring caused by sexual abuse at any stage. But there is a certain judgement in this, with its implication that ‘we’ who are commentating are the normal ones, passing judgement on the emotionally disabled.

We are all disabled in different ways. And we all expend much of our life energy trying to hide this from others who are equally disabled. It’s not so much the blind leading the blind, as the crippled hiding from the crippled.

The risk of putting that generic point is that it could be read as sweeping us all together into the lazy and dangerous statement: ‘Oh, we’re all damaged goods, so we just have to deal with it’. No, the point of putting what I did is that the partial, or marginal damage in all of us should make us all sympathetic, indeed empathetic, to the profound wounding in those who have vast damage to take on. We should be able to admire their survival and back their recovery rather than falling back on our need to label, box, and reject the profoundly abused as ‘too hard to deal with’ in order not to have to face the underbelly of our own human condition. We don’t even realise we’re doing it, but one of the most common phrases in use is: ‘Oh, she’ll never get over that…’ as if we have almost lost our faith in our ability to recover, to heal.

Abuse controlling the story

So, recovery becomes dependent on our belief in it, in our power to heal ourselves, to take back our story. By this I mean that someone who has been sexually abused becomes controlled by their abuser, and by the story of their abuse. It gives their abuser a terrifying power that grows bigger all the time, blowing them up into figures of absolute power, and rendering the abused powerless. Recovery requires accepting and understanding the impact of these entrenched stories. It means understanding that we, the abused, the victims, have to find a way to stop our lives from being controlled by a story that happened at a point in our lives that is over.

We have to find a way to take responsibility for the truth that we are the ones still giving the story the power to control us, all day, every day.

This is a very hard truth to acknowledge, and huge support and a very dependable routine are vital in this process (this earlier post covers the five vital pillars of recovery and good mental health).

Our disabilities, our wounds, our entrenched mental stories are part of the map of who we are. To recover means finding the power to face them, fearlessly, and to accept that they are a part of who we are, the markings on our map that we have to learn to navigate. Trying to pretend that they are not there just gives them more power, the chance to lead us away from the real journey of our lives, our story, not the story of what someone else did to us. And perhaps the most important thing of all to know is that recovery is possible, and when it comes it is like being given back your life. Nothing compares to this.