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Why Logic-ing All Over Your Feelings Doesn’t Work

I walk on fire.  It’s true.  I’ve done it on three different occasions.  The first time was at a spiritual retreat in Sedona, AZ, one of the most beautiful and mystical places in the United States.  I was in the middle of trying to free myself from a relationship that was going nowhere, and I was hoping that the retreat would help me to work up the courage to leave.  It had already been an incredible weekend, full of inspiration and revelation, when the leader of the retreat announced that there would be a fire walk that night.

Initially, my reaction was that fire walking was dangerous, and there was no way I’d be participating.  However, as the women of the retreat gathered in the auditorium, and the leader of the group, HeatherAsh Amara, of Warrior Goddess Training fame, began to speak about fire-walking, I questioned my initial negativity.

She explained that as we go through life we make “agreements” with ourselves and the world.  For instance, most of us agree that it isn’t OK to walk into other people’s houses without being invited, and it isn’t OK to take things that don’t belong to us.  These agreements shape how we interact with people in our lives, and also how we interact with ourselves.  One of the first agreements we make as humans, HeatherAsh explained, is that fire is hot–don’t touch.  By breaking that early agreement, it calls all later agreements into question–the agreements about who we are, about our relationships with others, and our relationships with ourselves.  

“Oh,” I thought.  “I need to do that.”

After signing a release form agreeing that I understood I was about to walk on fire, I followed the rest of the women out into the Sedona night, dancing, chanting and clapping along with the beat of a drum.  Eventually we arrived at the fire walk site, and a heap of glowing red coals–all that was left of a great bonfire that burned all that day.  The fire keepers raked the coals out into a pathway where they twinkled like little red stars.

Filled with a mixture of desire and trepidation, I watched as several other women went through the fire.  They seemed to come through unscathed, and several of the women were actually dancing through the coals!

If they could do it, I could too.  So, I screwed up my courage, approached the end of the glowing pathway, lifted my chin in defiance of my old agreement, and stepped out into the fire.  For a second it was OK, and then it hit me.  My feet were burning.  I couldn’t go back.  I had to go through.  So, I hopped and swore the rest of the way through the burning pathway and slunk back into the circle of women around the fire, feeling like a spiritual failure.

My feet stung, and so did my pride.  How were people going through the fire multiple times?  How did they look so happy?  Apparently I wouldn’t be able to break that first agreement that night, but I didn’t know why.

Several years later, I went to another of HeatherAsh’s Warrior Goddess retreats.  This time in Teotihuacan, Mexico.  It was an incredible week of ritual and fellowship, and I was about as happy as I get when HeatherAsh announced that there would be a fire walk that night.  My chest and stomach tightened around the memory of the blistered feet and the humiliation of the time before.  There was no way I was going through that again.

We all gathered in a circle to discuss fire walking.  As I listened to the veteran fire walkers discuss their experiences, I realized a commonality in their stories.  They all spoke about how they felt the moment that the fire invited them in.  Several of them said it was like a door opened for them.  One woman said it was like she got a green light from the fire, and she knew she could go.  I realized I had gone about it all wrong.  I had been approaching the fire with a logical mind instead of an open heart, and that was why I’d been burned.

Western society encourages this logic approach as the best one–the one that makes sense.  People that approach life with emotional openness and intuition are often laughed at for their “naivety.”  However, I believe this extreme preference for logic takes us out of balance with our own emotions and with all of the things that exist in the world that cannot be measured, but are still worth having, like love, kindness, compassion, respect, and connection.

In my work with patients, I often see them tortured by their need to logic all over their depression or their anxiety.  They search for the meaning behind their inability to get out of bed, or their fear of leaving their homes.  They tell me that they can out-think their sadness, simply by looking on the bright side of life, but then they despair that all of their efforts toward positive thinking feel false and make the depression worse.

The truth is that the parts of our brains that feel, and the parts of our brains that create logic are completely different.  When our brains create sadness, there is no logic to it because no logic exists in that part of the brain.  The sadness comes up of its own accord. The same goes for anxiety, gratitude, love, anger–the entire range of human emotion.

When my patients try to logic all over their feelings, I try to gently redirect them back to the feelings themselves.  The truth is that logically explaining the feelings doesn’t actually help very often.  Sometimes, the explanations only deepen the sadness or the fear or the anger.  Emotions are like little children that are asking for attention.  The more that we ignore them, or talk to them in ways that they don’t understand through logic, the more they clamor for our attention.  It is only by embracing them and telling them that it is going to be OK–that they are safe–that they are comforted and quiet down.

In the same way, rather than pushing feelings aside, I encourage you to sit down, acknowledge them by name and tell them that they are safe.  Saying, “Hello fear, I see you.  You’re safe and I’m going to be with you for as long as you need me,” is truly the only way to get emotions back on track.  Pushing feelings away or stuffing them down doesn’t make them leave, it only makes them find another way out into the open, often through physical illness or unjustified cruelty towards those we love.

That night in Teotihuacan, when I approached the twinkling pathway of fire, I opened my heart to it.  I said to the fire, “I’m here with you, and I’ll wait until you tell me you’re ready.”  Instead of going in because my logical mind told me that other people were doing it, so it must be safe, I waited to be invited.  Those of you still in logical mind are probably thinking that fire can’t invite, but you’re wrong.

My friend, Jamie, approached me as I stood beside the fire, waiting for my invitation, and asked me if I wanted her to go through with me.  I was just starting to feel the call of the fire, but it was faint and I still wasn’t sure, so I told her to wait a moment.  Then, maybe five minutes later, I felt it–an overwhelming need to go into the fire.  I ran over to Jamie and said, “Now!”  She didn’t even flinch.  She grabbed my hand and we walked into the fire together.  I screamed all the way across the coals, but instead of the blistering horror of the fire in Sedona, the fire in Teotihuacan felt cool and welcoming.  

It was incredible.  I was completely unscathed, and I was so elated that I went back through the fiery pathway five or six more times.  Afterward, my feet were dirty, but I didn’t have even one blister.

I encourage you to approach yourself as I did the fire–with openness and kindness.  Give your emotions the attention that they deserve and I promise you that they will invite you in, and you will walk through the fire unscathed.

 

 

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Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.

 

Are the “Bugs” in Your Life Trying to Help you Let Go of What You’re Holding On To?

I had my heart cruelly broken at the end of 2018, and spent all of January 2019 sick in bed, and I’m positive that the two are related.  While I eventually became physically well enough to work, go grocery shopping, and clean my house, I performed these tasks with only my body.  My mind was off trying to alternately figure out how I could have chosen so poorly, and also what was wrong with me.  Maybe you can relate.

As I cycled through the stages of grief again and again, I looked for ways to heal myself.  One of my go to strategies is to make myself super busy, so I started taking piano and Spanish lessons.  That was helpful, and I’m a more accomplished person now as a result, but I was still a complete emotional wreck.  I needed something more.

One morning I was scrolling through my email and got a message from the universe in the form of an email from HeatherAsh Amara, a spiritual teacher that I follow, inviting me to join a trip to Teotihuacan, Mexico, a place I’d wanted to go since my high school Spanish teacher showed us photos of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon located in the Teotihuacan complex.  I opened the email.

Here’s HeatherAsh Amara’s website for more information on what she has to offer: HeatherAsh Amara’s website.

If you’ve never heard of Teotihuacan before, please look it up, because the photos will blow your mind.  It’s a pre-Colombian pyramid complex northeast of Mexico City with three beautifully preserved pyramids along what’s known as the Avenue of the Dead.  As I read the description of the trip, my heart spoke up and said, “I want to go there!”  Since it was the first time my heart had said anything except, “I hurt” in months, I pulled out my credit card and booked the trip.

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because Teotihuacan turned out to be powerful medicine for my grief.  Every day at the pyramid complex felt like I’d been transported to another world so majestic that my heartache seemed petty and unimportant.  I climbed to the top of both pyramids, descended into the Temple of the Butterflies, and bonded with an incredible group of women, but there is one experience that I particularly want to share with you today.

Each day, we all gathered and walked out to the pyramid complex for ritual.  On this particular day, the instructions were to walk the grounds gathering stones.  Each stone was to represent a loss.  I didn’t know yet what we were going to do with these stones, but I had losses and I was ready to represent them. So, I went out and, with the determination that I give to most tasks, gathered two heaping handfuls of stones.  Then I went to the assigned meeting point and waited for the others to finish their task.

The only other woman at the meeting place was the co-leader of the group, Emily Grieves, who has an amazing personal story and is an incredible painter.  Here’s her website for more information: Emily Grieves’ Website.

Feeling a little bit shy and star-struck, I said hello to her, but then waited quietly for the rest of the group to arrive.

The longer I stood still in the sun, sweating, the more bugs began to take interest in me.  When a particularly nasty bug landed on my arm and bit me, I jumped, dropped all of the stones in one hand and swatted the bug.  With the danger over, I sighed and proceeded to try to identify and re-gather the stones that I’d been holding on to. Emily Grieves watched me, saying nothing.

When another, even more enormous and hideous bug landed on my other arm, I dropped my stones and swatted it away again.  This time, however, instead of staying silent as I began to pick my stones back up, Emily said, “Maybe those bugs are trying to help you let go.”

I froze.

What an incredible idea!  I looked around myself at the swarm of bugs, then at my empty  hand, and then at the stones strewn around my feet and thought, “Maybe the bugs ARE trying to help me let go.”

Then, just as I’d decided not to gather those losses back to myself, the biggest blue-green dragonfly I’ve ever seen circled my head a couple of times and flew away.

I looked at Emily Grieves and said, “Did you see that dragonfly?”

She smiled and said, “Yes.  I did.  Dragonflies symbolize illusion.”

Then I had the epiphany.

All of those stones–all of those losses–they were just illusion anyway.  I had been holding on to those stones waiting for someone to give me permission to let them go in the proper way, but those losses were in the past and they could only touch my present if I continued to hold onto them.  

Now, I would love to tell you that I put the rest of those stones down and was immediately and miraculously healed of my broken heart, but that wouldn’t be true.  What is true is that I changed my mind that day, and it was the beginning of true healing.

Now, my question for you is this: Are there bugs in your life that are trying to help you let go of your stones?  

They may look like annoying problems, but perhaps they’re trying to show you that what you’ve been holding on to is only an illusion that is keeping you from seeing the reality of your life unfolding in this present moment.

For instance, maybe your difficult boss is the “bug” that is trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that you need this particular job even though you don’t like it, and by letting go of that illusion you could move into more fulfilling and meaningful work.  Or, perhaps, that difficult partner is the “bug” that’s trying to show you that you’ve been holding on to the illusion that this is the relationship for you, and by letting that go you could either grow more fully into your relationship with yourself, or move into a healthier partnership.

When I realized that the bugs were telling me to let go of the illusion that the relationship I’d lost was the one for me, my relationship with myself blossomed so beautifully that I’m not only still taking piano and Spanish lessons, I started a blog and a podcast and wrote a book.  

Perhaps if you let go of that thing that you’re trying to force, you’ll find that you bloom in new and wonderful ways.  I encourage you to give yourself that chance.

Radical Acceptance: Accepting Reality as it is, Not as We Wish it to Be

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.  It’s sometimes even harder to understand how people make decisions that hurt others and find ways to justify them.  It’s been a trying time for America.  A pandemic, a quarantine, racial injustice and civil unrest, among many other issues have left people wondering what’s next.  Although I’ve joked with people about what terrible thing could possibly happen next, (zombie apocalypse, perhaps?) the joking is mostly to cover up a lot of concern.

On a more micro level, things have been happening in my workplace that directly affect me and my ability to appropriately care for my patients.  Management justifies these decisions because of COVID-19 social distancing and the financial impact of the shutdown.  While I understand that these are real concerns, I also find myself in a state of resistance against decisions that I have no control over and can’t change.  

In conversations with friends, family and clients, it seems to me that many people are finding this same state of resistance, confusion, and sometimes even outrage over how things are.  Outrage can be a trap.  It wants to be fed with more outrage.  So people watch  the news, check social media, and actively look for more things to be outraged about.  Feeding the emotion creates an illusion that one is doing something about these problems, but it’s a lie.  Without some outward action, feeding the outrage is only stealing your sense of calm and well-being.

There is a beautiful equation about acceptance that I would like to share with you (this is as math-ish as I get):

Emotional Pain + Acceptance = Decreased Suffering

OR

Emotional Pain + Non-Acceptance = Increased Suffering

This is known as the Radical Acceptance equation, and it describes a great truth: being in a state of non-acceptance increases the suffering of a bad situation.  You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between emotional pain and suffering.  I see it as a question of duration.  Emotional pain is something that is simply a part of the human experience.  When we have losses, we hurt.  However, suffering happens when we feed the emotional pain and keep it around for longer than we have to.

There are many ways to be in a state of non-acceptance.  Sometimes people will cycle through different variations of non-acceptance for years after a loss.  Non-acceptance includes denial, anger, fighting the truth, outrage, frustration.  As we cycle through these emotions, they feed our suffering.

Acceptance, on the other hand, brings a different attitude to a situation: I don’t like what is happening, but I accept that it is true.  Acceptance does not mean that you condone awful situations.  It doesn’t mean that you like it, or that you are in a state of resignation and won’t do anything to work on the problem.  It simply means that you’re facing reality as it is instead of denying it or fighting against it.

Coming to a state of acceptance allows you to take the next step toward working on the problem.  It’s impossible to make meaningful change in a situation that you haven’t even accepted as truth.

I’m not saying this is easy.  It’s actually quite difficult.  I’ve been finding myself in a state of anger and resistance quite a bit lately, and I’ve watched others go through their process of accepting the truth of what is happening in the world with varying levels of success.  Radical acceptance is a process and a practice.  It may be that you work toward accepting a situation and then something else terrible happens, and you have to start all over.  It’s frustrating, but it’s the place to begin.

Here’s an example that most of us can relate to.  One day you wake up and look in the mirror and realize that you’re not happy with your body.  Perhaps you’ve indulged a bit too much lately.  OK.  Now you have a choice.  You can deny that your body has reached a place where you need to make changes and continue on the path that you’re already on, but how does that help you?  That just leads to more discomfort with your body.  It is only through accepting the fact that your body has gotten to an uncomfortable weight that you can make a choice to begin a diet or an exercise program, or both.

I’m sure that you have already started thinking of situations in your life that you might apply radical acceptance to.  That’s great.  Try it out and see how it shifts things for you.  I know that coming to a place of acceptance always eases the pain and frustration in my own heart and opens me up to take positive actions for change.  I’m sure it can do the same for you.

For more information, I recommend the book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach Link.  There are also some wonderful Radical Acceptance resources, like some meditations, on Tara Brach’s page Tara Brach’s Website.

How to Combat the Stress of Isolation through the GRAPES Approach to Self Care

This has been a hard morning.  I woke up with a headache after a night of fitful sleep and bad dreams.  Everything seems to be going wrong.  A good friend of mine is moving away.  My job is changing in ways that make me question whether it continues to be a viable way for me to make a living, and my apartment seems to get smaller and lonelier every day.

COVID-19 quarantine is exhausting, and yet I have grave concerns about the possible health ramifications of re-opening.  There’s an odd push-pull in my heart as to which direction we should go.

Yesterday was a big social day for me by 2020 standards.  I saw two friends and got my first haircut since the pandemic began, which felt AMAZING!

After the haircut, I met my friend, Jessica, at the mall and we had dinner together.  The restaurant was seating people every other table so that there was a lot of space between us.  The waiter wore a mask, so we couldn’t see her face.  She gave us a disposable paper menu and a pencil to mark our orders, and asked us to deposit the menu on a tray at the table next to us instead of taking our orders directly.  It was a strangely isolating dining experience.  After eating, Jessica and I were planning to do some shopping, but we found that the stores were all closed by 7:30pm–a situation we hadn’t been expecting.

When I got home, I felt depleted, and went to bed early even though I had things that I’d planned to accomplish before sleeping–like writing this blog post!  It was exciting to go out into the world again after months of quarantine, and yet the world’s jarring strangeness made me sad.

As I lay in bed wanting to sleep, but too overwhelmed to do so, I started thinking about the nature of isolation.

We’ve been sheltering in place for months for the health of the community for months, but isolation is so difficult and painful for human beings that it is often used as punishment.  

  • Children are sent to their rooms or to time out when they have misbehaved.
  • People get banished when their behavior is so poor that the community can’t tolerate them anymore.
  • Inmates are placed in solitary confinement when they act out.

I think that this isolation has felt a lot like punishment for many, which explains some of the weird ways in which people have reacted.

Isolation can lead to depression and anxiety, which can lead to more depression and anxiety in a self-sustaining feedback loop.  In this climate of fear, many people have developed varying degrees of agoraphobia–the fear of leaving the house–and with good reason.

However, depression and anxiety aren’t the only possible negative effects of isolation.  There are serious physical health problems caused by isolation as well.  

According to the article, “Social Isolation Negatively Affects Mental and Physical Health–Here’s What You Can Do to Stay Healthy,” by Kelly Burch, social isolation can lead to cognitive decline, heart problems and a weakened immune system.  It can also cause a 30% increase in the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.  

Social isolation negatively affects mental and physical health — here’s what you can do to stay healthy by Kelly Burch

The culprit here is stress.  When people are stressed, their bodies secrete adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that tell their nervous systems that they are in danger.  The nervous system then tries to save the body by telling it to run, fight or freeze.  This is a completely involuntary reaction, like breathing.  If we were being chased by lions, this response would probably save our lives, and then when we were safe again, our bodies would go back to normal.

However, in the case of isolation, there isn’t any physical threat to run from, so the stress never dissipates, and our bodies constantly think that we’re in danger, keeping us flooded with fight or flight hormones.

It’s not too difficult to understand why a constant state of fight or flight could lead to anxiety.  It’s a little more complicated, though, with physical damage to body.  In essence, what happens is that our bodies conserve the energy that they would be spending on repairs to our heart walls or stomach linings in a relaxed state, and spend that energy instead on the fight, flight, freeze response.  So if we’re in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze, our bodies never do necessary minor repairs, leading to extensive damage over time.

For this reason, it’s extremely important to do things every day to lower your stress level.

I highly recommend using a structured approach to self care in order to intentionally make deposits into your own emotional bank account.  Otherwise, it’s much too easy to become depleted, which leads to increased stress.  The structure that I like to use is known as GRAPES, which is an acronym for:

G – Gentle to self

R – Relaxation

A – Accomplishments

P – Pleasure

E – Exercise

S – Social

By getting a little bit from each category of self care into your day, you’re well on your way to inoculating yourself against stressors such as isolation.

Gentle to self means doing things to treat yourself kindly.  A great resource for self kindness is Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion Website.  Other great ways to be gentle to self include meditation, rest, taking a bubble bath, and avoiding sources of negativity–such as the news.

Relaxation is a self care component that many Americans feel guilty allowing themselves.  In American culture the emphasis is on doing instead of being, but the act of being is an extremely important part of self care.  If you examine your daily activities and find that you’re short on relaxation, I give you permission to take more time for leisure.  It’s not laziness.  Rest time is time when our bodies are calm enough to do those little repairs that we need for optimal physical health.  So, please, take naps.  Listen to beautiful music.  Lay in a hammock.  It’s good for you.

Accomplishments are important too, of course.  We all need to feel that we have purpose in our lives.  Without purpose, humans tend to fall into a terrible state of meaninglessness.  However, it’s important to know that accomplishing things doesn’t necessarily mean going to work.  It can mean completing a creative project, or cooking a wonderful meal, or practicing a new skill.  Do your best to make your accomplishments meaningful and life-affirming for you.

Pleasure is an extremely underrated component of self care.  It seems to me that America’s Puritan heritage has led to a mistrust of pleasure as somehow inappropriate.  However, pleasure is good for you.  It makes people happy, and releases oxytocin and opiates, the feel good hormones.  We need happiness.  Without it life is bleak.  So do things that feel good to you.  They are important and meaningful.  Dance.  Laugh.  Hug.  Eat delicious food.  Get a massage.  Sit in the sun.  Surround yourself with beautiful smells.

Exercise is the single most effective thing you can do to increase your happiness.  This is no exaggeration.  Scientific studies have shown that 30 minutes of cardio daily is equal to, or even more effective, than an antidepressant in improving mood.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go out and get a gym membership and start lifting weights and running on treadmills, although that’s a great option if you enjoy that.  I recommend finding your fun as the best way to create an exercise regimen that’s sustainable.  If it’s fun, you’ll keep doing it.  If it’s not, it just feels like a chore.  So, if you enjoy dancing, then dance.  If you enjoy being outside, maybe you should take up hiking or walking in the park.  If you enjoy mindful movement, then maybe meditation or Tai Chi or for you.

Social is a tough one right now.  Things are starting to open up a little bit as we move to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but life is still a sea of face masks and closed businesses.  I really miss hugs.  However, you still can get your social self care in doing small things like taking a walk and waving at people that pass.  (Yes. I’m that weirdo, and you can be too).  Meeting friends in open-air settings is good too.  There are many ways to see people virtually, and I think that they can be helpful in moderation, but I also think that they can be confusing to our nervous systems if over-used.  They create a cognitive dissonance.  Our minds think that we saw someone, but our bodies didn’t get any energy or pheromones and feel just as isolated as they did before the Zoom meeting or FaceTime call.  Still, seeing people’s faces via computer screens is better than not seeing them at all.

A great way to take care of yourself, and to combat the stress of isolation, is to make a plan each day for how you’re going to get a little taste of each self care component above.    Both your mental and physical health will thank you.

One last thought.  Taking care of yourself is not selfishness.  Many people have been brought up to believe that it is.  However, I submit to you that the best gift that you can give to others is a happy and well-cared-for self.  When you feel good, you’re more pleasant to be around, and you have more energy to give to others.  By being open-hearted to yourself, you’ll be better equipped to be open-hearted to others.  And besides, you’re totally worth it, just because you’re you.

 

 

 

The Six Stages of Grief and How to Move Through Them

Recent events in the United States, and the world, have been wearing heavily on my heart.  I know that I’m not alone in this.  A pandemic where the death toll in the country has exceeded 100,000 people, combined with horrific civil rights violations, followed by demonstrations, rioting and looting made for an overwhelming week.  While I knew that the anxiety of the past few months had increased, I also knew there was another emotion waiting for me to recognize it.  So, I sat with myself  for a while feeling into the ache in my chest asking ‘what am I feeling?’ and slowly it came to me that it was grief.

  • Grief for the 2020 that I thought I was going to have.
  • Grief for months without seeing my friends and family.
  • Grief for the deprivation of almost zero physical touch since March.
  • Grief for a country divided along multiple ideological lines.
  • Grief for George Floyd, a black man that I never met who was brutally killed by police.  The video of his murder breaks my heart.
  • Grief for police brutality toward peaceful protesters.
  • Grief for only being able to see people’s faces on computer screens because they’re all covered by masks in public.  I miss smiles.

And there is so much more to grieve over.  While talking with clients this week, I helped several people identify the grief that is weighing them down.  Naming the grief is the first step, and helpful in itself, but there is more work to do to process the grief.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief in her work with the dying:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These stages can happen in any order, each one can happen more than once during the grieving process, and they take different amounts of time for different people.  There is no right way to grieve, and there is no appropriate length of time.

When people lose a loved one in the US, they receive 5 days off of work, and then they’re expected to go back to work and act like nothing happened.  They receive condolences one time from friends and family, and then, strangely, it’s never mentioned again, and people think it’s over.

Months later when people say that they are still grieving, they get mixed responses.  Sometimes people who have had difficult losses in their lives will sympathize with how lonely and difficult it is to grieve a loss in this culture.  However, grievers also hear things like, “Oh.  It’s been months.  Aren’t you over it yet?”

The message that they’re grieving wrong shuts people down, leaving them even more alone in their grief, and grieving is not something to be done alone.  Grief is something to be witnessed.

If you identify with the existential grief that I’m talking about, or if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, whether by death or by leaving, please find people who can bear the weight of your grief enough to witness it.  If that’s not a loved one, please find a grief support group or a therapist who can be with you while you process your emotions.

Grief is not logical.  It cannot be reasoned with and you can’t think your way out of it, no matter how hard you try.  It lives in the body and must be physically worked through.  Ways to move grief out of your body include yoga, body work, journaling, and letting go rituals.

Ritual is a beautiful and powerful way to move grief, and here are a few of my favorite letting go rituals:

  • Write a letter to the person, or the situation, that you are grieving that you never mean to send.  Put all of your emotion into the letter.  Don’t be shy.  Swearing is totally OK.  Nobody’s going to read it anyway.  Once you feel complete, burn, bury or shred the letter in order to release the emotion.
  • Take a bath in Epsom salts, and imagine the warm water and the salt drawing all of the grief and pain out of your body.  When you feel complete, pull the plug and watch the grief go down the drain.
  • Hold a coconut in your hands and direct all of the grief, pain, anger and sadness into the coconut.  When you feel complete, go outside and smash the coconut against a wall.  (This is incredibly satisfying).  Be sure to throw the coconut away afterwards.  Please don’t eat it and re-ingest all of that grief.
  • Put some music on that speaks to your grief, and then give your body permission to move any way that it likes.  Don’t be shy.  Your body will know what it needs.  Keep moving until you feel complete.
  • Repeat as needed.  It often takes more than one time to release all of the grief.

Recently I read Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler, who worked with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  He maintains that there is one more stage in the process of grieving, and that is making meaning from the experience.  That doesn’t mean that you go around saying platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” which I hate.  It means that while it still hurts, and it may never be OK, you find a way to make the loss mean something.  For instance, David Kessler made his son’s death mean something by writing his book, and by teaching others about grief.  I’m making meaning from my illness by writing a book as well.  Many other people make meaning by volunteering, or by donating to charities.  However is right for you to find meaning is perfect, but do look for it as it’s an important part of the grieving process.

Please be patient with yourself and with those around you who may be grieving differently.  If you’re in the denial phase and a friend or family member is in the anger phase, you may have difficulty relating.  Be kind to each other about this.  There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve, and pressuring either yourself or others to grieve differently is a great way to prolong the process.

For those of you who feel as weighted down as I do by the grief of this moment in time, I am witnessing you.

Please see the following links for more information on grief and grieving:

The Sixth Stage of Grief Website

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief Model

 

 

The Process of Examining and Changing Your Worldview

This isn’t what I was planning to write about today, and I’m feeling extremely nervous about what I’m about to say.  I’m worried about accusations that I’m a privileged white woman who can’t understand what the African American community has gone through at the hands of some of the police force, and those people would be absolutely right.  I admit that I am privileged as a white person in the United States, and I feel ashamed of it.

Yet, events in the news recently, including the murder of George Floyd by police, and Amy Cooper consciously weaponizing a call to 911, make me feel ashamed and helpless in the face of murderous hate by people who look like me.  If the world were not in the middle of a pandemic, I would be looking for a march to join, and creating picket signs, but things being as they are, I feel compelled to use my blog to make a statement.

As I thought this morning about what I wanted to say, I considered how I could possibly say something insightful about a criminal justice system that is not truly about justice because the people in it do not apply the rules evenly.  Then, I thought about the rioters in Minneapolis and what they must be feeling at this time, and what they must want, and I found my answer.  Please bear with me while I connect the dots.

One of my heroes, Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist earned my devotion when I saw a clip of him answering the following question, which was posed by a gray-haired white man:

“What’s up with chicks and science?”

In the film clip, the room erupts in nervous titters of laughter, and the man smiles, smugly.  The mediator asks if anyone wants “to field if maybe there are genetic differences between men and women that explain why more men are in science?”

Neil Degrasse Tyson speaks up and says the following wondrous thing:

“I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life.  So, let me, perhaps, offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a white male dominated society.

When I look at–throughout my life–I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old–a first visit the the Hayden (sp?) planetarium . . .  So, I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And, all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands-down the path of most resistance through the forces of . . .  society.  Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, ‘Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete?’

I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And, so, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curve-balls I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel, and I kept going.  And now, here I am . . . one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me and say, where are the others who might have been this?  And they’re not there.

I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn–to the point where I have security guards following me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief.  I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off, and so they came running to me.  I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him.  That’s an interesting exploitation of this–what a scam that was!

So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks, and when you don’t find women in the sciences–I know that these forces are real.  I had to survive them in order to get where I am today.  So, before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Statement about Women in Science

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comparison between the forces that oppress African Americans and the forces that oppress women resonated with me, as did his description of the barriers that are put in front of both of these groups of people to keep them from realizing their dreams.  So, I’m going to talk about this issue from that perspective–from the perspective of a woman in a white male dominated society.  While I realize that this isn’t perfect, and I do recognize my privilege as a white person, I feel that it does give me some insight.  I’ve never been African American, but I have been a woman all of my life.

I grew up in a conservative, Christian, white family.  Every Sunday, we would get up early, get dressed up, and go to church.  I went to Sunday school, was an acolyte, and was confirmed as a Christian before I really had any life experience.  One of the messages that I absorbed from this upbringing was of strict, traditional, 1950s style, gender roles.  I have no idea if my parents meant for me to absorb this, but I did.  In my mind, the perfect woman was married and took care of her husband and their home by cooking and cleaning.  She also stayed home to raise their children.  In return, the perfect man worked outside the home, payed the bills, and benevolently loved his family.

When I married my high school sweetheart at age 18, I had every intention of becoming this mental picture of the perfect woman.  As I write this, I cringe a little at my 18-year-old naivety, and I know now just how ill-suited I am for the type of life I thought I was supposed to live.

The first week of my marriage, my beautiful mental picture was destroyed by an act of domestic violence, although I didn’t recognize it as that at the time.  The man I’d married became angry with me over a minor issue that I offered to fix.  Instead of allowing me to fix it, he started screaming at me, calling me names, invading my personal space, and pointing his finger in my face threateningly.  Terrified, I backed away from him until I came up against the living room wall, where he pinned me and screamed at me for what felt like 20 minutes.  I was certain that he was going to hit me, and I braced myself for the blow.  It never came, and I told myself that the incident was a fluke.  It wasn’t.

The same scenario repeated over and over, escalating in severity and frequency.  I began to dread my husband coming home from work, and at the same time I tried to fix the situation, and create the life I’d expected to have when I married him.  I told him that the way he was treating me was wrong, and that he needed to stop losing his temper and threatening and berating me.  Instead of listening to me, he took my confirmation Bible off of the bookshelf and turned to Ephesians 5: 22 through 24 and read to me:

“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord.  For a husband has authority over  his wife just as Christ has authority over the church; and Christ is himself the Savior of the church, his body.  And so wives must submit themselves completely to their husbands just as the church submits itself to Christ.”

While my husband looked at me with triumph in his eyes, my entire worldview crumbled around me.

As far as he was concerned, he could do whatever he wanted to me with impunity because it was the will of God.

Now, you’re probably saying that isn’t the intention of that verse, and coming up with all kinds of reasons why what he said was wrong.  And you have a point.  If someone could use the Bible, which I’d always believed was a tenet of kindness and compassion towards fellow humans, to justify abusing me, there was something terribly wrong with this foundation. In that moment it sunk into my soul that the world I’d been raised in was built on a foundation of misogyny.

I wonder how many African American people have had this moment of realization that their world is built on a foundation of racism.  My sense is that most of them do considering this country’s history.

Eventually, that man left me for another woman.  Sometimes I worry about her, but I’m glad that he left because I don’t know how much longer I would have stayed with him, or how much more damage I would have allowed him to do to my psyche.  The damage was bad enough as it was.  After he left, I went through a terrible depressive episode where I couldn’t stop crying.  As a Highly Sensitive Person, it doesn’t take a lot to bring me to tears, but that depressive episode was way over the top.  I once cried over a pair of slippers in a department store.  It was so bad that I went to the doctor thinking that something was medically wrong with me, and he had to explain that this was depression.  I’d had no idea.

The doctor prescribed antidepressants and referred me to a therapist.  I was terrified of therapy, but with my doctor’s encouragement, I went anyway.  Therapy helped me to build a new foundation for my world.  Ever since my now ex-husband had shattered the foundation I’d been raised with, I’d felt un-moored.  My therapist helped me to release the internalized misogyny of my upbringing, and I was so relieved to feel solid again that I decided to become a therapist myself so that I could help others going through similar experiences.

As I went through the process of getting my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and then getting the 3,000 supervised hours of treatment that I needed to have under my belt in order to take my licensing board exams, I happened to get an internship at a domestic violence shelter.

My faith in God had already been shaken, and I no longer attended church, but I hadn’t released my faith yet.  However, my experience in that shelter moved me all the way out of Christianity.  One after another, these horribly abused women, who had severe and chronic physical problems from the abuse they’d suffered, told me that they had gone to their pastor, rabbi, or priest for help, and had received the same message: “If you were a better wife, he would stop abusing you.”

This message is bullshit.

I can tell you first-hand that nothing a woman does in an abusive relationship leads to the abuse stopping, because the abuse is not about the woman’s behavior.  I did everything I could think of.  I made elaborate meals.  I cleaned the house with a toothbrush.  I feigned interest in things my ex-husband cared about.  It made no difference.  Later, I learned the truth.  Abusers abuse because of their own internal state, not because of anything the victim does.

I think this is true of racism as well.  Racists hate because of their own internal state, not because of anything that their victims have done.

While I worked in the shelter, I started my own personal survey course in religion.  I read about the major Middle Eastern religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  I also read about Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism.  For a while I suspended choice, but over time I settled on Buddhism because it seemed to be the kindest of the major religions.  Still, it didn’t quite fit.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the history of the ancient goddesses, and I’m in awe of their power.  I’m in awe of a society that revered such powerful females, and I want to live in that society.  I think I’m a pagan.

I haven’t told my family how I feel about Christianity up to this point, but they read my blog. (Perhaps only they read it).  So, in a way I’m outing myself, which is a bit terrifying for me.  So, why am I telling you this?  I’ve been holding these feelings secret in my heart for years.  Why now?  And what do these experiences have to do with what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots in Minneapolis?

Well, I’m telling you this to illustrate the process of changing one’s mind and worldview.  I went from being raised in a conservative Christian family to being a liberal feminist because of a series of experiences that showed me that what I’d been raised to believe didn’t fit the facts of my world.

It takes time and pain and a willingness to talk to those that you wish to understand, just as I did with the women in the domestic violence shelter.  It also means a willingness to experience the rejection of the people in your life who wish to maintain the status quo, just as I’m now risking the judgment of my family.

Even when the status quo is shameful and cruel and unjust, separation from people with a different worldview, and fear of being ostracized by your social group, can often keep people from admitting the wrongs right in front of their eyes.  Even if they do admit them, often people will say, well, racism is terrible, but I can’t do anything to stop it.

I’m here to say you can.  If I could confront the inherent misogyny in my culture and my religion and choose to turn away from it, you can take the great leap of attempting to understand why someone whose world shows them nothing but hate and violence might choose to tear that world apart in a riot.  You can talk to those who have experienced hatred and hold space for their pain.  You can shut down people who tell racist jokes.  You can do your best to examine your own bias and admit that it is there.  You can see that the world that you live in is not the world that others live in.  Changing yourself is the first step, and it spreads from there.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [or woman] changes his [her] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him [or her]. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Washington Post Video of George Floyd’s Death. I’m breathless after watching it.

Trevor Noah’s Commentary on George Floyd. I wish I could be so eloquent.

What it Means to be a Highly Sensitive Person

On Thursday this past week, my supervisor called and gave me some unwelcome news.  A decision was made, he told me, to remove me from leading the psychotherapy group that I’ve been leading 3 times per week for the past five years.  It’s called an Intensive Outpatient Group (IOP), and it’s specifically designed to support people going through an acute phase of a psychiatric illness, with the goal of keeping them out of the hospital.  My job is to create a safe place for talking about suicidality, depression, anxiety, and sometimes psychosis.

Many would run screaming from work like this, but it’s often the brightest part of my day.  Somehow, running that group brings out the best that I have to offer, and I become a psychotherapist full of empathy and compassion for these people who are often going through the darkest hours of their lives.

I wasn’t removed because I’d done anything wrong, my boss was saying.  It was because of a business decision having to do with metrics and numbers that I don’t care about at all.  As he spoke, the breath caught in my throat, my eyes burned, and I tuned his voice out from my consciousness, not wanting to hear anymore cold, business justifications for why he was taking away my baby.

I tried to ask a couple of questions, but my voice came out much too shaky to avoid detection, and I abandoned any hope of conversation until my nervous system processed the news enough for me to come from a place of rational thought instead of pure emotion.  Cursing my sensitive nature, I wondered how people go through disappointments  like this without crying.  I know that they do, but no matter how much deep breathing I practice, I end up in a puddle of humiliating sobs–and then the humiliation just makes me cry harder.

For most of my life, this tendency towards overwhelm led me to believe that there was something quite wrong with me, and other people tended to reinforce this belief.  My ex-husband told me to stop being so sensitive on a daily basis (hence the Ex status).  When I got into some trouble at a previous job, and could do nothing to repair my reputation, my tears only convinced my boss that I was weak.

I’m not weak.  In fact, I’ve survived horrific traumas relatively unscathed through my ability to persevere long and difficult journeys toward a desired goal, and I have a strong ability to sublimate my own terrible experiences into increased compassion that I use to help others walk through their own traumas.

There is nothing wrong with me, and telling me to stop being so sensitive is like telling me to stop being a human.

What I am, is one of the twenty percent of the population whose nervous systems are wired to be more sensitive than the other 80%.  I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).  HSPs are split evenly by gender–50% male and 50% female–and their existence is supported by science.  While the majority are introverted because it takes less to stimulate their nervous systems, 30% of HSPs are extroverts.  This is not a psychological diagnosis, because it’s not a disorder.  Being an HSP is a genetic trait, like having brown hair, or blue eyes.  HSPs are present in most mammalian species, and they are in the world for a purpose, which I’ll discuss more below.

It was about 3 years ago that a patient told me she was reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and the name of the book shook me inside.  I had to read it, and when I did, I devoured every word, feeling understood for possibly the first time in my life.  I thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this?  It would have made all the difference in the world to know that I’m just wired this way.  I could have stopped trying to be something I wasn’t years ago.”

Since then, I’ve made it my business to educate people about HSPs whenever I get the chance.  Elaine Aron offers the DOES acronym to describe the traits of HSPs:

D – Depth of Processing

O – Overstimulation

E – Emotional Reactivity and Empathy

S – Sensing of the Subtle

It was only quite recently that I realized my depth of processing is above average, and my mind is much busier than most people’s.  After interactions where I feel I did poorly with others, I’ll often go home and pick the conversation apart, trying to figure out where I went wrong.  When I have a problem to solve, my brain will dissect for days, and sometimes nights, until I find the answer.  One of my favorites in life is learning something new, and I’m great at putting in the time and thought.  Recently, I’ve been learning piano, Spanish, and how to blog and podcast.  These are great hobbies for me because they’re done quietly, in private, and call for deep thinking.

Crowds can be a real problem for me because of the HSP tendency towards overwhelm.   I love concerts, but I need quiet time before and after, and I can’t stand general admission concerts.  My own assigned chair and space keeps me from panicking and leaving.  My work-load has to be kept at a manageable level, and I have to take excellent care of my body, mind and spirit in order to keep myself from burning out. Events where I meet large groups of people I don’t know for the first time can have me hiding in a corner, overwhelmed by the number of people, the noise, and my own internal sense of not fitting in as easily as others seem to do.

I feel sadness, joy, hope and  fear at a more visceral level than non-HSPs, and I love with a depth that is often frightening to my beloved.  Disappointment, frustration, anger, and joy all make me cry.  The emotional reactivity of my HSP nature is both a curse and a blessing.  Feeling the difficult emotions deeply is the downside, but the intense love and joy I get to experience make it all worth it, and empathy is my superpower.  I had to learn how to shield the integrity of my own heart, but now that I know how,  I can feel the emotions of those around me with incredible accuracy.  Definitely a useful trait for a therapist.

Panel interviews are a nightmare for me due to the HSP trait of sensing the subtle.  I’ll get completely overwhelmed reading the subtle body postures and facial expressions of the multiple people who are judging me, and my anxiety soars, leaving me tongue tied.  I’m not good at getting people to believe I’m good at what I do, but if they give me a chance, I hit home runs over and over.  On the upside of the sensing subtleties trait, I notice details that others often overlook, and I’m great at solving puzzles and finding creative solutions.

Now that I know these things about myself, I can build in protections like giving myself time alone to recuperate after being around a lot of people, making sure I get a lot of rest, and enough to eat.  I give myself grace when I’m not able to handle disappointment and hurt as coolly as other people.  It’s OK, I tell myself.  The world isn’t in technicolor for them, like it is for me.  The biggest blessing is that I allow myself to be authentic in a way that I never have before, and that’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities, such as writing this blog for you about my true experience of the world.

Dr. Aron explains that the world has gotten more difficult for HSPs as history has moved forward.  There used to be two classes of people, the warrior kings and the priestly advisors.  Both were equally respected.  While the warrior kings actively ruled and waged wars, the priestly advisors researched, wrote, gave valuable advice to the warrior kings, and created works of art.  Over time, though, the warrior kings stopped listening, and made policies that hadn’t gone through the deeply processing, subtle minds of HSPs, and I believe the world is poorer for it.

Now HSPs are told to stop being so sensitive and to stop thinking so much.  They are pressured to be like the warrior kings, who think that something is wrong with the quiet thoughtfulness of HSPs.  I am here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with us.  The world would be a poorer place without the greatness of HSPs such as Leonardo da Vinci, St. Thomas Aquinas, Mother Theresa, and Ghandi.  When given the space and time, we HSPs can create peace, healing and great art.  

If you are relating to the HSP traits as much as I do, please stop trying to force yourself to be a warrior king.  It won’t work, and you’ll end up hating yourself.  Settle in to being an HSP, and it will open a whole new world for you of beauty, deep thought and strong emotion.  Allow your creativity to spill out into the world, and forgive yourself for the times when your emotions overwhelm you.

IF you love an HSP, don’t shame them for traits they can’t help.  Love them for the full depth of their priestly advisor selves, and they will blossom like well cared for roses in the garden.

Dr. Elaine Aron’s website

Amazon link for the book, The Highly Sensitive Person.

 

 

 

Medically-Induced Trauma is Caused by Not Being Seen

Last week, I got the clean-out-the-closet bug, and I decided to start with the bathroom medicine cabinet.  In true Marie Kondo fashion, I pulled everything out of the cabinet, and dumped it all into the sink, filling it up with random bottles of pills and personal hygiene products.  After wiping down the empty shelves, I examined each item in order to decide whether to keep it or throw it away.  Quickly, I discovered that this wasn’t an ordinary clean-out-the-cabinet moment.  This was the moment that I had chosen to throw away all of the expired bottles of medication from my illness in 2011.

The bottles had been sitting there, undisturbed, for nine years, because I wasn’t yet ready to look at them, and the idea of letting go of any of the medications that helped stop my death was terrifying.  After a pause and a deep breath, I threw every bottle into the trash, except for the zofran.  After nine years, I’m still not ready to throw away an expired bottle of anti-nausea medication that I no longer take.  That’s how traumatized I am by suffering through a year-and-a-half of nausea and vomiting.

Ironically, I had the time to perform this mini purge because I was listening to a continuing education course taught by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (see below for a link to his website), a prominent psychotherapist who wrote the book The Body Keeps the Score (see below for a link to purchase the book), which is about how our internal nervous systems hold trauma, and the importance of physically working it out instead of trying to think it away.  The difficulty I had with throwing away bottles of expired and unused medications is an excellent example of my body holding the trauma of my illness, and the act of throwing those bottles in the trash is one of many physical ways that I’ve moved tiny bits of trauma out of my system.

Just at the end of my illness, as the nausea was passing, I scheduled a massage. I thought that it would be nice to receive some caring touch after such a terrible experience.  I’d never met the massage therapist before that massage, and I never went to see her again, but that massage was the first time I experienced how body work can move trauma.  When the massage therapist touched the place on my lower back where I’d had a lumbar puncture, I began to cry.  The tears intensified, and flowed down my cheeks freely, as she touched other places on my body, such as the inside of my left elbow where I’d once had so many IVs that I had track marks.

As I continued to move through my house, throwing out remnants of my past, Dr. van der Kolk said something that gave me pause, and I stopped working so that I could listen more closely.  He said that there are two experiences that lead to the formation of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  The first piece is the traumatic experience that happened, and the second piece is not being seen and supported by your community.  

He gave the example of the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  According to Dr. van der Kolk, very few people who witnessed this terrible event developed PTSD because they were supported openly by their communities.  There was no shame in what they had experienced, so they could speak authentically about it with each other, and receive open support from others who understood.

However, in many more personal traumas, the experience of being supported and witnessed is missing.  For rape victims, there is a wall of disbelief and victim blaming.  For incest survivors, there is shame, and years of fear that if they tell, things will only get worse.  Silence breeds shame.  The more unable the victim is to share openly about what happened, the more the shame grows, leading to the perfect breeding ground for PTSD.

As I stood frozen, listening to Dr. van der Kolk explain how it isn’t just the traumatic experience that leads to PTSD, it’s also the quality of support from the community, I began to realize exactly why my illness was so intensely traumatic.  The medical community did not see me.  Instead of believing what I told them about my neck injury and subsequent illness and helping me to find a treatment, they told me that the neck injury couldn’t have been the cause, and that it was really only anxiety.  Then, they prescribed anti-anxiety pills and sent me home.  Here are a few of the things that medical providers said to me during my search for help:

“Your symptoms don’t make sense.” (Said by the first neurologist that I saw).

“Oh, you again?” (Said by an ER nurse who must have attended me on a previous emergency room visit).

“You seem pretty anxious.  Maybe you should admit to yourself the possibility that this is all just caused by anxiety, and perhaps some mild depression.” (Said by an emergency room doctor).

“I think this is something that is going to get better with time.” (Said by yet another neurologist).

You get the idea.

They didn’t see me at all.  They invalidated my experience and minimized the fear that I was feeling as a result of severe physical symptoms; not as the cause of those symptoms.  Perhaps even worse, because trained nurses and physicians, without any evidence, blamed what I was experiencing on anxiety, so did some of the people in my life that I desperately needed to validate and support me.  As a result, except for a couple of incredible people who truly stepped up to the plate, I went through a year-and-a-half long illness alone.

It’s been my conviction since the time of my illness, that the callous treatment I received from medical practitioners made me sicker, but I’ve had trouble articulating exactly why.  Suddenly it’s clear to me that each time a doctor told me that it was probably just anxiety, or a nurse greeted me with “Oh, it’s you again,” when I went to the emergency room, my nervous system was becoming more and more traumatized by not being seen and helped.

Unfortunately, this treatment is deeply rooted in the medical system due to the medical history of hysteria (see link below for additional articles), which says that people (most often women) often have medical symptoms that don’t have a medical cause.  These symptoms are caused instead by the repressed emotions of the patient.  While this idea is now called other names, like somatoform disorder, the idea is still alive and well, and doctors are encouraged to root out the “hysterics” from the “truly sick” people so that they can focus their efforts on people who are treatable.  Even when the patient denies being anxious or depressed, the doctors don’t trust them because the very foundation of the idea of hysteria is that the patient is repressing the emotion.  Medical syndromes that used to be dismissed as hysteria include: asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and endometriosis, and epilepsy, just to name a few.

As a result, patients who don’t readily fit into a diagnostic box are often dismissed without any testing or treatment.  In a medical system where patients often don’t get to see the same doctor again, or they choose to change doctors after not being heard, that original doctor never learns the true diagnosis, if anyone ever does.  Diagnosis and treatment are delayed (if they ever happen as many people give up), often leading to disastrous medical outcomes for the patient.  I’ve read stories of cancer patients who died, but could have been saved if the doctor had done a simple test instead of sending them home with a “You’re fine.  It’s just anxiety.”

I would like to submit that the damage caused by the idea that repressed emotion is the cause of outside-of-the-box symptoms is even worse than missed diagnoses and delayed treatment. It is also the cause of medically-induced trauma.  Patients whose terrifying medical experiences are dismissed out of hand without testing, are experiencing both of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s criteria for PTSD; a traumatizing event (the illness) and an unsupportive community (the dismissive medical professionals).

It is my hope that by sharing this realization with you, I’m taking a step towards changing the way that the medical community interacts with patients.  It doesn’t cost anything to listen to someone, and the cost of not listening is great–in traumatized patients and lives lost.

If you have experienced, or are experiencing, a wall of disbelief from the medical system, you are not alone.  Please continue to advocate for yourself.  Keep asking to see another physician for a second opinion until you get someone that will help you.  You are the authority on your own body.  You live in it every day, and know what you are experiencing better than someone who met you 5 minutes ago and came into the room with the historical bias of hysteria.

In my own case, I went through several neurologists, until I got to Dr. Ian Purcell (see link below for his website), who is a super-specialist.  He and his staff listened to me.  They never once blamed my symptoms on anxiety, and through a combination of medication, physical therapy and yoga, I got well.  Keep trying until you get to your Dr. Purcell.

Photo credit: TraumaAndDissociation on Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

Links:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s website

Buy The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk on Amazon.com.

Dr. Ian Purcell’s Senta Clinic for neurology patients.

A very scholarly article on the history of the hysteria diagnosis.

A more accessible article on hysteria diagnosis.

 

 

 

Stormy Weather in my Muscles and the World

In 2011 a severe neck injury left me incapacitated.  Not with pain as most people expect from neck injuries, but with an illness with all of the symptoms of a severe migraine, but without the pain.  I couldn’t hold any food down, eating was revolting, my vision was often blurred or doubled, and my thought process was so terribly impaired that I often couldn’t make simple decisions, like whether to turn right or left.  This went on for over a year-and-a-half without explanation or relief, until an inspired neurologist suggested that I begin practicing yoga, and my healing ensued.  I maintain that yoga saved my life.

Through a lot of hard work and time, I’ve healed to the point that I live my life fairly normally.  Eating is enjoyable again, and I can keep my food down.  I love my body in a completely new and different way after realizing that having a few curves means that I’m healthy enough to eat the delicious food around me, which sustains me and feeds my curious mind.  Working isn’t a problem because my thought process and ability to make decisions has been restored, and while the aging process has led me to need reading glasses for close work, my vision is normal again.

However, there are some frustrating and somewhat embarrassing chronic problems that I deal with every day.  The most visible is the fact that the injury to my neck distorts my face a little bit.  Probably most people think that it’s just how my face was made, but whenever I look in the mirror, and especially when I see myself on film, I cringe a little bit.  While I used to have even features, post injury, the lower half of my face pulls to the right, which distorts my mouth and gives me a slightly lopsided appearance.  I do my best to love my face anyway, and thank my body for healing to the point that I can live my life normally again, but I have to admit that it rankles some that my face bears the mark of my illness so clearly for all to see.

The worst of the chronic symptoms left behind by my injury and illness plays out in my sleep.  The stress on the muscles of my face and jaw cause clenching, and I have to wear a mouth guard.  Still, I wake up many mornings with an aching face and jaw.  Yet, it’s something else that plagues my rest.

It started to happen just as the nausea, vomiting, thought process and vision problems began to subside; a strange, involuntary pulling in my neck muscles that turned my head to the right, back, and to the right again, like a tic.  It was humiliating when the women who sat behind me at work noticed.  I could hear them talking about it behind my back.  One even ventured as far as to ask me if I was OK when I was having a particularly difficult pulling episode.  I simply said I was fine.  A lot of the time, the pulling made me want to close my eyes.  It was difficult to keep them open, and when I was alone, I would sometimes sit for hours with my eyes closed, allowing my head to move how it wanted, instead of straining to keep it straight to avoid the humiliation of people staring and whispering.

In addition to the pulling and tension, which I have learned to push back against so most people don’t notice, there is a sensation of moving and crawling under the skin of my upper back and neck.  This is what keeps me awake at night.  Somehow the pressure of my pillow against my head, neck and upper back makes the crawling feeling worse.  Often I sleep without a pillow for less surface area affected by the pressure.  Sometimes I end up laying on the floor instead.  A hard surface means an even smaller area of pressure.  Sometimes, I just don’t sleep.

Working with my neurologist, I started to receive botox injections into the muscles of my neck and upper back every three months in order to get the them to relax out of their constant state of contraction, known as dystonia.  The injection process makes me sweat.  My amazing and gentle neurologist apologizes as she inserts a probe into each of the muscles of my neck and upper back so that she can listen to the level of contraction on a machine.  Don’t ask me how this works, but it does.  Sometimes my dystonic muscles sound like thunderstorms.

The decibel level of my muscle storms helps my neurologist determine the amount of botox to inject.  During the three month interval between injections, the dystonia storms decrease for a time, and then increase again.  I do my best to maintain my physical inner stillness through yoga, chiropractic, meditation (the crawling sensations make this incredibly difficult), and massage.  All of these treatments help.  Together, they keep me sleeping just enough.

This past month, the appointment for my botox injections was canceled due to COVID-19, and since then my muscle storms have been extra loud.  I’ve been spending hours of my nights on the floor, and awake.  While I’m tired and uncomfortable, I count my blessings because my patients tell me stories that are much worse.

I’m working with a man who has severe back pain, to the point that he struggles to get out of bed, can’t function, and is desperately depressed.  His pathway to obtaining the surgery he needs to be able to function is blocked by COVID-19.  I’m worried about his ability to wait it out.

Another woman I work with has lupus, which is controlled via the medication hydroxychloriquine.  The scientifically unfounded assertions that this medicine can be used to treat COVID-19 have resulted in a shortage so severe that she can’t get her prescription filled for the chronic condition that it is actually intended for.  When she told me this, my mouth dropped open in consternation.  Untreated lupus has severe medical consequences.

The world is currently held in the clutches of an acute and life threatening virus, and I understand that my appointment for the botox injections that help me to live a more comfortable life were canceled to prevent exposure to both myself and my neurologist.  I’ll be OK.  However, I question the compassion of a world in which people take a life-sustaining medication away from someone who is uses it for its intended purpose, and redirects it based on dubious, non-medical assertions.

I also question a medical system that makes the cruel decision to keep a man in debilitating pain for months without treatment, relegating him to an existence of despair.  It seems to me that COVID-19 can be dealt with appropriately, and still create space for him to receive the help that he needs.  Our therapy appointments leave me feeling powerless, but I know my distress can’t even touch what he is going through.

My thoughts are with the people with chronic syndromes who are being left behind right now.  Please don’t lose hope.  I still see you, and I hope that in writing this piece others will see you too.  This situation can’t last forever, and I know that the hearts of the world, and the medical system, will re-open to you soon.  In the meantime, I suggest you try some online yoga classes, get outside for fresh air, do whatever you can to interact with your loved ones, and be gentle to yourself about the struggle we’re going through communally.  When in doubt, I always recommend increasing self care, because you deserve it.