Friday, April 5, 2013

Who Am I without my PTSD??

...The Million Dollar Question

The journey continues, and I've reached a pit stop the sign reads "Who Are You?", and what is your story? Well, I thought I had the answers to those questions; I'm a mother of three, I'm single, a professional, a sister, and a friend. All true, but also generic. Who is Lisa? What does she like? What does she dislike? What are her values? How does she feel about herself? What are her goals and dreams? The answer to those questions.... I haven't a clue, and the reason is that people with PTSD usually don't believe they're going to live a long life in this unsafe world, so we don't plan for the future. We have no idea how to provide for our own needs, because we don't know what they are anymore, if we ever knew at all. At some point, a trauma changed our thinking, literally rewired us to believe and act as though our needs are secondary or don't exist at all.

Trauma, I'm told in my treatment, is a wound to the soul, a betrayal, a profound and painful loss of more than just our identity, but our sense of security, belonging, ability to trust and find happiness in a world that we now or have always believed is unsafe. At the moment of trauma, all control is taken away from the victim, usually violently, along with our sense of dignity and self worth in some cases. In my case, the trauma was not an event or series of events, it was severe, repeated, and lasted 17 years. It didn't shatter my identity as is the case with trauma through acute events, it prevented me from even forming an identity. For some trauma sufferers, treatment is about trying to return to, as much as possible, who we were before the trauma occurred, before our schema of the world and our place in it was poisoned, but for people like me, it's like trying to discover who I would be if my trauma had never occurred... no small task especially with two deceased parents and being the oldest of four children, I have more memories than they do!! My identity, my role all my life, has been to take care of others. Telling you a bit more of my story will help you better understand.

Mental illness runs in my family. My father was an addict and had what I now believe was IED, intermitent explosive disorder which is described by the Mayo Clinic as "involving repeated episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder. People with intermittent explosive disorder may attack others and their possessions, causing bodily injury and property damage.....", and it is also strongly associated to substance abuse. I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of 13 and what I do remember, isn't good. My earliest memory of my father is when I was about two, still in diapers, I remember the cotton diaper feeling wet. I was standing on a chair in the kitchen, and my daddy arrived home from work. Of course, I was excited to see him screeching his name and jumping up and down arms extended to come pick me up. He closed the door and turned to me and instead of seeing the joy that most fathers would have at seeing his first born little girl at the end of the day, I saw something that I couldn't identify at that age, and it wasn't good. I was confused. His face was red, his eyes were bugging out, and he had a look like he was going to kill me. This was a look I would see often for the next 15 years. He marched toward my chair and even with what I saw on his face, I still believed he was coming to happily pick me up, but I remember being slightly afraid and still confused. When he got to my chair, he grabbed hold of the back of it, yanked it out from underneath me, and I went crashing to the floor. I don't remember anything after that.

There were many other events like that one throughout my life, filled with rage, terror, chaos, psychologically, physically, spiritually and emotionally damaging events and words. Sometimes his anger was directed toward me, but most of the time it was directed toward my mother. I have three younger siblings, so it then became my job to protect and provide for them which I did from the day my younger sister was born, I was six years old. So based on this one event, what I say next will make more sense.

I re-enacted over and over again the role of care-giver all my life; with my siblings, with my chosen vocation, with my partner of 14 years, and with my friends, my children even as teenagers, always trying do as much as possible for others while doing nothing for myself. I believed if I could keep others happy, keep the peace, then I would be happy too. Plus, how could I do anything for myself, I didn't realize that I needed the exact same things I was giving others, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, love, because it was never given to me. My upbringing had taught me I was invisible, I didn't exist or at least my needs didn't. The horrible things my father did and said to us also made me feel unworthy, unlovable, and incapable of anything. So what did I do? I spent my entire life trying to prove him wrong. I moved to another province, got my own place, and a full time job at the age of 17. I put myself through 8 years of post-secondary school while raising two toddlers with my partner, and working a part time job. I busted my ass to be the best I could be at everything, student, mother, human being, so that what he said about me could not be true, and I was willing to pay a very high cost; my health and sanity. Still, I was going to be the best at everything!! My self expectations were extremely high, and believed if I could do it then my friends, children, and partner could do it too. Sadly, my expectations were unrealistic, and cost me my relationship and my two oldest children moved out at a young age, because they couldn't take my controlling nature and high expectations.

That is my childhood in a nutshell. I was raised in a violent and chaotic environment, my father was my "captor" and abuser, and I had no control over anything. I didn't even have the right to feel sad, angry or afraid because I would be punished for expressing those feelings, and they were too intense so I buried them, I disocciated, I told myself things weren't as bad as I thought they were which is called "minimizing". Many survivors do this in order to cope with the memories and the tragedy of what occurred. I'm certain this sounds very  familiar to some of you, and if it does, talk to your doctor.

So after four decades of repressing my feelings in order to survive, and later as a way to cope, I'm now being asked to express them. Express what? How I felt living in that environment? I reply to my therapist "I felt scared, sad, angry, confused." Not good enough, I need to show those feelings, connect to those feelings, let them be heard for the first time, and I must do this so that they have less of an impact on me, my happiness, my life,  and I can stop re-enacting my trauma. But I can't connect with them. I learned my lessons so well about repressing all those bad feelings that I don't know if I will ever be able to feel them  which means I don't know if I can recover from this. I spent this entire past week trying to access sadness, fear, pain, and I can't. I can talk about what I experienced in the same way I talk about a movie I saw, matter-of-factly. What if I don't succeed in connecting in the remaining five weeks of the program? What if it never happens? Will I remain a prisoner of my trauma, sentenced to live out the rest of my life like a character in "Ground Hog Day" re-enacting events of the past, because I don't know how not to??  Now I'm scared for real... but not of my trauma.


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