Home at Last?

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I have returned to Texas (from New England) to stay with a nice couple that can be considered my family of choice.  I talk to them typically a couple times a week on the phone or so and we talk about pretty profound stuff.  They’re an essential part of my support network.

As I drove onto their property, I was confronted with the sign above.  The sign reflects that they have some understanding about what I have been through recently.  I visited my childhood homes and purged some serious trauma by doing so.

Visiting the sites of the past is not something that most survivors can do lightly.  I only did with some serious trepidation myself.  Of course, not all survivor experiences are created equally.

Revisiting sites of emotional and physical violence is challenging.  You never know where the landmines of past emotional and physical pain can hit.  Coming to terms with the past in whatever ways might surface can tax people’s ability to cope.  I was relatively fortunate with only one major and one minor trigger surfacing during my visit.

The triggers are just the surface, though.  Those who, like myself, are fortunate enough to be able to fully process whatever surfaces, have more to deal with.  Even though I feel I “got off easy” in my return home after 25 years, the existential questions still hit me.

First of all, home was not the same.  Portland, Maine is radically different than when I left it.  It’s prettier, it’s cleaner, and a much nicer place than the home I remember.  I found myself sentimental for everything I left, which was surprising considering how much I hated it while I was there.

I suspect that my nostalgia had a lot more to deal with a desire to have a home than what I actually found there.  It was most likely a reflection of the fact that I have never felt that I’ve had a real home to begin with.  Have I had safe places where I lived that I enjoyed?  Yes.  But never any real sense of permanency or stability.

This is the kind of challenge that many survivors face.  It is easy for them to end up feeling out of place.  A sense of home can be elusive, particularly given how psychological trauma can drive people from place to place and relationship to relationship, as it has done to me in the past.

It is one thing to be intellectually aware of these kinds of issues, but it is another thing entirely to be in the middle of the emotions and thoughts that are caused by them.  I found myself emotionally adrift.  Where was home?  Where could home be?  What did home mean to me?  These were not trivial questions, nor did my tentative answers to them bring me much comfort.

I considered these questions on my drive back to Texas across 1900 miles that I made in two days.  Not my idea of a great time, but it just was the right thing to do at that moment.  I remained adrift.

While I would like to fully accept my family of choice as a home of sorts, doing so goes against my coping mechanisms.  Even considering the idea is uncomfortable.  While I very much appreciate the efforts of my family of choice to provide me that safe place, I found that it presented a new set of issues.

The journey from old home to “new home” or even “new potential home” tends to surface old feelings.  It is just one aspect of the more general problem that survivors face.  When they find safety, they have difficulty feeling safe until the old emotional wounds are healed.  Furthermore, the new safety tends to drive those old emotional issues to the surface and force people to deal with them if they can.

I my own case, my new proposed “home” just further fed the existential questions I’ve been struggling with for some time.  Where do I go to use my gifts?  Where will they be appreciated?  No easy answers.

Like so many others, “home” still feels like a mirage to me.  I can chase it, but it feels unlikely ever to arrive.  Until that time, I will continue to peel my recovery onion and hope for the best.

 

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The Face of PTSD

IMG_0296Does this man look relaxed to you?  Me neither.

Above is a picture I’m repeating from my last blog.  Behind me is the parking lot where I learned to ride a bike as a child.  When I took the picture, I knew I was a little uncomfortable, but I wasn’t aware of the strength of the trigger that was lurking and would hit me later (when I was writing my last blog entry).

Triggers can be subtle, even for people that are attuned to them.  A change in mood is not an accident.  There’s always a reason for what we feel.

I “should have” recognized that I was triggered at the moment when I snapped that selfie.  One of the problems with mental health issues is that what people “should do” is simply not a realistic possibility.  Coping mechanisms get in the way of people acting out of what others might call “common sense”.

Three days ago, I got a reminder of just how deep that can go.  You can look back at what I wrote when I posted the picture the last time.  I captioned it something like “me demonstrating I’m not a member of the selfie generation”.

That’s denial, folks.  You would think that as a hypnotherapist trained to recognize symptoms of stress in others, I would notice it in myself.  Well, I do, most of the time.

However, there’s a “peel the onion” process of increasing sensitivity.  In order to connect with what you feel, it has to be safe.  That means purging the barriers to increasing your sense of safety.  It often includes changing your emotional environment as well.  I’ve done a lot of all of this stuff over the past ten years or so.  It can be profoundly challenging for people like me.

Now, what was really going on in that photo?  Well, as I found out writing my last blog post, I was triggered on feelings of worthlessness, and being unworthy of praise.  Even when I did do something right in my family, like learning to ride my bike unassisted, any positive feedback that I got was blotted out by the traumatic experiences that had been used to force me into that state.

Way too many people suffer from circumstances like this daily.  This is to say that people use fear to motivate others to an extent that is harmful.  Then the targets end up with mental health problems, like I did.

This situation leads to the classic mental health paradox: people often know they can do something successfully, but feel too awful to do it.  This can lead to problems of behavioral “stuckness” that often get labels like depression and mood disorders.

The worst part of being motivated out of fear is that people come to take this kind of suffering for granted or “normal”.  When normal doesn’t feel good, there’s a problem, folks.  Bad feelings usually snowball over time and lead to larger issues.

Awareness can help reverse this dynamic, but it does not solve all problems at once.  Awareness is just the doorway to changing your feelings and behavior.  Emotional release is what steps you through the doorway and onto the other side where your feelings and behavior change.

The other thing about awareness is that is limited by your environment.  While meditation can go a very long way towards resolving mental health issues, reality checks are useful.  And that is exactly why I went back to my home town to see the places where I lived in the past:  to get that extra reality check and see what else I could do to improve my mental and emotional health.

Back Home? Part One – The Triggers

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Above: me, demonstrating I am not a member of the selfie generation. The picture was taken at Willard Beach, in South Portland, Maine.  I used to play there as a child. It was two blocks from the house where I lived in first and second grade.  It is far more beautiful than the picture suggests.

Two days ago I returned to several major places where I grew up as a test of how well I was doing in my recovery from PTSD.  As expected, I did hit triggers, but they were not where I expected them to be.

The first one was actually at Higgins Beach, in Cape Elizabeth on my way up to South Portland from Biddeford, where I had visited my high school teacher, Dr. Santa Lucia earlier that day.  I briefly stopped at a house where some friends of mine lived.  I rang the bell, but no one answered.  After waiting a minute or so on the open deck, I turned back to face the sea, and I was hit by a strong feeling of sadness and helplessness.

What it was, I don’t know exactly.  I suspect it was mostly missing people that I cared about, something I’ve done too much of in my life.  It passed quickly, leaving me after maybe 15 seconds or so.

One of the things about flashbacks and triggers is that you don’t always know exactly what is going on or why.  Another thing is that because of their intensity, they often feel much longer than they actually are.  This was one of those triggers where it felt fleeting… it came and went quickly, leaving me with little in the way of answers.

On the flipside, I returned to a positive state of mind where I could enjoy the beauty of my surroundings.  So much of Maine is stunningly beautiful and the sunny late fall day I had driven into from hours of drizzle on the road made it that much sweeter.  Given how depressed I was when I lived in Maine, this was just one sign of the progress I have made in my recovery.

After taking in the scenery for a few minutes, I drove on to Elsmere Ave, where I lived in first and second grade.  In the first pass, I did not recognize the house where I lived, although I did recognize my best friend’s house at the time because it had changed less.  To orient myself, drove down the street and tried to find the beach by memory.

Even though I knew it was close, it still surprised me.  A zig and a zag, and I was facing the ocean.  The next surprise was that the parking lot for the beach where I learned to ride a bicycle was still there!

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(Here is me, once again demonstrating that I am not a member of the selfie generation.)  Learning to ride was tough, because my parents did not supply me with training wheels.  Instead my father pushed my bike, ran, and yelled at me a lot.  There was never any real praise for anything I did, and learning to ride a bike was no exception.

It’s funny how triggers can creep up on you.  While I was there, I remembered some of how challenging it was to deal with my father emotionally as a child, but it remained dissociated until I wrote the paragraph above.  I had to pause and bawl for a while writing this one, as some more of the emotional reality of my childhood hit me.

When you suffer from PTSD and depression, you come to take a certain amount of dissociation for granted.  It becomes a baseline, and it is the new “normal”.  The new “normal” is typically protective in nature, and disconnects you from the intensity of the pain that hovers under the surface, waiting to be purged.

From the parking lot, I pressed onto the beach.  I was able to acknowledge the beauty of the scene, but I felt a bit of unease.  I had no sense of what it was about yet.

So I walked down the beach and up a slate staircase on the side of the rocks at the far edge of the beach.  I still hadn’t hit the trigger yet, so I walked down the path to the edge of the rocks, following a woman and her dog.

I looked off to the right, and I saw rocks that I had played on and walked over as a child.  I remembered collecting “glass rocks” – beads of broken glass that had been tumbled smooth by the ocean.  The trigger finally made itself known.

I warned the woman a few yards away.  “Mam – I have PTSD.  This is the place where I grew up, and I’m about to trigger hard.  I’ll be fine, but I just need to do it.”  She give me a slight smile, and said “thank you for telling me.”

I took a few steps over to the bench, sat down, covered my face with my hands, and cried and screamed into my hands, muffling the noise.  This trigger went on for far longer than the first.  Again, there was sadness, but also dismay.  I had a sense of feeling like a child lost in a world of adults, where there were no good answers about anything.  I had been trapped in a world of pain from which there had been no escape.

Once again, in writing this, I got to peel more of the onion.  I’m sure that’s part of why I felt compelled to write about this.  So many people shelve the reality of being a child as an adult.  On the flipside, it’s something that I have always remembered.

As a child, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Adult options and perspective are not available to you.  Often, the steps that children take to attempt to control their environment are not effective at critical times.  These kinds of experiences can teach children painful lessons about their lack of control, and the lessons can haunt them as adults.

People’s past lack of control can trap them in patterns of learned helplessness for the rest of their lives.  I consider myself to be fortunate in some ways in that I have escaped most of it.  That is even if it cost me a traditional middle class life in the process.

At least I have the tools to understand why I have the problems I do, and to improve my life when I recognize negative patterns now.  Too many people do not have that luxury.  I wish that more people understood these kind of things, which is why I’ve written three books about it that are sitting with my publisher.

From the beach, I returned to Elsmere Ave.  I parked, and walked up and down part of the street, trying to figure out which house was mine.  Suddenly, I got hit by a memory.  The telephone pole!

There was a telephone pole that I had climbed outside my house as a kid.  It had spikes coming off of it that were at about eight or nine feet off the ground.  After the blizzard of ’77, the snowbanks had gotten built up to an insane degree.  They got so high that I could just step up and climb the telephone pole without any help.

And there it was, the pole that I had climbed as a child.  I didn’t go to the top, because I was both scared of heights and of being electrocuted.  Which meant… that must be my house right there!

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The paint job was very different than when I was a child.  I braced myself emotionally, and then walked into the porch and rang the bell.  I was greeted by a friendly woman, and I explained who I was and that I was doing PTSD recovery work.  She was very friendly, and offered to show me around.

It was fascinating to see the house that I had grown up in as a child.  Very little was the same, except for the layout.  On the other hand, when I saw the kitchen, I was sure that it was the right house.  I asked if there had been a woodstove in one corner, and the answer was yes.  Spatially, it felt right to me, although I’m much taller now (obviously).

It was so much prettier than I remember it.  It had beautiful wood floors, and cheerful paint… tasteful wood furniture… the list goes on.  I wonder about the differences between my general memories of how it looked in the past, and how it looked while I was there.

I’m sure some of the emotional difference lies in the fact that anything different would feel nicer than the potential triggers for old painful differences.  Another factor is probably  that it was inhabited by a nice pleasant couple that was not my parents and had nothing to do with them.  Finally, there’s the fact that I liked their taste, though it wasn’t my own.

Finally, I got to see the upstairs, and I found my room from the past.  Wow.  It seemed so much smaller than I had remembered it as a child.  The difference in size makes such a huge change in perception.  Experimentally, I squatted to shift my perspective… and it felt more like what I had remembered.

Once I had seen everything, I thanked the couple and left.  I was amazed that I hadn’t been triggered by seeing the house.  It was really surprising to me, because I expected at least one landmine, if not more.  My experience was strong validation of the fact that screaming into a pillow for eight years has made a huge positive difference for me.

All in all, this part of my day was a fascinating microcosm of PTSD recovery work.  It reinforced many of the lessons that I have learned over the years.  You don’t know where the triggers are, or when they will hit you.  Often, what you think is going to trigger you does not.

Approaching trauma from different directions helps process it.  I got one level when I was physically present, and another when I wrote about my experience afterward today.  If you want to be as clear as possible, putting in this kind of effort will make a positive difference.

I hope you enjoyed my little journey into my emotional past.  If you choose to follow into your own, I wish you the best of luck with it.  May all of you out there find the peace of mind and body that you deserve.

Back to High School

So I’m in Portland, Maine writing this post. That still feels unreal to me. It has been 24 years since I spent any real time here. The last time I was here (ten years ago) I was so triggered that I was barely functional. About six months later, I manifested PTSD.

I have had many dreams about finding myself back in high school. One of the worst was when I had to repeat a couple grades as an adult in my 40s, and I ended up not doing any better than when I had been there originally. That dream felt like it lasted a lifetime, and I woke up with an intense feeling of failure, which I immediately did healing work on. Yecccch.

Fortunately, my real world visit went much better than that. My day in Maine started off by visiting my high school senior English teacher, Dr. Stanta Lucia… I wasn’t entirely sure why I was visiting him consciously, but I got a couple of strong other-than-conscious pings about it. So I called him up, made arrangements, sent him my books, and showed up.

When I first showed up, I was a bit taken aback. When I had him in high school, he had been a large man. Today, he was a frail shadow of his old self. In fact, when I first saw him, he didn’t seem very present or aware at all.

However, I helped him up from his bed to his computer, and he started getting a little more alert. I showed him how to open the pdf files I had sent him, and he started to rally more. Then things got really interesting.

He told me several things that I hadn’t known about him. Like me, he discovered that he had dyslexia as an adult in his 40s. He also told me that he had flashbacks. We didn’t go into why but it was obvious that we shared a much greater frame of reference than I had previously realized.

I don’t remember everything about our conversation. He praised me for being a serious student, which I appreciated. I can only wonder about how well I might have done if I had been emotionally healthy while I had been in school.

When the topic of my mother came up, I asked him if he knew she was an alcoholic. He did.I told him that she was also a sociopath. He said “I knew something was wrong, but I did not know that.” IIRC.. He seemed unsurprised, though.

We talked about how everything had been buried at that point in time, and how it had not been safe for me to know what had happened to me. I mentioned about how I had become my brother’s protector, and how it had not been safe for me to know the role that I had taken on. I also explained how it had taken me until I was just shy of a brown belt in Aikido before I felt safe enough to have my first flashbacks. All of that made sense to him.

We also talked about how my recovery work had opened up a connection to the spirit world, which was something I had never expected to experience as an atheist of over 20 years. That was something that he understood from his own experience.

Towards the end of my visit, he got a call from one of his sisters, and mentioned that his brother had died three weeks ago. At that point he was no longer feeling very well. I helped him back into bed, and lifted his feet up for him.

“May I be candid?” I asked. “Please,” he replied. “Given, your health and your loss, it’s only natural that death be on your mind.” He nodded. “Death is close, and I would suggest that you meditate on death, both as a scene, and as an entity.” It was something that seemed intuitively accurate to me.

“Wow! I got goosebumps on my arms when you said that! I have been doing that!”

“You’ve done your job here,” I replied. It felt right, and he seemed the calmest that he had been the entire time I had been there.

We exchanged goodbyes, and I left, feeling that I had done my job and delivered peace that was well deserved.

Headed Home: The Usual Chaos

So, I’ve been planning a trip back to my hometown this weekend.  I had a place to stay, and it fell through due to illness.  Someone else expressed interest in seeing me, and then silence.  The contact I’ve made that I’m most sure about is my old high school senior English teacher.  That alone would justify the trip.  But I’ve got much more to do than just that.

As I often say to clients, closure is priceless.  Visiting my hometown ten years after I fully manifested PTSD is going to give me a very concrete idea about where I stand with my mental health.  There will be triggers.  I will purge and grind through them to become a healthier person.  Facing my past will take courage and strength.

It would be nice if the universe was kinder in laying out a path for me to do these things.  I’d prefer not to be spending extra money on a hotel, and so forth.  It’s disappointing.  On the other hand, I’m not going to let it stop me, either.  At the end of the day, it’s a minor nuisance.  I want closure, and it’s worth paying for.

I don’t know exactly how this is going to work.  I don’t know where I will get triggered the most.  I expect the unexpected and surprises.  I hope that one day will be enough to do what I need to do.

Trance Trance Baby Trance!

One thing about hypnotherapists is that they tend to trance people a lot.  I have been doing it for many years now, and I’ve gotten rather good at it.  However, the trances by themselves are really just opening the door.  The real work happens before and after someone is in trance, not in the actual induction process.

There are all sorts of different inductions.  There are also certain schools of thought that state that certain kinds of change work is best done in certain types of mind.  This does not match well with my own clinical experience.  I have found relatively little match between trance depth and the healing results.

My experience is that trust and authenticity about the nature of change is much more important than formal trance.  When people feel safe enough, their emotions flow more freely.  This often reduces the need for formal trance and can even eliminate the need for formal trance entirely in healing work.

How do I get trust and authenticity?  The short answer is that I have thrown away most of my judgment.  Doing so was necessary for my own recovery work anyway.  In addition, my frame of reference from my own recovery work allows me to be significantly more open to other people who are less experienced in that area than I am.  These things make for a rather potent environment for healing.

Of course, there are some people who have an easier time doing healing work when they are in trance than out.  For those people, I happily oblige there expectations by taking them where they feel most comfortable.  If a tool helps, I’m more than happy to use it.

All of that being said, I am only one person, and some things scale better than others.  Trance files and trances still have their place.  Many people have told me that they enjoy trance files and that they are useful.

In that spirit, I have recorded quite a few myself.  Several people have told me that they like my work, so I thought I would mention them here.

Most recently, I have added a trance with a theme of general sex positivity (NSFW) and another vanilla trance with a theme of a bedtime trip into the imagination.  (Yes, it’s the Super Serious Spacey Sleepytime Trance.)  If you enjoy them, I hope that you will spread the word and let others know that they are freely available on youtube.  Thank you!

You can find all of my trances here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHcyDTencXKrRbPxuV8mgjw

Digging Up Bodies in Portland, Maine

So I’m about to go back in time and visit Portland, Maine where I grew up.  As an incest survivor, visiting home can be extremely challenging.  Why would I want to do such a thing, you might ask?

Sometimes, the time comes when you want to know how far you have travelled.  These days, I’m feeling better than I ever remember.  I have more peace of mind, and I am becoming increasingly productive.  On the other hand, there is always room for improvement.

There are times when a reality check is useful.  I haven’t been home in about ten years and that was when my recovery was just beginning.  I got really heavily triggered while I was there at the time and I barely had words to describe what I was going through.  It was still before I had had my first flashback.

This time, things will be very different.  I’ve been doing intensive recovery work for close to ten years.  I have tools, perspective, and experience that I did not have before.  I am a radically different person.

I am preparing this trip knowing full well that I will likely get heavily triggered at some point in time.  I intend to visit sites from my childhood that are likely to trigger me.  I am choosing to walk into the fire because I know the pain will not last and I will be better when I walk out the other side.

This is not something that I am doing lightly.  This is just one of those things that the time has come to do.  A friend suggested to me… and it seemed time.  It had not occurred to me consciously.

So, I have put out my feelers to a few folks and I have a place to stay for a few days with another old friend.  I’ve got my mental shovel ready.  Onward, to adventure!