“Help for the Fractured Soul” by Candyce Roberts

I just finished this book today, and it’s been a journey. As I mentioned in my recent letter to mom, I’ve been reading about how a child’s mind deals with pain that is too large to handle. Often, it breaks.

This book is primarily written for people working with traumatized individuals, but I can’t afford therapy, so I read it in search of understanding and tips for working with my own mess. The main take away that I found is “Take this seriously; some of your symptoms are more intense than you’ve acknowledged before and if you don’t change, you won’t be able to progress past them.” Roberts didn’t say that. I just recognized ways that I dissociate, and repress painful memories, and check out of daily life.

Healthy people don’t have all of these crazy, interconnected responses firing up when things hurt. I don’t want to go from calm to unresponsive in a few seconds forever. I want to feel pain, accept that it hurts, and move past it. Right now, I just lock up and then try to do anything but understand why I’m in pain.

It’s like running on a broken leg; if I don’t learn about how I got injured or give myself opportunities to recover and grow strong, I will just make it worse.

I need to be willing to revisit those dark days that shaped my image of myself and to reject the lies they planted. I didn’t deserve it. I can’t control the actions of others, so it was never about being good enough. I am not worthless or irreparably broken.

I am hurt. And angry. And betrayed. And bitter. There is a reason for my feelings, but these emotions are also keeping me trapped in those dark moments when I was vulnerable and helpless and deeply hurt by people I had trusted.

To put it simply, I suppose you could say that this book showed me that healing is more complicated than I thought. During an earlier stage of my healing journey, I only dealt with pain until I could get it contained enough to seal it in a box and not need to dwell on it any more. Instead, it seems like I’ll need to reevaluate some old things, and allow myself to disconnect from them.

It’s hard to put into words. By accepting the emotions connected with trauma, I can know myself more fully and have a stronger handle on the truth. Yet, once I reach that point, I can also release the weight and intensity of the emotions, so that I don’t have to carry or fear them any more.

Oh well. In any case, Candyce Roberts’ book was helpful for me, and I’m still trying to responsibly evaluate her approach and its implications for my current state. I’m glad I pulled it off my shelf to read in its entirety.


Moving Forward with Mom

Well, I actually texted my mom and asked her to make time to talk to me and she did. We met in a restaurant and talked for a while. I was really nervous about whether or not she had made any progress on being defensive, and she has. It was good, even though I didn’t expect it to be.

I brought along the book I’m reading. I told her that I’m nervous about integrating the pockets of emotion that I’ve separated from myself. (There are traumatic events that I can discuss in a flat, rational tone, because I don’t feel anything. From what I can tell, it’s not uncommon for people to become numb when they experience things that are too intense for them to handle. I need to begin the process of feeling those things, accepting the pain. accepting that the events didn’t shape my value, and moving forward.)

I asked her how she reconciled her love for her father with the pain that he caused her during the period of his life when he used alcohol to numb the scars he brought back from war. I listened to her talk through it, and it seemed like she understood that I would need to walk that path with her as well. I think she knows that it will take time, that there may be days that I’m angry, and that this process is more about me than about her. I don’t think she’s threatened by my journey.

Honestly, not much has changed since before we talked, but it was worth doing. If I had let fear make my choices for me, I never would have taken the risk of talking to her, and I would still feel alone and empty.

There’s still a lot of work to do. Healing is dirty and painful and long. Sometimes, things need to break again in order to heal properly. Sometimes, you have to pull out all of the pieces of pain you thought you had dealt with already, look at them again, make new connections or interpret them with new information, and then pack them away  when you’re done. Sometimes, you can move on once you’ve had enough new experiences that contradict your old expectations. Sometimes, you go a bit further down before you can climb again.

I’m not expecting a miracle or a quick fix.

I expect to cry and journal, to laugh and paint, to fight and scream, and to break through every wall of pain and fear that’s kept me trapped here. It will be hard. I will need breaks to heal and restore my energy. I will have to take care of my needs along the way or I risk getting sick or falling into a downward spiral.

There’s a balance between taking care of myself because I’m precious and pushing myself to keep going through the pain because it’s the only way out. I will find it and I will keep it, to the best of my ability.

Day 23 With Dora

I’m doing better again. It would be easier to evaluate my emotions if they were more consistent. Or lasted longer. Or if I were better able to recognize their sources.

A few nights ago, I was sitting with my husband and my dog on our couch, and I basically said “I’m overwhelmed and I don’t know why,” and he said “Yeah, I’m tired too,” and everything froze for a second. Wait. Tired. We did all the same errands and tasks today and he is tired. Am… am I tired?

It was weird, because just like I lost touch with my emotions after enough ‘how do I feel? hurt. right.’ checks, I also lost touch with the causes of my emotions after enough ‘why am I hurt? because I’m still breathing. right.’ checks. I just assume that all negative experiences are caused my depression, or my social anxiety, or my depression-fueled anxiety. So many of them have been, after all. So when he said that he was tired, I realized that it was reasonable for me to be tired as well.

So as I complained about my emotions above, please keep in mind that I don’t recognize what it is to be human. All I see is mental illness because I remember when it’s been so suffocating that it was all I could see. Things might be awful. Or they might be ok. I just can’t tell the difference.

Crap. Do you know what this means?

All of my negative-emotion responses are probably all still tuned to max power. Like… like… so, let’s say I get scared in a reasonable situation like a car wreck or something… or a near miss or something. So I feel fear, rational fear, and at the first sign of it, I’m like ‘I know this feeling! Brace for impact!’ and it’s full on panic, quick response mode. Forget everything else. Drop all responsibilities. Run. Survive. I’m bracing for the worst.

And I do that for smaller things. Public speaking. Getting turned around on unfamiliar hiking trails. Some days, needing to go outside when I can see people out there. Some days, when my curtains and blinds are just open. 

No matter what, just panic. I will have to watch myself for it, to see if I’m actually doing this or if it’s just a hypothesis that would account for a few things.

… Right. Dora. We’re ok again. I sing to her. I talk to her. We’re walking together much better than before. It’s going to be ok. Today, I believe that it’s going to be ok.

Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance is an actual psychological technique in which the therapist asks the patient to face whatever it is that causes their negative emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, distrust, shame, etc.) for a short duration in order to learn healthy responses to that stimulus. The process is repeated, possibly with increasing durations or stronger intensities of exposure, until the patient is empowered to face similar situations in real life.

⭐️ Note: This is neither a professional definition, nor a universal approach to the therapy. It is merely a summary based upon my experience. Please research the technique before using it on yourself or others. Ultimately, all therapy will be more effective if you understand how and why things are being done, so that you can adjust the technique to suit your specific situation.

So, in a simple way, I used distress tolerance to teach Kuno, my cat, to trust people. (See an earlier entry called “Facing Her Fears” if you want details.) Tonight, I decided to use distress tolerance with myself, in facing my social anxiety. (Again, there are earlier entries about this topic too: “Loneliness and Loss” and “Indoor Introvert” might be your best bets.)

I live in a region with deciduous trees and four seasons, so every autumn, the leaves fall, and people are expected to clear them from their lawns. Between my husband and I, I am the one with more free time, so it is logical for me to do things like yard work. Of course, between the two of us, I am also the one with more fears, so it is harder for me to do things like yard work. It’s difficult for me, because I want to be useful and more capable than I am now, but overcoming a lifetime of pain doesn’t happen overnight.

So, tonight, I went outside with the rake, just after dark, and I raked maybe a third of our yard. No one could see me, because it was night, which made things feel a bit safer for me. I was probably only out there for 30 minutes, but I wanted to bolt after 5-10. It was difficult, but I recognized that things were actually safe, so I pushed through the distress until I finished a set goal. Once I finished with the area of my yard that I set out to rake, I double checked it, and then came back inside.

I haven’t seen the results of my work yet, since it was dark, but I still feel like I accomplished something because I now have a positive experience to help offset some of my fear. That alone is worth it.

Working at Her Pace

I own a traumatized cat who has special needs. She was born to mostly feral cats, i.e. cats that have an owner who doesn’t spay/neuter them, leaves them outside, doesn’t interact with the cats, and provides their feline colony with less food and water than it takes to support them. She and her family lived downtown on a busy road.

All of that to say that when we first adopted her, Kuno was afraid of both cars and people. I worked with her to develop her trust in people, and maybe I’ll write about that later, but we haven’t really made progress around cars. This is important because when I need to transport her, I need to use my car.

Today, I had to drive her for 20 minutes to bring her to my new home. I can’t keep her in a cat box during drives because she class the bars until she bleeds, and I can’t really let her roam free because she gets everywhere in the car- pedals, dashboard, steering wheel… Everywhere. It’s always difficult for both of us. Her yowling in terror and me trying to calm her verbally while driving as fast as I can to get where we are going. (I don’t really speed much, but I just try to take the smartest route.)

So, we made it. I let her hide in the footwell once the car was turned off, so she could have a few minutes of pause. I picked her up and carried her in, squatting down and letting her sit on my lap until she was ready to move to the floor.

I have tried to show her things- the litter box, the food dish, etc.- but she followed me to the master bedroom and hasn’t left our bathroom and closet yet. So I accepted it. She has tuna fish in the bathroom; her cat tree lets her reach the shelf in our closet so she can sit 6 feet in the air; there’s a cat bed on the shelf; the litter box is in the bathroom; the bathroom window is open so she can see and smell the outside world.

It’s all that I can do: just provide what she needs, come when she calls, and empower her to explore her new environment. The rest is up to her.