A Year of Triggers

Last year, around this same time, the Access Hollywood tape of Trump gloating about his predatory treatment of women was made public. But that wasn’t the first time male power and predation was news in recent times. The news about Cosby, when first known, was shocking, disappointing, and so frequently in the news that people like me couldn’t help feeling attacked and frightened all over again.

Then men in the news business, the Fox network, were accused and removed. Now it is Harvey Weinstein. But nothing is so clear cut as this brief description might seem to make it. It is a long and torturous process from accusation to removal. Men in power cannot be easily taken down. Their very power protects them as their lawyers circle, and pay off women who would be vocal. These men attack and they harass with impunity and we discover that for years it has been no secret that they are dangerous to women.

I keep wondering whatever happened to the more than 12 women who accused Trump before the election? How has that been swept under the carpet (Ruiz, M. Oct. 12, 2017)? When others are accused, there is hardly a mention of our Predator-in-Chief. There cannot be separate standards for the line-up of men and the one at the head of the line and at the head of our country (Pavlovitz, J. 2017).  It will never, ever be OK with me that people, knowing this, put the man in office.  

Much, too much, has been written about this issue over the past week and the news articles of sexual aggression and the powerlessness of women have felt like huge waves washing over us, knocking us over just as we get our feet under us once again.

But there is one aspect of this that might be new. The fact that such news hits victims, survivors, and others in the face, causing a kind of shock to the system cannot be helped but must be managed, somehow (Schnuelle, S. 2017). We arm ourselves with every possible method we can find to soothe our minds, bodies, and souls.

Yet, there were days, months, and years when such stories never made it out of the back rooms where it occurred. While that may have given us peace, it was a false peace born of silent, suffering women who will never be known.

This doesn’t feel better.

But it is better.

Pavlovitz, J. (2017), You Don’t Get to Support Donald Trump and be Outraged at Harvey Weinstein. Oct. 11. https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/10/11/dont-get-support-donald-trump-outraged-harvey-weinstein/

Ruiz, M. (2017). Meanwhile, Let’s Not Forget that the President of the United States is an Alleged Sexual Predator. Vogue, Oct. 12. https://www.vogue.com/article/weinstein-donald-trump-alleged-sexual-abuser-in-white-house

Schnuelle, S. (2017). This Latest Sorrow, Oct. 2. http://transformmylife.org/2017/10/02/this-latest-sorrow/

 

 

 

 

I Didn't See It Coming...

So, with very little sleep election night, at 4 am here in Germany it looked close but by 8 am it was all but over. So many of us were shocked—not only mentally but physically. There was no way for me to predict what would happen when the shock wore off. By that evening, deep, deep grief had overcome me and I and my therapist were communicating.

I thought that the grief and shock would wear off but it hasn’t and the imminent, annual return to the States to see family and friends has created real fear. I’m not physically afraid. This is a woman who lived 10 miles from the Syrian border in north Lebanon while the war intensified but not my fear. No, I am emotionally afraid. Therapist Gretchen has tried her best to help and some things have helped. Below are several websites that explain in greater detail than I am willing to, how this feels to women who have been hurt by men.

All I know is that the leitmotiv in my head is, “People I trusted, people who have loved me, people I’ve loved, have voted a predator into office.” Whatever reasons Gretchen may cite in her attempts to depersonalize this result are not, nor ever will be enough to overcome that fact. In a world where that is true, safety is no longer something I can count on. Comfort and ease among people I thought I knew have vanished. In a world where that is true, what can I, or any other woman, count on? In a world where that is true, the faint hope that Row V. Wade will be repealed is of higher value than people who are already on the planet—women, of course, children, immigrants, black lives of all ages, and Muslims. In a world where that is true, where a criminal, a rapist, a pathological liar will become a world leader, the values I have held dear, have become fluid, less important, to others.

I cannot accept that all of things I saw are excusable and somehow less important than voting for someone who upheld the values I do. Do not talk to me about email, Benghazi, or lying. Just do not. The winner has had the highest percentage (98%) of lying of any candidate tracked in history. Let us hope it is some kind of horrible record never again to be equaled.

I could continue but there are women who have expressed exactly what I feel, eloquently. I’ve provided the links, most of which, Gretchen has sent me.

What I must do, somehow, is to find a way to reconnect with those I love. I must find a way to look past what feels like betrayal because there are so many good things I have always loved about them, both friends and family. What I must do is work with RAINN and other groups from whom we’ve heard, to raise awareness that “rape culture” is not treated as normal. What I must do is stand up for others who have been assaulted, hurt, and abused.

But first, as Gretchen says, I must take care of myself. I’m not always sure I know how to do that when I’m overwhelmed by sorrow but I am going to try, and keep trying. I keep trying to remember that my life is good and the people in it have not suddenly become strangers, even if I cannot understand.

Somehow, I and millions of other women must reclaim our safety.

Resources:

Christian Theology Professors Issue a Statement on Trump’s Election.

It's Not About Losing--but I'll tell what it is about...

7 Survivors On What It Means to Have a Man Accused of Sexual Assault in the White House

Father's Day

I used to stand in the card aisle picking through dozens of cards. How could I find one that would be appropriate? They just don't make cards for abusive dads. Sentiments like, "I remember all the good times," or "You've taught me so much," were almost humorous in their irony. Almost...but not really. It's an important day, for the many who can and want to honor their fathers but it's a day filled with anxious worry for many of us. 

Now that my father is gone, there is much less to fret about. No card, no gift, no phone call needed to create the fiction for the rest of the world that all is well. I have been able to make friends with lots of fathers in my role as a teacher and have discovered many who are doing it right and some who are even doing it well. It gives me hope that the name "father" is not necessarily a word carrying the weight of abuse or neglect. It can be a word that is filled with longing and love.

Well-meaning folks have suggested that I can replace my father with God the Father. That is not easily done! If my own father was intimidating, strict, harsh, how much more so the Almighty Judge of humanity? It takes a long time to separate the one from the other and I am never sure I have been successful at it, though I have tried over and over and have had glimpses of loving fathers who could be examples. 

Can I wish anyone a Happy Father's Day sincerely? I can and have when I see genuine love and admiration from their children. Father's Day will never mean to others what it does to me.  That's a very good thing!

Borders and Boundaries

The very word, “Boundaries,” makes me shudder!  I am sure I don’t know all the reasons yet but I am thinking about it. Psychologically, it has to do with establishing my own space in the world because I have the self-respect to do so while, at the same time, respecting the boundaries of others. From either direction—inside out or outside in—the whole concept, discussion, and implementation, fills me with anxious fear.[1] Before I go further, as an English professor and writer, I cannot help but think about the physical meanings of these words and what they imply, just to see how they might apply in the life of the mind. 

Over the past two years the whole world has thought about borders and boundaries. The worldwide refugee crisis has brought the EU Schengen Zone into sharp relief and many countries have begun to question the whole idea of a borderless union of multiple countries. The border of the sea turned into a pathway to asylum for some and a graveyard for hundreds of other. The US presidential elections have opened up a virulent and xenophobic debate about American borders. At their worst, boundaries keep desperate people away and at their best, they protect citizens from enemy invasion. Ultimately, each county gets to decide how they will enforce or relax their borders. The US and Canada boast the longest unprotected border in the world and there are far more positives in that arrangement than negatives.  Boundaries can also feel claustrophobic. Island fever is defined by the boundary of the sea but what is one person’s boundary is another’s freedom. When I first moved from a tropical island to the middle of the United States, I had to keep pushing aside the thought that no matter how far I drove, I could not reach the open sea within even 24 hours, much less 2. Had I perseverated on it, it would have struck me with panic. On the other hand, a friend of mine, moving from the Great Plains to Wenatchee Valley in Washington, suffered severe asthma attacks when he couldn’t see the 360-degree horizons he’d been used to. He had to move back to the plains to regain a sense of calm. The “territorial imperative,” the personal space we need around us to be comfortable, is an invisible boundary that feels very real when broached.

Clearly, the concept of boundaries is fluid and as individual for me as it probably is for every other person on the planet, even accounting for cultural differences. Why is it important? For one thing, therapeutically, I figure it must be important because Gretchen has returned to it, over and over again, and each time it is upsetting.  I suppose when it is no longer upsetting she’ll stop hammering away on the topic. (Actually, that’s an unfair characterization of her technique. She will leave a topic after a time of intensive work and when she knows that the upset has become intolerable, returning to it by another route and in another context sometime later.)

That is not to say I don’t appreciate borders or boundaries. I like being in my house, alone. I like the walls around me, protecting me from the outside world. I like the feeling that my space is my own, it’s quiet, it’s secure, it’s protected. The Magic Blanket™, recommended to me by a friend, provides the boundary of an 18-pound blanket that keeps me feeling safe and quiet in bed. Who knew? 

Seanne and I dealt with boundaries both directly and obliquely in our book. For one thing, the boundaries of a traditional therapist-client relationship had to change during co-authorship and it is a topic that has come up during three recent interviews.[2] As Seanne stated, navigating that shift is not recommended. It’s difficult! There were several unhappy stretches of time. One time I said, “Every time you write about boundaries, I feel as though you’re criticizing me for overstepping them in some way” (that I hadn’t understood until reading what she’d recently written).  Of course she protested that she meant no such thing. We discussed it over and over because of my own tendency to misinterpret almost everything she expressed through my murky understanding, laced with intense emotional responses. Earlier, in therapy, we had talked about what happens when the boundaries of children are violated and how difficult it becomes to understand what boundaries mean, never mind the idea that everyone has a personal right to them. 

From the inside out, I know how much I resent people who don’t intuitively understand the limits of what I can or want to do or what I need.  I know that’s irrational.  Following resentment, I become angry with myself for not standing up for myself, for letting myself, once more, get into a situation of disadvantage, a situation of feeling small in age and size. The conundrum is this: if that feels so awful, attempting to state my needs must feel much worse than that. Right? Otherwise, why would I let it happen?  The problem seems to be that from the outside in, in other words, on the rare occasion that I cannot or do not intuit someone else’s boundaries or even that they feel a need to express them up front, I feel terribly ashamed, humiliated, as if I’ve transgressed egregiously.  I think, “I should have known better. How could I have run roughshod over someone else that way? What an insensitive clod they must think I am” and so on through a litany of self-recrimination. Even now, recalling times when Gretchen established the necessary therapeutic limits we will observe, I can sense myself feeling ill, like I did the first time.

The circular nature of the issue then, from the inside out, is obvious. If that’s how I feel, won’t expressing my needs evoke the same horrible feelings in others? And, if it does, will they reject me? Abandon me? Will they think I’m vain or claiming something that does not belong to me? So, I have remained quiet, for years, making small attempts to stake out a tiny space for myself and then, only when I feel completely desperate. Growing up, an expression resembling anything like a wish for privacy, private time, or a need to claim what did not seem to belong to me, even my body, was dealt with harshly. But, Gretchen and close friends will sometimes say, even stridently, “We’re not your father!”

My teaching philosophy and Gretchen’s therapeutic philosophy seem parallel: If you work hard, so will I; you will not fail…unless you want to. Often therapy feels like the hard work of a patient therapist teaching me over and over to override my strong, negative feelings with rational thoughts.  It seems to take a long time.

[1] Lancer, D. (2015). Codependency for Dummies. Wiley & Sons: NY. Gretchen recommended this book and it is very, very complete on the topic of codependency and boundaries. However, reading it filled me with so much shame and even depression, she requested I put it down.

[2] C. Maria Wall, "Healing Through Hurt," Rachel Grant, "Beyond Surviving," and Susan Jacobi, "Conversations that Heal."

Elizabeth Saved Me?

I’ve been thinking about this post for quite awhile, not even sure I would write it or whether I should. I am not a neuropsychologist but I am very interested in the wonderful ways my brain, anyone’s brain, manages to protect us from trauma, for as long as is necessary sometimes. Finally, at the urging of Rachel Grant[1] I decided to try to articulate this very tricky issue.

Elizabeth was born very early in my life but I became aware of her almost-physical presence when I was about 7. She willingly took my place during the worst of the abuse and, eventually, she carried whatever I couldn’t—memories, pain, both physical and emotional. I didn’t even have to call her, she was just there and provided me rest and a certain amount of peace that I couldn’t have had were I made to be present all of the time.  While I floated up, in the corner of the room, looking down on her, she silently bore what I couldn’t. [2]

When I left home, she retreated and I didn’t think much about her for a very long time. None of my first therapists asked about her but, when I finally ended up in Seanne’s care, she began to ask me about Little Geri. I was immediately angry. I blamed her for being the physical presence that had provoked the anger and abuse directed my way. I wanted her dead, not realizing, as she has pointed out recently, that we are a package deal! It wouldn’t have mattered earlier. I would have said, “Bring it on! If she goes, then I get to go too!” I was not ready to deal with her or see beyond the blame I made her carry. Of course, any rational person would understand that by blaming her, I was continuing to blame myself. There have been decades of blame and hate during which I believed her murder would relieve me from memory, once and for all.  Seanne tried to help me but eventually, she had to leave it for another time and I, in the interim, pushed her back into the shadows. Then, as those who know the story are aware, I left the city, the state, and the country.

After an hiatus of 10 years when I did maintenance therapy with Marilka and a couple in Europe, I returned to intensive therapy and began seeing Gretchen. She says that as early as our second session, when she asked about Little Geri and heard my wish to “kill her off,” she was aware of some rather important unfinished business. Two-and-a-half years have passed since that day and it amazes me how important Elizabeth (she told me that is her name, my middle name) has become.  She’s grown up too! She says she’s in her mid to late 30’s. When I listen to her, I learn so much! Though I am convinced they are things I never knew, Gretchen says that Elizabeth is the part of me that has been attentively listening to years of therapy, waiting for the right moment to bring it back to mind. She’s the part of me that pays attention to the world; she listens and thinks. Gretchen says she’s very wise, very intelligent. She seems to be smarter than I am much of the time and she’s turned into a comforting presence, mostly.

To be fair, Gretchen keeps reminding me that she is part of me, the part that had to split to preserve the rest of me. There are so many varieties of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) that I’ve begun to think of it as a wide spectrum of possibilities, each designed to protect us. I have not been diagnosed as a bona fide DID client but rather DDNOS (Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Elizabeth never speaks for me though she speaks to me. Others report having "parts" that split off to manage various incidents of abuse. Still others have birthed a number of separate people who help to manage their trauma. 

Once I became aware of Elizabeth again and came to rely on her for advice, pushed by Gretchen to “Ask Elizabeth what she thinks,” I feared that Gretchen might try to get rid of her, integrate her, or force me to merge with her into some ill-fitting skin of a new “me.” She says that doesn’t really work and therapists don’t do that any more. Such merging or integration never lasts in any case and there are times when clients grieve the loss of their closest friend.  What Gretchen would like me to accept is the miracle of Elizabeth’s presence, the blessing of the relief she has provided, the marvelous way my brain protected me, and Elizabeth's heroism in providing a way to survive..

 

[1] Rachel Grant Coaching, San Francisco, CA.

[2] I’ve read of this phenomenon with other abuse victims. This also happens when I am exhausted, I look down on myself teaching, generally trying to do something that takes a great deal of concentration, while I struggle to concentrate. See also Susan Jacobi and her book How to Love Yourself: The Hope After Child Abuse, 2011, Amazon. 

Triggers

I’ve not really ever liked that word.  I am a pacifist, anti-gun, and besides, it seems to put power into the hands of someone else. It feels like something that is completely out of control over which I have no power. Someone pulls the trigger and BAM!! there I am back at some horrible scene or feeling. But I don’t get to name this stuff and, recently having a couple of experiences that can only be described as BAM!!, I find it is, after all, very apt.

First of all, I do not have control over what someone else chooses to do or situations that cannot be helped—they are a part of life, as much as I really dislike saying that.  Anyone who has read our book knows that one such situation was described—going to the dentist.  The poor dentist cannot help the fact that he must stand over me and put his fingers in my mouth to work.  I cannot help the fact that my teeth need care, something I managed to avoid for over a decade, at least, and so, there have to be ways to manage without the need to crawl into bed for 24 hours to hide and cry.

I used to believe that when I was “all well,” whatever that is, I would not be bothered by “triggers” ever again.  But, indeed, the BAM!! effect is truly out of my control. Gretchen has spent a great deal of energy and time reiterating that. I won’t ever be “all well” as far as the effects of PTSD are concerned and my apparently unreasonable expectations only make it worse.  Not only have I received a direct hit, right in the stomach, my sudden response is to be expected.  Brain changes that occurred a very long time ago don’t just “pop back into place” no matter how much therapy I’ve done and medication I’ve taken. It also occurs to me that the illusive “place” I imagine is long gone.  It’s been absorbed into the complex web of experiences that we all have over the course of many years. 

The event that brought about this most recent hit and subsequent discussion was something that has already received a whole chapter in our book under “Security is not Safe.” However, the USA’s TSA Cares program is not replicated in other parts of the world—perhaps any other part of the world, for all I know. Thus, heading to Europe a few weeks ago put me in direct contact with TSA-types in Japan and Austria who definitely do not care! Oh woe and misery!

It’s not as if I do not know what to do! I take off every possible thing, even jewelry, if there is any chance at all it might set off an alarm.  I worry that the fear they see in my eyes makes me suspect. I walk through the sensors holding my breath—all to no avail in Tokyo and Vienna.  The first time, though I did not handle it well, the very polite Japanese lady apologized as she ran her senor and hands over me.  It seemed clear to me that my bra, specifically the underwires, must be setting of the alarms.  You can imagine that the only way to discover that sort of hardware is to try to feel what it is.  By the time it was over, I was a complete mess. Fortunately, I had time, before passport control, to text Gretchen and tell her I was in trouble.  As we discussed in therapy, a big part of what happened was the complete shock of setting off alarms that had never gone off before.  Little did I know then that Vienna could and would be worse.  There a security Officious Official I called “Brünhilde” who not only ran her wand and hands everywhere finding that it probably was bra hardware, she also pulled up my shirt and pulled at my pants while travelers continued to walk through and a male guard seemed to stare.  By this time, I had gone into a freeze mode that Gretchen explained later has to do with the “Flight, fight, or freeze” responses we have learned in order to survive. She explained that each response is probably related to the time of first harm.  The “freeze” response does not, as I thought, indicate idiocy or cowardice but rather that the hurt occurred very, very early.   Of course, in these situations, either of the first two responses could get me locked up in jail! The “freeze” response also comes with some dissociation, which helps, momentarily. (No professional I know thinks that’s such a good solution, ultimately.)  I suffered flashbacks for several days following, each diminishing in intensity. In her discussions of PTSD and the effects of childhood trauma Gretchen references the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D. who states,       

Two primary adaptive response patterns in the face of extreme threat are the hyperarousal continuum (defense -- fight or flight) and the dissociation continuum (freeze and surrender response). Each of these response ‘sets’ activates a unique combination of neural ‘systems’ (2003, “The Effects of Traumatic Events on Children,” www. ChildTrauma.org).[1] 

Part II of “Triggers” will tell as much as I can about what Gretchen has taught me, or tried to teach me, and how I might be able to recover more quickly the next time.

Briefly, in the meantime: returning to the present, reminding myself I’m OK (even when I don’t feel at all ok), doing something that will involve my physical senses—hot, cold, sour, prickly, rough can help to bring me back and, even if I’m angry about having this reaction, it does not have to be paralyzing.  Sometimes I wonder if I let myself suffer longer because I am angry. Who am I punishing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See also: Perry, B. (2004). “Maltreatment and The Developing Child,” The Margaret McCain Lecture Series. http://www.lfcc.on.ca/mccain/perry.pdf

 

Post Publication Thoughts, Ongoing work

July 10, 2015

It has been over a month now since our book hit the virtual shelves.  It has done well, by almost any measure and certainly better than we had expected.  Still, we hope that it will help more and more people as time goes on.

For my part, as the past one-and-a-half years since we worked on the final edits of the manuscript, have demonstrated, time goes on and what I wrote three years ago about therapy that had occurred 10 years prior, feels even more distant now as with my new therapist, I move even deeper into the process of setting things right, at the very core of where they were upset, broken, and torn apart. I hold no illusions about ever coming to the end of that road, but I am not usually discouraged because I see progress that is sometimes slow, sometimes seems to leap forward, and sometimes seems to take a rest. There are even times when I suspect I’ve regressed, only to be goaded into taking the next step forward.  I suspect that is true for everyone who attempts to follow Socrates’s injunction, “Know thyself.”

I said I am not “usually discouraged.” That is honest because sometimes I am. I have a great therapist but her goals are ambitious because, though she says they’re possible, they are always the next great, seemingly unreachable thing. Looking back over the past two years, I am amazed that one woman’s completely closed mind on certain beliefs could change so much, sometimes 180 degrees! How does that happen? I do know this as a certainty: we both work hard. She has considerable powers of persuasion, is an experienced EMDR practitioner, and is a trauma specialist.  Gretchen is neither disturbed nor bamboozled by my sidetracks, my stubborn clinging to long-held, irrational beliefs. Probably the most important element, beside her considerable intelligence and sense of humor, is her dogged patience. I see no deviation in her commitment to the goals we discussed early on, though she has seen plenty of wobble in mine! It is her unwavering belief that her clients can have their lives restored to them that is the greatest motivation. How do you say no to someone like that? How can you when you know that ultimately, she plans to win you over to, as she likes to say, “our side. We have the chocolate.”

Gretchen recommended a book that has been extremely helpful, Emerson, D. & Hopper, E. (2011) Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA. I have had a somewhat regular morning yoga practice but, in the way many of us do, I imagine, mindlessly: Listening to the instructions, not my body, for what to do, how much, how intense, and so on.  The first 63 pages, including the Forewards and Introduction, are excellent explanations for why this is so in PTSD survivors.

You know that you should not feel this way, but your body keeps getting hijacked into feeling intolerable sensations and emotions. This makes you feel crazy: on some level you realize that the danger is over, but your insides, the sensations that churn around in your body, keep warning you of impending doom (Introduction, p. xxi, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, MD, Founder and Medical director of the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute).

The rest of the book includes some yoga practices that can be done at home, a section for therapists, and another for yoga instructors. It is written in easily accessible prose, explaining to therapists and clients alike what happens physically during trauma of all kinds, including child sexual abuse.  I had never read or heard it explained so lucidly but I understood, for the first time what Seanne meant by “The body remembers” and why, scientifically, that is so.  I recommend it to anyone and wish that yoga instructors would read it and offer trauma-sensitive yoga classes within reach of everyone.

-Geri

 

Introductions

Geri Henderson

Geri is a citizen of the world, traveling and teaching overseas for the past 11 years in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia. This lifestyle is one she enjoys, having spent her early years overseas, in a country she still loves and calls home. She has spent years seeking and working toward wholeness, off and on. What she has done for almost all her life is teach and this gives her great joy and fulfillment. Her interest in teaching and natural curiosity drive her research into areas of language, writing, and literature that will enrich her classrooms.  Currently she teaches the military for the University of Maryland University College and various military bases in Asia.

She spent many years in Nebraska teaching piano and violin while attending the University of Nebraska for her MM, MA, and Ph.D. degrees and these reflect her wide range of interests in music, literature, medieval mysticism, and art. 

Seanne Emerton 

Seanne is a Central Nebraska woman with deep roots. She and her husband still live on the land that has been in her family for six generations. While she loves to travel (especially to visit their grown sons and families in Denver and Boston), she loves returning to the open spaces of the Midwest. Seanne has been a marriage and family therapist for over 25 years. She loves the work and loves continually learning new ways to help strengthen relationships. She is the founder and owner of Family Resources of Greater NE, P.C. with offices in Grand Island, Kearney, York and Broken Bow.  In her spare time, Seanne enjoys exploring spirituality and health, yoga, playing piano, reading, swimming, hiking and bicycling.

Seanne loves working with all kinds of people including facilitating individuals, families and businesses in growing their potential by using positive psychology. She is certified in assessing and coaching Emotional Intelligence and delights in building resiliency and happiness with her clients. 

Her side passion is designing and officiating personalized wedding ceremonies for couples as a Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant. She serves the Midwest area with her Celebrant work and loves the creative process of helping couples create a one-of-a-kind, memorable ceremonies.