Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity

Content Warning: Talk of triggers, trauma and abuse.

This week I was triggered, badly. It happened at work, which was kind of embarrassing. I’m always a little embarrassed when it happens, but at least if I’m just with my husband, he knows my history and understands what’s happening and can wait it out with me. At work, I try to put forward my confident, professional self, and the illusion is kind of shattered when you end up curled up on the floor shaking and crying (not an over-exaggeration).

This episode was a particularly bad one too. I have talked about my triggers and trauma responses before.  I had a tactile flashback in March that I shared here. This time it was more emotional than sensational. Even though I knew I wasn’t in any actual danger, I was completely overcome with the absolute terror that I used to live with daily. I don’t know how to properly explain this kind of fear to someone who’s never felt it. Physically, my body shook, I began to sweat, my heartbeat went through the roof, I couldn’t stop crying. Emotionally, I didn’t feel safe. No, it’s more extreme than that. I felt as though someone could burst through the door and end my life in a fit of rage and there was nothing I can do to stop it. This is the reality I lived with for a year; afraid to sleep because he might smother me, afraid to shower because he might drown me, afraid to blink or look away because he was a constant threat on my life, while simultaneously feeling as though I couldn’t live without him.

That was the emotion that I experienced with this trigger, I was petrified. But, because I wasn’t reliving a particular event, I was still mentally present. I was aware that I was at work and that I had been triggered and that I need to find a way to make myself feel safe. I removed myself from the situation and locked myself in the bathroom for while to get over the initial shock. When I felt a little better, I left the bathroom to return to work. My manager met me in the corridor and asked if I was okay, evidentally, I was not. Every time I thought I was okay, another wave crashed down on top of me. I ended up in the staff room, sitting on the floor between a sofa and coffee table, shaking and crying down the phone to my husband. I like small, compact spaces, close to the ground, where I can see the door. I’m sure I looked crazed, but I know what I need to do to look after myself, and I did it. I called my husband because he is grounding for me, he makes me feel safe. Ideally, I’d have him hold me tight until I calmed down, but in this situation talking to him on the phone was the best I could get. It helped a lot though and I returned to work not long after that.

My colleagues were all very kind and supportive, and respectful of my process, asking what I needed from them and then doing as I asked. I was very appreciative of that. Although I am embarrassed that they’ve seen me like that, I am sure they’re not judging me for it, they are good people.

So anyway, the episode took its toll physically and mentally. It is exhausting to feel that kind of intense emotion, even if it’s only briefly (I do have theories that my trauma contributed to my M.E, but more on that another time). As per usual, I began thinking of ways that I could improve myself. In terms of counselling, talking therapies, CBT etc., I think I have done as much as I can. The trauma occurred 6/7 years ago and I feel as though I have processed it as much as I am able. I am conscious and aware when I am triggered, my response is purely physical. It’s kind of like playing a horror game in VR, you know it can’t actually hurt you, you know it’s just a game, but it’s still scary as hell. The trauma lasted for 2 years and I was barely human by the time it was over, so I think it’s fair to assume that my brain was injured by it (MRI testing has proved that PTSD physically changes the structure of the brain). If this is the case, then I need a different kind of treatment that focuses not on my emotional responses, but on helping my brain to process the traumatic memories that it’s holding onto.

EMDR. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The process of reliving your trauma (with a trained professional) while being bilaterally stimulated. This can be done by watching a moving finger, metronome, lights, or anything else. No one is exactly sure why it works, but they’ve been using it in PTSD patients since 1988 and many find it very helpful. The theory goes that during a traumatic event, you brain is incapable of storing memories properly. So when you are triggered by something relating to the trauma memory, your brain gets confused about when it happened and reacts as if it’s happening in the present. By stimulating both sides of the brain while recalling the trauma, you are able to keep one foot in the present moment and one foot in the past, allowing the brain to reorganise itself and file the memories away correctly. A study done in 2020 has shown that this kind of therapy increases connections in parts of the brain involved in multisensory integration, executive control, emotional processing, salience and memory.

I’ve been aware of EMDR for a while but am naturally skeptical of treatments that don’t have scientifically demonstrated, repeatable results. All of the evidence that this works, is anecdotal. But at this point, what do I have to lose? I texted an old counsellor of mine (who said to text any time if I needed help after our formal sessions ended) and asked if she knew someone or somewhere she could refer me to. As it turns out, the faction that she works for (who I have used several times in the past) do use this kind therapy. She said I may have to do some trauma counselling first, I guess to prove that I have PTSD and that I’ve exhausted other treatment options, but I’m okay with that. From my experience they’ve always been quite receptive when I’ve told them “this is what’s wrong with me, this is what I’ve tried, these treatments work, these ones don’t, this is what I’d like from you”. I’m sure it’s easier than trying to figure out how to help those who don’t know what’s wrong with them or what to do about it.

I’m going to call on Friday and see what they can do. I booked the day off work so I could have a ‘health’ day and I reckon this falls into that category. I’m excited, I like to work on my mental health and the idea of being free from flashbacks and nightmares is exilerating. He’s taken enough from me already, time to let it go.

Gender Identity

Gender Identity

How I Identify

Last night I dreamt I had a penis. This isn’t an unusual occurrence, I often dream that I have a penis. When I wake up, I have a few moments of phantom limb sensations, then as my full consciousness returns, reality takes hold and I’m left with feelings of loss and emptiness.

I also dream that I have a vagina. I dream that I have a slender body with perfect breasts and smooth hips. I dream about being an icon of femininity, a perfect 10 that draws eyes from across the room. When I wake from these dreams, I am disappointed with the lumpy, bumpy shape that I am and vow (yet again) to do something to change it.

I was born into a female body and, as most females do, I have a number of general insecurities about my body, but I don’t hate my female sex organs.

I have always had a significant amount of “penis envy”. Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, before gender identity was a common topic of discussion, I thought my feelings came from growing up with two brothers, being a “tom boy”, and the fact that I generally got on better with boys than girls. Learning a little bit about feminism made me think “Well, of course I want to be a man, life is so much easier for them,” but even now, when I believe this is a woman’s world, I still miss my penis.

The language used to describe the way that people identify, and which pronouns they like to be addressed with, is always changing and adapting and means different things to different people. I often use the term “non-binary” to describe my gender, as that’s generally accepted to mean neither male nor female. However, the term that more truly represents myself is “gender fluid” since I don’t reject being in the binary, I just switch from one to the other. Allow me to explain:

I was born with “normal” female attributes. In fact, as a mature female I have predominant female features. I have an hourglass figure, large breasts and hips, delicate wrists and ankles, an upturned nose and a dimple in my cheek when I smile. I also have long hair and don’t bite my nails which contribute to the female identity, though these are choices and not genetics.

Sometimes I love being female. I will wear makeup, do my hair, put on a well fitting bra and tight top to show off my curves. I enjoy feeling sexy and desirable as a woman. On a deeper level, I love and respect what my female anatomy was designed for. I love that I am able to carry a foetus through development then birth the child through my vagina and feed them from my breasts. That is miraculous to me and I am so grateful to have that capability (even though it means that I have 7/8 day-long, heavy periods).

Sometimes I hate being female. I see my body and cringe before looking away with disgust. I wear sports bras that hold my breasts as flat as possible against my chest. I wear loose, baggy t-shirts and hoodies to disguise any shape that I have. I put on boxers and baggy trousers and sigh deeply for my missing appendage. I do own a “packer” (a synthetic, flaccid penis that can be placed in underwear to simulate the “lump” that men have in their trousers) and I do wear it on the occasions that the loss is particularly painful, just feeling the weight and presence of it between my legs can bring me a little relief, but I’ve not had the nerve to wear it publically yet.

I don’t know how to describe to you the feeling of loss for something that you’ve never possessed. Especially when the thing you’re missing is integral to your understanding of who you are as a person. Call to mind something that is a part of your personality and identity, something that is you, that you could never be without. Now imagine you don’t have that thing, and you can’t even openly express the fact that you miss it because you were never supposed to have it in the first place. Imagine how it would feel to not have the thing that makes you who you are, how lost and unfamiliar you would be.

Operations exist to alter the bodies of males who wish to be females or vice versa, but no doctor would be willing to give a person two sets of genitalia. But I do still suffer with body dysmorphia, so I have to choose whether to remain female and live with the grief of not having a penis, or transition fully to a male and grieve the loss of my female anatomy. I am living in the lose-lose purgatory of gender identity. It is common nowadays to encounter transgender people, and their needs are becoming more openly discussed and met, but there are a plethora of other genders out there who are going underrepresented and who need guidance and assistance to make their bodies more comfortable to live in.


Gender and Sexuality

I don’t know how common this is, as I feel that it is impolite to ask people about their sexuality, but my gender identity and sexuality are intrinsically linked.

I am bisexual and have known so since I was very young. When I first started exploring my sexuality, I thought I was a lesbian since I found that I was only sexually attracted to women. My attraction to men came later and remained at a lesser level, but I am nevertheless, bisexual. However, the link that this has with my gender is something that I’ve only recently begun to understand.

When I am attracted to a man, I feel like a straight woman. When I am attracted to a woman, I feel like a straight man. During sex, I wouldn’t want a man to treat my body as masculine, and I wouldn’t want a woman to treat my body as feminine, both of those scenarios make me feel uncomfortable. In past situations when I have been with both men and women simultaneously, I assumed the gender that was opposite to the person I found most attractive, and I gave my attention solely to them. I could not, and can not, change my gender identity at will or switch from one to the other at a moments notice.

So that then begs the question, am I actually bisexual? Or am I straight and gender fluid?


What is Gender/ Coming Out

If you are transgender, coming out is an important part of the transition process. You are announcing to the world (or at least, your loved ones) who you are and how you wish to live. It is your declaration that you intend to shrug off the old you that never really fit, and begin your journey into the you that you know yourself to be. It is also an opportunity for you to inform others of your preferred pronouns and new name. It is the beginning of your rebirth.

If you are non-binary or gender fluid, your identity is not so clear cut and it can be difficult for others to understand. Some non-binary people may choose to adopt the pronouns they/them or ze/zir (or something else) and this is something that they can request of people, but other than that, what parts of their lifestyle will be different? They may cut their hair differently or wear new clothes, but they’re not adopting a whole new persona that people will need to adjust to. In todays world where gender stereotypes are no longer expected, what difference does it make if you are male, female, both, or neither?

I’ve gone back and forth on this idea of whether it’s necessary for me to come out. I don’t know until I wake up in the morning which gender I will identify more with, and therefore I am happy for people to choose whichever pronouns they think best represent me at the time. Nothing about my lifestyle or the way others treat me will change if I announce that I am gender fluid, but I also feel like, by not telling others, I’m keeping it a secret, and I don’t want to do that either.

Well, I guess you can consider this my public coming out. My name is Belle and I identify and gender fluid. Nice to meet you.

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday

It was my birthday on Friday. I turned 30 years old. I’m not worried about aging in the same way that a lot of women are. I’m actually looking forward to having a face covered in lines and creases, and long grey/silver hair flowing down my back. I look forward to having a face that suits my wise, old soul, and a body that looks as fragile as it feels. But when I woke up on my 30th birthday, I rolled over to see my sleepy-faced fiancé who said “Happy Birthday” and kissed me sweetly, we could hear the cat meowing softly outside asking to be let in, and this one intrusive thought pushed its way to the forefront of an otherwise lovely morning; “Where are my children?”

30 is a landmark birthday and, as much as I love my fiancé and my cat, I should have been woken up by little people scrambling onto the bed and yelling “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in my face at a ridiculous volume. I should have been presented with hand-made cards covered in glitter that gets everywhere for days, and a drawing of unrecognisable shapes that are obviously our happy family. But we don’t have children and, as wonderful as my birthday was, I felt their presence was missing.

I have wanted children since I was 16 years old. I feel like my purpose on this planet is to be a good mother. I never wanted anything else for my life and that’s part of the reason I was so late to make anything of myself. I didn’t want an education or a career, I only wanted to be a mother, so in stead of working hard at school and looking for a job, I spent the years looking for a man to father my children. Wanting to be a good mother though, I wasn’t going to settle for someone who was immature or unstable. I wanted to make sure that my child was given financial and emotional security.

By the time I was 25, I realised that men weren’t always reliable and most my age were still terrified by the idea of having kids. So I came to the conclusion that if I wanted a stable environment to have children in, then I’d have to create it myself. To do that, I would need a well-paid job that had a good amount of security and flexibility so that I could take time off when I needed to, to have and look after my family. To get a job like that I’d need a degree, so I went to uni.

During my time at Uni I met my afformentioned fiancé who just so happened to be mature, dependable and wants children, and we are going to have a family. But college and Uni took 5 years of my life, so here I am at 30 years old celebrating my birthday as a mother without children.

Hopefully, this will be the last one.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything Happens for a Reason

I am a person who believes that everything happens for a reason. I have to with everything that has happened to me. If I didn’t then the universe is just cruel and unfair and what’s the point in struggling against the tide? But in stead of hopelessness, I chose to believe that, although I may not know why, and may never know why, the things that occur in my life have to happen in order for some other event to happen that creates balance in the universe. This belief brings me peace of mind and allows me to carry on trying when everything is telling me to give up.

5 years ago I went back to college to do an Access course so I could go to University. Halfway through my college course I got a very severe flu-like illness and never fully recovered. I got M.E. I was still able to complete my course (just about), but was unable to get the work experience required for the University course that I wanted to do. I was rejected from all four of my University choices and left pretty distraught. I was on the verge of giving up when my favourite University offered me a place on a different course. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was close and it could lead me to what I wanted to do, so I accepted and went to University.

1 year of that course and my health had deteriorated to the point where I was almost completely bedbound. I was still managing to get the work done (and was getting good grades) but my tyrannical course leader said that if I didn’t show up for class then I would be kicked off of the course. If I was kicked off of the course then I would be kicked out of my campus accommodation, making me homeless. I somehow managed to get a meeting with the leader of another course who said he’d be delighted to take me on. I ended up loving that course and that department and they supported me with my illness so I was able to graduate this year with excellent grades.

If I had been accepted onto the course that I originally wanted to do then I wouldn’t have wasted a year on a terrible course and I would have graduated last year and been in work this year when the virus hit. And what was that course that I wanted to do? Child nursing. Yep, if I hadn’t gotten M.E, I would currently be a Nurse in the NHS right now.

Just saying… everything happens for a reason.

The Loss of the Familiar

The Loss of the Familiar

B.L (Before Lockdown) I was taking one of my many busses to one of my destinations. There was an elderly man sitting at the front with a walking stick. During the journey, the bus hit a bump, or halted suddenly, and he dropped his stick. Someone sat nearby immediately jumped to his assistance and returned the cane to its rightful owner.

It made me think of all of the times (and there were very many of them) when I dropped my cane. Sometimes people would help and sometimes they wouldn’t. Usually someone nearby would ask “Should I get that?” or “Do you need help with that?”. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I would probably prefer that they ask that just presume, that’s not the point of the story.

The point is that I saw something mundane, even inconvenient, and reflected on it with nostalgia. In that moment, I missed my cane. It had been a part of me for such a long time that, even though I was glad for the freedom, I missed having it with me. I talked about it before as being like an extra leg, a part of my being, my body, my person, so even though I was whole and didn’t need it anymore, it still felt like a part of me was missing.

It was a strange sensation and difficult to explain, I guess I’m just saying that we become comfortable with the familiar and whether that thing is a positive or negative part of us is irrelevant, we still miss it when it’s gone.

Hope and Hopelessness

Hope and Hopelessness

I have been planning a different post for you to read, but yesterday the Great North Run was on, so I decided to give you a more emotionally driven post instead.

This time last year I was running. I couldn’t run very far or for very long but it was more than I had ever run in my life before. I got ill around March 2016 and after I’d had enough doctors appointments to know that I wasn’t going to get better any time soon, I decided that I would not let my illness control me or dictate what I could or couldn’t do. So I started an exercise regime. It was simple and easy at first, then got harder and more intense as I grew stronger and more capable. By September 2016 I was running three or four times a week around the local cricket pitch. I was heading off to my first year of University and I had plans. I was going to join the running club, swimming club and play badminton at the weekends. I had bought myself a cheap, collapsible cane just in case but didn’t think I’d actually need it. I had been walking unassisted for months, I was actually fitter then than I had been before the illness arrived.

So I went off to Uni full of hope, comfortable in the knowledge that I had taken control of my illness and I alone would decide what I would or would not do. I joined the running club and signed up for Swimfit sessions, I was playing badminton at the weekends and I felt great. Then November happened. I still cannot say whether it was because I came off of my medication, or if I had simply pushed my body too hard, but either way I succumbed to an almighty crash. My body stopped working the way it should, the way I expected it to. The furthest I could walk was to my bathroom and back, the rest of the day was spent sitting or lying down. I couldn’t even stand in the shower to wash my hair. I was taking Ibuprofen every four hours to keep the pain at manageable levels and I barely slept.

A year on and slowly but surely I have regained a decent amount of my strength and for the most part I am satisfied with my abilities. I can care for myself, go to the shop for things I need, I can study and I can even have the occasional day long outing. Relatively speaking, I am fortunate that I am able to do so much. But yesterday the Great North Run was on T.V and I am reminded of my goals and ambitions. Not only was I going to run a half and full marathon, but there were mountains I planned to climb and lakes that I was going to kayak across. I wanted to play Badminton on the University team and I was going to be a Nurse and travel abroad with Doctors Without Borders. Now my goals include being able to walk without a cane again and enjoying a whole day out without needing a days worth of bed rest to recover. These thoughts sting at the eyes and throat.

I think that staying positive can have its place. I think that seeing obstacles in life as challenges to overcome can make you a stronger person. I also think that there is a time to mourn the loss of dreams that may now never be. I have overcome much already. My past is nothing but boulders and hurdles that I have struggled over and it seems sometimes that the euphoria of having overcome your last challenge acts as a mirage, obscuring from view the minefield ahead. I think that, when the mirage fades and you can clearly see the nightmare that lies ahead, positivity is of no use. I think in a situation like this, all you can do is keeps your eyes down and place one foot in front of the other. “Plodding up the hill” my therapist used to call it. Feel sad for your perceived loss, feel sorry for yourself and your struggles, accept that life is hard and that it may be that way until you die, but keep plodding up that hill anyway.