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.

Depersonalization and Derealization

Depersonalization and Derealization

My mental health has taken a hit recently. Unfortunately, I am person who will struggle with my mental health all my life. In the beginning, it was difficult to accept that I would never be ‘cured’ but, now I have, I am able to work on levelling out my peaks and troughs, while taking comfort in the knowledge that when I am down, I will come back up. In a way, this acceptance has helped me manage my chronic illness too, but that’s not the point of this post.

Today I want to talk about, not what caused this bought of depression, not how I’m managing it, but how I experience it. Today, I want to talk to you about dissociation.

When a brain is exposed to prolonged, sustained trauma, it will often learn to dissociate as a coping mechanism. That is, it will remove your consciousness from your body, from the time and place where you are, and give you an alternate reality to focus on so that you don’t have to endure what is happening to you.

For those of us with CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), even after the trauma has passed, the brain can continue to employ this technique to every day stressors. This can be a blessing and a curse. It means that when traumatic events do occur, we are better equipped to deal with them than the average person. We are often calm in high-stress situations because we are able to emotionally and mentally remove ourselves from it. But it can also caused severe mental illnesses such as DID, OSDD, sociopathy, psychopathy, psychosis and others. In me, it has distorted my sense of reality. The more stressed or anxious I am, the more I dissociate, so I struggle to remember some of the biggest moments in my life, like my wedding and my graduation.

Before I was able to name my problems, I always knew that I had difficulty distinguishing the difference between truth and lies. And not just the lies that others told me, but the ones I told myself too.

When I was a child I had imaginary friends who I sometimes forgot weren’t real people. Sometimes I even heard them speak to me. It didn’t help that my real friends and I would talk about them as if they existed in the world, but nobody else ever got confused like I did.

When I was a teenager I was a pathological liar (I’m sure I’ll get into the reasons for that in another post some day). In order to make my lies believable, I would envision the made-up scenario in my head. I would submerge myself in every detail so that if I was ever quizzed or questioned about it I would be able to give accurate, consistent information. However, the more I told a lie the more I began to believe that it was real. There were a couple of times when I was presented with witnesses and hard evidence that a thing had not in fact occurred, and I flat-out could not believe it.

As a young adult I became fascinated by conspiracy theories and repeated to myself the mantra “question everything”. I became paranoid about everyone and everything I thought I knew. During this time I was also romantically involved with an abusive narcissist, and by the end of the relationship I genuinely believed that he could read my mind.

When that relationship ended I tried to commit suicide by overdose. The drugs made me dizzy, hazy, and sleepy. For about year after that, I was convinced I had actually died from the overdose and that everything I was experiencing from that point onward, was some form of afterlife.

There was a time where I hadn’t slept in several days and my skin was itchy. I thought that if I cut my skin open then the itch would be able to escape and I would feel better.

Often I recall things, and I’m not sure if they actually happened or if I dreamed it. I have been wrong in both directions too (thinking something did happen but it turned out to be a dream, and thinking I dreamed something that turned out to have actually happened).

The pandemic has been the definition of a stressful/traumatic experience for everyone. When it first began, I basically ignored it, thinking of it like another swine flu that is blown up by the media but will ultimately not effect my life in any real way. When lockdown began, that was when I realised my own vulnerability and the immensity of the destruction this virus could cause. That was when I started to flip-flop between “this can’t be real. It’s not really happening” to “this is the most important event of my lifetime and everything that happens now will effect our lives and the lives of generations to come.”

I need to explain though, the “this can’t be real. It’s not really happening” thoughts are not the general disbelief that everyone feels in these kinds of situations. The kind where they don’t want it to be real but ultimately they know it is. This is the kind of disbelief where I am questioning my own existence and the existence of the world around me.

The first time I saw people wearing masks out in public, I thought that it was a simulation. I thought they were holographic projections of what a futuristic world could look like. When I went outside during the first lockdown, the streets were abandoned. There was no traffic and no people walking around. I thought I was in a post-apocalyptic film or game, I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.

I’m not completely detached from reality though. If I was, I wouldn’t be able to communicate these things to you. It’s like I have a split brain and while one part believes that nothing is real, the other part is well aware of what is actually happening. It’s difficult to explain the disjointed feeling of unreal and real at the same time.

Here’s an example from the other day: I saw an electric scooter abandoned in the middle of a green area between roads. I saw it there a few days in a row and it became part of the scenery, so I stopped noticing it. The next time I saw it, it was laying on its side, on the verge of the green rather than in the centre. The most obvious explanation for this is that somebody moved it. Maybe they used it and returned it to a slightly different place. Maybe it was in their way so they pushed it to one side. Maybe some kids were messing about and it got shoved a little way away. However the exact movement came about, it was most likely a person that caused it to move. But I didn’t see that happen. From my perspective, it was in one place, then it was in a different place. So what if it disappeared for a day or two, then on its reappearance, it misjudged the time and speed of its arrival and ended up in the wrong place? What if it teleported to somewhere else entirely and when it tried to come back it got it’s co-ordinates wrong and missed it’s spot by a few feet? You see, even though it’s highly unlikely that this is what happened, I didn’t see it, so I don’t know for sure. I can’t know for sure, so in my mind any of these scenarios are equally possible.

It’s like man landing on the moon. We know that’s probably what happened, but we didn’t see it happen ourselves, so how can we know for sure that it actually did?

My most recent dissociative thought was that I was a game character that was stuck in first-person mode. I found it irritating and wanted to switch to third-person so I could see where I was going better. I know I’m not a character in a game, but if I was, would I know?

For a long time I thought (because my psychiatrist told me) that it was caused by my having an “overactive imagination”. But I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I believe it’s actually because people close to me have been fucking with my sense of reality all my life.

It started with my Mother. With things as small as “you did ask for a cup of tea, I wouldn’t have made you one if you hadn’t”, all the way to keeping the details of my Father’s illness a secret. I knew they were going to hospitals a lot and I knew he was in pain all the time, but they never told us what was going on. Maybe they were trying to protect us, or maybe they are terrified of being vulnerable in front of us. Either way, the outcome was the same. I have many memories of my childhood that my Mother completely denies happened, but I know that they did because my brothers can confirm them.

Then came a whole series of people who would tell me one thing, then do something else. My first boyfriend who said he loved me, then hit me. My school friends who said that we would all go to Sixth Form together, then left me on my own and went off to college together instead. The narssacist who lied about pretty much everything and made everything my fault some how. My best friend in the whole world, who I’d known and loved for 10 years who told me that no matter what his new girlfriend did or said, he would never lose me from his life because I was too important to him, who then ghosted me at the worst time in my life (I only knew he wasn’t dead because his Mum would have told me if he was). The girlfriend who played the domestic abuse victim who was actually an abuser herself. The boyfriend who told me he loved me, then took it back the next day. Everybody I ever trusted, lied to me. Is it really any wonder that I don’t know what’s real and what’s not?

My husband knows how important open honesty is to me. In our marriage hard truths are a sign of love and respect, even if they hurt us both, because it’s a demonstration of trust. Promises are a rare thing between us, because we won’t make one that we can’t be certain we’ll keep. All too often people will say things like “I promise I will always love you/will always be here/will never hurt you/will keep you safe” but people change and no-one has that much control over life.

I am a scientist and I believe that empirical evidence can prove or disprove the existence of something. I am religious and spiritual, and I know that there are some things in this world that we cannot explain, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I am a fiction writer and I spend a lot of time “off with the fairies” imagining made up people and places and events. I am a philosopher and continue to “question everything” in order to find deeper meaning. I am a survivor of trauma and abuse, I know that sometimes things that you didn’t believe would ever happen, do happen. I am neurodivergent and the world is not how I was taught it should be. I also have minor prosopagnosia (face blindness) so strangers all look like generic NPCs to me. All of these things effect how I experience the world around me, and inside of me. Sometimes I wonder how many other people experience the world like I do.

From time to time this dissociation can cause an existential crisis in me, but I am aware when that is occurring and can take the time and space to reconcile this. For the rest of the time, as long as I’m rational and not a danger to myself or others, does any of it really matter?

Cold Feet?

Cold Feet?

I am engaged. My partner asked me to marry him and I said yes. We have begun planning our wedding.

On day one, I was excited and so happy that I couldn’t stop smiling. On day two, the anxiety began setting in.

I love this man and have wanted to be his wife since our first 6 months together. He will be an amazing husband and father and I would spend the rest of my life with him without thinking twice, but then he asked me if I would spend the rest of my life with him.

The proposal didn’t come as a great surprise, we’d talked about it a lot before and I even knew that he’d bought me a ring and was having trouble with getting it delivered during a pandemic, so I knew it was coming and never worried about it. I have looked forward to being his wife for years and never felt anything but happy and confident about it, so why am I feeling like this now that I’ve said yes?

I keep asking myself, as is my practice, what is this feeling and why am I feeling it. The first thought I had, in it’s rawest form was, if I swear on all that I believe in to be with him for the rest of my life, then I actually have to do that. I only make promises I intend to keep, I will only consider divorce in the most extreme of circumstances. So then the questions follow; do I not want to be with him for the rest of my life? Do I imagine us splitting up? Is there someone else I’d rather be with? Or would I rather be alone? But as I already said, I do want to be with him and only him until I die. I’ve wanted that with surety and steadiness for a long time. So it’s not that.

I delved in a little further and found a fear that I would lose my independence. Every decision I made in life would have to include or consider him. I wouldn’t be free to do whatever I wanted without first considering the impact that it would have on him. But I already live like that, and have done for the past two years. I don’t want to do anything that would impact him negatively, and everything I do want are things he wants too. So that’s not it.

Perhaps it’s the idea of the ceremony. I am religious and he is not, nor are either of our families, but if I’m going to make these solemn promises to him then I want it to be in my tradition and with blessings that mean something to me. He is more than happy for us to do that and is helping me to plan that kind of event, but it still feels self-indulgent. To stand up in front of our friends and family and say “this is who I am and what I want so this is how we’re going to do it” makes me feel uncomfortable. But then again, the wedding is about my partner and I making promises and commitments to each other, not about putting on a show for our guests, and as I said before, I would want to make those promises in a way that is meaningful to me, otherwise they won’t mean anything. So I guess it’s not that.

I have always feared change in my life and getting married seems like a big one. Except it’s not really. My name will change and some other legal formalities (nothing major, nor detrimental) will occur, but other than that, we will still live in the same house, with the same cat and the same jobs and hobbies, we’ll just be married, that’s all. So it’s not that either.

Currently, I believe that what I’m feeling is a generalised anxiety that comes with making any large decision in your life without having certainty of the future. We cannot foresee what may happen in our lives and making a commitment so big on faith is a scary thing to do. I have experienced similar anxieties when choosing a university to go to, or buying a car. The difference with those things is that the commitment was short term and reversible, this one is not. Therefore it is not completely unreasonable to expect a higher level of anxiety.

The fear of loss and hurt is strong in me too. Maybe he’ll leave me, betray me, lie to me, and even if he doesn’t, eventually he’ll die, and I don’t know if I can handle a loss like that. There have been many times in my life where I wanted to avoid investing emotion so I would not experience such pain, but I was convinced by well meaning people to ignore my instincts and take the risk (“Life is risky”, “What if everything goes right?”, “If you don’t take that chance you might miss out on something great”). Then my fears would come true, and I’d be destroyed again. Every time I have trusted someone not to hurt me, they have hurt me, usually very badly.

It’s also worth considering that I have never seen a marriage that I coveted or admired. I was never a girl who dreamed about her wedding day and never saw marriage as wonderful thing to aspire to.

So there are no real reasons for me to feel so anxious, and yet many reasons why I am. I will try to meditate on these things and hope that I am consoled by the idea that these fears come from nothing substantial. I have to assure myself that the potential gains outweigh the potential losses and then take the leap of faith.

Intro

Intro

Hello there and welcome to my blog, The True Self.

I have been on a journey for some time but I didn’t realise where I was going or what I should be taking note of on the way. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go back and standing still seemed like a waste, so I kept plodding on.

There were some moments when I actively moved ahead with a goal in sight, but when I got there I figured I might as well keep on going (to paraphrase Forest Gump). Now I realise that all of these little trips have been part of the same big journey and now I that I have a better understanding of what that journey is, I can give it the proper attention it deserves.

As my title may suggest, this journey I am on is to discover The True Self. Some also call it the path to enlightenment or the destruction of the ego. There are many ways to describe it depending on your culture, spiritual beliefs or concepts of human beings. It is a journey that we are all placed on at birth. Some race ahead, eager to find what’s at the end of the path. Contrastly, some just sit in the mud, too tired or afraid to move from their familiar spot. Personally, I spent a long time walking in circles, digging holes and clinging to the ankles of others who were trying to move on. Eventually I found it all too exhausting and I lay down, giving up the struggle. That was when my journey began. I promised myself that I would walk a little way and if it didn’t get any better then I would dig a hole and bury myself in it. I found someone to point me in the right direction, and I started walking. I never dug that hole, I never laid down again.

That was in 2014, when my journey began, and only in the last year, 2019, have I realised where I’m heading. Not the destination, no one can know that until they’ve arrived, but I can see the path and I know the direction I want to go in.

Dispensing with the metaphors then, this journey will require and/or induce meditation and contemplation. I have always had a busy mind and been a deep thinker but, now I’m focused on where I’m going, some of these thoughts may be important to find the understanding that I seek. Therefore, I created this blog to record those thoughts as they arrive. They may be nothing or they may be something. They may be useless to me but golden nuggets for you. Or they may sound deeply profound to me and like crazy ramblings to you. Such is the joy of the internet that I can share what’s in my head and people all over the world can do as they wish with that.

So, welcome! I hope you find something here but if not, that’s okay too. Blessed Be.