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?

The Unlucky (TW)

The Unlucky (TW)

Trigger Warning: I will be talking about my experiences of abuse.

A few years ago a trend was making its way around social media where domestic abuse survivors talked about their experiences using two short sentences beginning with “Why I stayed” and “Why I left”. Here were mine:

Why I stayed: Because I was his “favourite girl in the world” and I’d never been anybody’s favourite anything before.
Why I left: I didn’t. He decided I was more hassle than I was worth and ditched me.

When you read or hear survivors stories they always end one of two ways. Either they always knew it was an abusive relationship but they just didn’t know how to escape, then somebody or something shows them the way and, with the help of others, they are able to remove themselves from the situation. Or, the abuser goes one step too far, they do or say something that wakes the victim up and makes them realise that if they don’t get out, then they (or their children) will end up dead. Then, with the help of others they are able to remove themselves from the situation.

The people like me are usually the ones that don’t survive.

I was 100% delusional. I was in complete denial that anything was wrong. I was totally convinced that he was the love of my life and that everything bad that happened between us was entirely my fault and that I needed to do better. I believed that I was depressed and crying all the time because I was broken. I believed that the hate I felt, was for myself because I wasn’t able to make him happy and give him everything he wanted. I believed that I deserved everything he did to me, even that I was special because he wouldn’t do those things to anyone else. I believed that he could hear my thoughts and that he always knew where I was and what I was doing, even when I wasn’t with him. He had complete control over me and I would have given my life for him willingly if he had wanted it.

I even remember seeing a two sided informative card like the one above and, upon reading it thoroughly, I explained away all of the items on the lists. I feel too sensitive and unhappy because I have a mental illness. I feel helpless and not good enough because I’m not good enough and I can’t do anything right. I withhold information from family and friends because they wouldn’t understand and would just give me a hard time about it. He doesn’t ever lie to me, if he says that I’m lying then I must have gotten confused about what really happened. If he accuses me of cheating, it’s just because he’s insecure and it’s my job to make him feel better. He doesn’t like me to go out without him because he worries about me and loves me so much that he can’t stand the thought of anything happening to me. He tells me to go and see a therapist because he knows I struggle with my mental health and wants me to be better. He just doesn’t like me to talk about him because he’s a very private person and if I have any problems with him I can talk to him directly. He hasn’t turned anyone against me, the people who used to be in my life just can’t stand how happy I am with him and don’t want to be around me anymore, it’s their loss…

It’s amazing isn’t it? How delusional I was. But that’s what they do, narcissists, psychopaths, abusers, gaslighters, they make you really believe that you are the problem.

I think in the end I became boring for him. I had become so completely submissive that there was nothing for him to manipulate and play with anymore. I didn’t fight anything that he said or did, I accepted it, thanked him and begged him for more. If anything, I was too needy for him. I would stay locked in his flat, cleaning his oven for him while he was out with other girls. And this wasn’t something I found out later, I knew where he was and what he was doing, but I focused on making that oven sparkly clean so that he would come home and see what a good job I’d done and then maybe he’d let me sleep in the bed in stead of on the floor (God, I wish I was joking about this).

One time, while out camping, he laid down on some grass in the sun. I wanted to be next to him, but the only place where I could lie was covered in gravel. I laid down all the same, and as the sharp stones dug into me and made small cuts on my arms and legs, I thought to myself that it was a fitting metaphor for our whole relationship: It hurt to be near him and yet there was nowhere else in the world that I would rather be. And, if I stayed very still and gave into the ground beneath me, it hurt a lot less than if I fought it to try and get comfortable. A shocking realisation on reflection but I found it romantic and comforting at the time.

This complete submission was part of the reason it took me so long (after I was away from him) to accept that I had really suffered abuse. How could he have mistreated me if I never fought back? Even on the few occasions when I said “No”, “Please stop”, “I don’t want to”, how could he have known that I wasn’t just playing some game with him when in the end he would always get his way? Even now (6 years later) I still struggle with the definition of ‘implied consent’. But I digress.

As a survivor, I want to do anything and everything I can to help others who are in an abusive relationship. For the typical survivors (the examples I gave in the beginning), making sure that hostels and helplines are widely available and accessible is a great start, but what about those people who were like me? How do you convince someone that they are being abused when they flat-out refuse to see it? How can you help someone who stubbornly denies that they even need help? How do we prevent these deaths?

Before I entered into my next relationship (after I had accepted what had happened to me and begun treatment for my PTSD) I made myself a list. I wrote down where my boundaries were, what kinds of behaviours are unacceptable, and red flags that I should be aware of. I had, from my own stable mind, written by my own hand, a reference point that I could consult if I was ever again unsure of whether my relationship was healthy or not. I thought it was foolproof. I even had contingencies for each event:

If he should accidentally trigger me, I should explain again that this is a trigger and that he should try to avoid it. If a certain line is crossed or boundary pushed, then one warning should be given, if it is crossed again, I end the relationship. And finally, a list of specific phrases and actions that, if they should occur, I should end the relationship immediately and cut all ties.

But alas, lines were crossed, boundaries pushed, I was triggered more than I had hoped and one serious offense occurred, and I made excuses. “He didn’t mean to, it’s not his fault, it was an accident, he doesn’t understand…” I tried to end the relationship repeatedly, but kept returning to it, to him.

I want to be very clear here: This man was not deliberately cruel or unkind to me, he was not abusive, he was just foolish, immature, and had issues of his own. I should have taken control of a situation that he was ill equipped to handle, but I had not finished healing yet, and was no more able to than he was. Slowly, I did gain confidence in myself and certainty of what was right for me (and him) and I finally ended the relationship for good.

Even though I knew we shouldn’t have been together, and everybody I spoke to about us told me we shouldn’t be together, and my own list of rules confirmed that we shouldn’t be together, I could not break from him.

I frequently ask myself, how could it have been different? During the abuse, what would have brought me to my senses? Was there anything that anyone could say or do? Would there have eventually been an event that would show me what was really happening? I doubt it. I frequently thought that I might die, at his hands or my own, and it changed nothing for me.

And during the following relationship? I already knew what should be done, but I could not do it. What could have made me act? Should I have avoided getting into it in the first place? Would I have been able to avoid it?

If you were hoping all my questions were rhetorical ones and that I’d give you all the answers at the end, I’m very sorry to be such a disappointment to you. Maybe it’s all down to my own psychology. Maybe I have masochistic tendencies. Maybe my parents didn’t love me enough. Maybe it’s because I was bullied at school. I hope to find the answers one day so I can save others like me.

I will leave you with the knowledge that although I am happily engaged at this moment in time, I am fully aware of my own wants, needs and priorities. If he were to suddenly become abusive out of the blue, I would be able to leave and thrive alone. I am not dependent on him, I chose to be with him.

Disclaimer: As much as I wish this didn’t need to be said, I want to remind my readers that even though I am female and was abused by a male, abuse can happen by any gender, toward any gender. Frequently men find it more difficult to come forward because of the stigma attached to gender stereotypes.

If you are in UK you can find help for domestic violence and abuse here: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/gender-violence/domestic-violence-and-abuse-getting-help/

Give me Liberty or Give me Death (Trigger Warning)

Give me Liberty or Give me Death (Trigger Warning)

Something happened. I couldn’t walk. For the first time ever, my legs would not take my weight.

The flare up knocked me for six, but when I started to feel ‘better’ again I began to behave normally. Then I needed the toilet, sat up, stood up and fell straight back down again. My legs were trembling and were weaker than they had ever felt before. Sobbing, I had to ask my partner to help me. With one arm around his shoulders and my other hand on my cane I was able to take enough weight off my legs that I could, very slowly, shuffle my way to the bathroom. He took me in but I was far too mortified to let him help me further. I won’t go into the details of how I managed my business, suffice to say that, with great effort and difficulty, I did everything that needed to be done then sat on the edge of the bath to wash my hands. I made it back to the door spreading my weight between my cane and bathroom fixtures, feeling grateful that our bathroom is not a large one, then my partner helped me back to bed. The second I was safely down I erupted with emotion. He brought me pain killers thinking I was in agony, but the pain in my legs was minimal. I cried so hard because I felt I’d hit a new low. Even if I could do nothing else I was always able to make it to the toilet and back by myself. It was the one thing I had and now that had been taken too. What if I had been alone? Would he have come home to find me sitting in a puddle with zero dignity left?

I have been more depressed than usual recently. I have applied to the local mental health team but am at the beginning of a three step programme and a minimum of an 8 week waiting list. So I joined some Facebook groups so I could talk to people who understood and could relate. But I feel ungrateful if I complain too much. Things could be so much worse for me and are so much worse for so many others so who am I to complain?

All I know is that everyday I have this thought; “I don’t want to live like this anymore.”