Embodied Heart

Visibility as a Trauma Survivor

It has been very difficult for me to write here for several weeks. The reason, ironically, was because of opening up about my trauma experiences. I related parts of my story in a public forum outside of my blog and have been struggling with processing the experience. It was the first time I shared something that might been easily accessed by people/family from my culture of origin. I didn’t name names but I went into enough detail for individuals to identify themselves. I walked one step more fully into the spotlight and have been greeted by increased flashbacks and overwhelming anxiety.

I nearly perfected the art of invisibility when I was younger. I was the sort of girl who no one noticed nor remembered. I barely spoke outside of my house and obeyed adult instruction without question. I play-acted normality. I wasn’t bullied but I also wasn’t included in anyone’s close circle of friends for most of my childhood and adolescence. Through my actions, I hid in plain sight.

Being victimized by abusive parents at a young age meant that the shadows and edges of rooms were the only places I felt safe. The less I was noticed, the less likely I was to be harmed, as I surmised it. The problem with this approach to the world is that it leads to a life lived in isolation, fear and shame.

I elevated hiding to an art form by finding ways to be unseen while being noticed, namely, by dissociating internally. It’s cat and mouse but I so desperately want to be caught—I want someone to prove themselves capable of witnessing and supporting who I am behind the adult personas I’ve crafted to survive in the world. I periodically attempt to show my hidden forms only to collapse mentally under the weight of the fog I conjure daily in order to not spend my time clawing at the walls in sheer terror. I try to fix into a frame but instead kaleidoscope the closer anyone gets to my complexity.

I recently shaved off all my hair. It was a dramatic change and one that people have readily noticed. I absolutely love the result in terms of how it suits my appearance and am getting used to the glances and weird responses of others. I did it for the express purpose of making myself more visible. I’m outwardly singular now, someone likely to be labeled as “that bald woman” rather than forgotten. My physical form feels solidified even if my internal being remains in flux. I’m hoping to coax myself, from the outside in, to welcome being seen and to believe that some eyes hold genuine kindness.

I knew that in writing about my culture of origin, I would be tempted to retreat immediately and to add another layer of adulting in order to conceal myself where I felt exposed. I also recognized that this behavior runs counter to the deeper truth of who I am as a person. I hid out of necessity when I was younger, unconsciously biding my time. As I make myself visible, those whose determination it was to keep me in the perpetual darkness of moonless night will falter. I’m finding my power and, through it, I’m toes first stepping into the dawnlight.

A yorkie asleep underneath a white blanket.
Naturally Mindful

Dogs as Healing Companions for Trauma Survivors

I will never forget the conversation I had with a friend shortly before I set off to pick up my first dog. I told her I was worried I would regret my decision. She quipped that I would be wondering why I didn’t make the commitment to pet parenting earlier! Her intuition proved to be spot-on as the space my pup has opened up in my heart stirs and surprises me on a regular basis. For today’s #NaturallyMindful post, I will be sharing about canine psychological research as well as my own experiences with pet parenting as a trauma survivor.

Why Dogs?

  • Both Dogs and Humans Benefit from Shared Affection

Research indicates that both species release oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone, during interactions such as eye contact and petting (Handlin, 2015). This may serve to lower our stress levels and to bond us to each other. In addition, caring for a dog is not only good for our heart in terms of love. It is also linked with positive changes to physical heart disease risk factors such as our blood pressure and cholesterol levels (CDC, 2014).

  • Puppies Form Infant-Like Bonds with Pet Parents

The idea that humans need to serve as the “alpha” and establish dominance over dogs has been challenged by newer research. Rather than viewing their human as master, dogs may instead see us as a parent (Palestrini et al., 2005). For me, this has meant concentrating my efforts on forming a trusting relationship with healthy boundaries and rules with my pup.

  • Dogs May Assist in Coping with Mental Health Concerns

Although it is extremely popular, the evidence for the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy is relatively sparse (Crossman, 2016). Personally, I wonder about whether the deeper bond of pet parenting is needed for sustained symptom reduction. Surveys of pet parents do reveal, however, that humans perceive themselves as experiencing positive well-being as a result of their relationship with their dog(s) (O’Haire, 2010).

Personal Reflections

Choose Wisely

Dogs can have mental health and relationship issues themselves (see, for instance, Laurel Braitman’s book on Animal Madness). I’ll leave arguments about nature versus nurture (dog breed versus training) to the side for a moment and simply say that not every relationship between a dog and a person is going to be healthy or healing. I believe that, as pet parents, we need to be taking care of ourselves physically and mentally before making the commitment to raising an animal. This doesn’t mean we have to be “healed” first, simply that it is best if we have the resources in place to deal with the unexpected. For instance, my dog had a few bad experiences (and limited interaction) with other dogs, which has led him to “yell” at passing pups quite frequently. I chose to invested in personalized training to help with these behaviors and am now planning to engage in more advanced, focused training with him as well.

In choosing to become a pet parent, I think we do well, just as with human relationships, to enter into it with as few expectations as possible. The more we pile assumptions onto the relationship, the more we are setting both ourselves and our dog up for disappointment, failure and negative outcomes. Hoping that we will forge a healing and deep bond is not automatic; it takes commitment and follow-through.

Fully Invest of Yourself

Our pets require quality time with us on a regular basis in order to develop a rhythm in our connection. When I am feeling more depressed or anxious, it can be hard for me to view care-taking as anything other than an obligation. If I give myself to each walk or play session or smell adventure, bit by bit it becomes an expression of love.

Dogs and humans can bond through grooming. My pup needs a weekly bath and frequent hair-trims, so I’ve had a lot of opportunity for this. I am unable to clip his toenails myself (there was an incident), but he allows me to do all of his haircuts. This may not be a reasonable expectation for every pet parent, but consider what you and your pet can share, even if it is as simple as brushing their hair. Many dogs also love pet massage.

Hold on Lightly

Not to the leash! What I mean here is that a relationship with a dog is inherently one of loss alongside the joy it brings. Their lives are much shorter than ours, and, even before the ultimate separation, there are other changes as well. My dog is only a few years old but has already had to have knee surgery. He is now also going blind from Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), a condition that currently does not have any effective treatment. I’ve learned, as much as I’m able, to open my hands and make an offering of my affection for him, rather than to cling to it and “demand” of Goddess or whomever that it remains exactly as I want it to be. Love is loss at times.

Appreciate the Invitation to the Present Moment

My pup is capable of anticipating the future. The word “bath” sends him into a sullen heap, and the word “park” has him barreling toward the garage door to hop in my car. In general, though, he appears to live moment to moment. This is especially true if there is a good sniff to be had outdoors! Dogs appear to be able to detect the passage of time, the type of animal who’s passed by, and so forth, based on the intensity of scents left (Horowitz, 2016), so I tend to ask him if there are any good “stories” if he insists on stopping to peruse the grass. He shows me in the moment what he is feeling, rather than holding back.

Dogs can pick up a negative emotional state from their owners and respond in a variety of ways, including shaking it out (Huber, 2017). In doing so, they show us how to move through our feelings instead of ruminating on and stewing in them. I frequently feel jealous of the speed with which my dog adapts to new situations and the resilience he displays. At the same time, his “bounce-back” inspires me to respond to challenges with a hopeful rather than resigned attitude.

My pup and I share our hyper-vigilance (although his is in reaction to other dogs and mine to humans). This sometimes adds to rather than reduces my symptomology. If he is having a “barky” day, I find I may need to distract both him and myself with a change in location or a new activity. Before I got my dog, I had frequent anxiety at night. Now, I almost always sleep well unless I’ve had too much caffeine. The reason is that he sends me “its all good” signals for a few hours before bed every night, as he sleeps on the couch while I read or watch TV. He spends the night in a crate by my bed. His peaceful slumber lets me know it is safe to relax and allows the part of me that might otherwise think it needs to be alert to rest as I know he’ll wake me if there is any danger. The moments of the night that used to feel fraught and dangerous are now secure and cozy.

The biggest change for me as a survivor that has happened since I became a parent to my dog is that I have experienced a dramatic reduction in my level of suicidality. In part, this is due to the commitment I have to him in terms of care-taking and the difficulty both of us experience if we are away from each other too long. I believe it is also due to the fact that I have a being near me many hours every day who wants nothing more than my attention and care, who loves me even when I’m angry, and who allows me to dress him in an old sweater and wrap him in blankets every night before he goes to sleep. He’s found his way to my heart and he knows it. In doing so, he’s given me a reason to press on.

If you are a survivor who parents a dog, what has the relationship meant to you? What has your experience with your dog taught you? How has your heart changed?

Sunset with a few trees in the lower right-hand corner.
Embodied Heart

What It Looks Like in My Dreams

I wrote recently about my increased depression symptomology. The symptom that is causing me the most distress is anhedonia. I am struggling to desire. Wishing for things to be different is normally the one skill set on which I can rely. In order to cope, I’ve been engaging in a behavior I would typically try to avoid, which is idealizing my future. I am very practical in my approach to life and get frustrated by people who are grasping at “if only” without taking concrete steps to get there. Right now, though, “if only” turns into “who cares” so quickly and flatly in me that I think the place of hope in my soul needs dusted off and aired out.

To that end, I’ve created a description of my “ideal” days and what my life actually looks like. There are glimmers of the ideal in my current life. I can feel tendrils of longing and “it’s too hard to make it come true” and “um, hello, how would you pay for this” pulling at me as I write. Anhedonia blinds hope and desire with flashes of memories of failures and disappointments. I value the part of me that doesn’t want to bring more suffering into my life, image fading to black and red streaks of pain, and I value equally the part of me that looks at the ideals and sees watercolors swirling into form and which dreams of the humble cottage in the forest or grand Victorian on the corner lot that maybe could, in some form, take shape.

An Ideal Day in the Country

Morning

I wake up when my body is ready to wake up, without rushing. I hear the birds chirp and feel the breeze blow through the open window of my house. While sipping my morning tea, I read a book chapter on a deck or porch overlooking a wooded area. I take my dog for a long walk in the woods to our kayak launch. We meander through a lazy area of a nearby lake for some time. I return to my house and spend a few hours writing.

Afternoon

I create a home-crafted meal with local ingredients, some of which I’ve grown myself. I garden and housekeep for a short time. After this, I exercise and walk my dog. The remainder of my afternoon is spent on creative activities such as painting, photography or sewing.

Evening

Dinner involves spending time with a friend or two in deep conversation. We either gather for a potluck or go to a healthy restaurant. Afterwards we take a long walk outdoors with my dog and enjoy the sunset. I curl up in front of the fireplace with a good book and some tea to wind down. I practice self-care (for example, a face mask or stretching) then head to bed at a reasonable hour.

An Ideal Day in Town

Morning

I wake up when my body is ready to wake up, without rushing. I hear the hustle and bustle of my surroundings melding into a pleasant rhythm. I take my dog for a walk to a local park and greet my neighbors on the way. I head to a local café for a healthy breakfast along with a book. I pick up local ingredients at the farmer’s market on my way home. I rest in a nook with lots of sunlight and spend a few hours writing.

Afternoon

I create a home-crafted meal with local ingredients. I housekeep and workout. I take my dog for a walk to dog-friendly shops and enjoy a tea at an outdoor coffee shop. I head to a park or local studio to paint or sculpt or learn something that stokes my creativity.

Evening

Dinner involves spending time with a friend or two in deep conversation. We either gather for a potluck or go to a healthy restaurant. Afterwards we go for a long walk outdoors with my dog and enjoy the sunset. We then head to a local cultural event such as live music or an art show. When I return home, I practice self-care and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

My Actual Life

Morning

I get up unwillingly before I am ready to do so. I make breakfast quickly and head off to work. I notice the sunrise at times. I work the entire morning. If it is the weekend, I engage in housekeeping and errands during this time of day. Some weekend mornings I will write or spend time in nature.

Afternoon

I work into the afternoon. I return home and grab meals where I can, occasionally cooking for myself. I work out and watch TV. I go to therapy. I walk my dog at a park. I sometimes write, and, on the weekends, occasionally paint.

Evening

I spend most evenings alone; I’m with a friend or group a few times a week at most. I watch TV and sit around. I typically take my dog for another walk. I rarely notice the sunset. I occasionally engage in self-care, write or read. As of late, I go to bed very early.

Reflection

I feel ashamed of what I’ve written. My shame is not in relation to what I shared about my actual life. Rather, I hear mocking internally in regards to what I wish my life involved. In part, this connects to a specific experience of bullying in which a college roommate made fun of me for writing her a letter the summer before we moved in and stating that I liked spending time outdoors hiking. Apparently she and all her friends sat around and laughed at the naïve, uncool country girl.

Even now, I don’t always succeed in hiding the excitable parts of who I am, the ones that seem very distant during this depression. I dissociate and appear nonchalant when someone mocks my joyfulness as an adult, but it cuts to the quick and shuts into locked corner even further the young, eager and happy parts of self. And, hard as it is for me to admit, I mock myself with the same or even greater intensity. I feel rage when I think of the jaded-teenager aspects we each hold in us that want to eye-roll and smirk our way past anyone’s genuine joy and enthusiasm and I feel compassion when I consider how we became jaded.

I am very curious to hear about your ideal versus your actual life, but not in a way that limits our perspective to a consideration of the distance between them. Rather, what is it like in your being, if you are able, to dream of your ideal? What holds you back if you can’t go there mentally? What are your experiences of having your ideals or dreams ridiculed, and how do you hold space for the energetic and excitable parts of you who want to rush toward that for which you long?

An algae-filled canal surrounded by grasses, reeds and trees.
Goddessing Self Care

Self-Care for Rejected Parts: Processing Setbacks

How many times in the past week have you cursed your “bad luck?” I’ve examined how to respond to judgment and to failings in previous #GoddessingSelfCare posts. For today’s third and final “Self-Care for Rejected Parts” discussion, we’ll be looking into how to determine the degree of control we’ve had over a situation, as well as how to cope with it if it is an experience out of our control (aka, a setback/bad luck). I have taken a practical and psychologically-oriented approach rather than a spiritual focus for this discussion.

When Bad Luck Strikes

The cause of setbacks tends to be more external and situational when compared to failures. Setbacks occur in experiences that are largely out of our control. Note that some people see everything as a setback and nothing as a failure, which limits their growth potential because they feel powerless to better their lives. Others see everything as a failure and nothing as a setback, which causes unnecessary guilt and shame because they believe everything can and should be preventable.

We are bombarded with the message that life isn’t about what happens to us, rather, it is about how we respond to it. There is of course some truth to this, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we have respective areas of privilege and oppression, suffering and ease. For example, as I’ve begun inner work to dismantle my privilege, I’ve come to a hard realization that I can be obtusely ableist. I get instantly enraged in day-to-day situations when someone does not listen well; for instance, when I’m asked the same question repeatedly or someone gets my order wrong. I tend to be able to absorb a lot of information easily and quickly and so I assume everyone who does not show the same behaviors lacks not capacity but “try.” What I fail to hold in my mind in those moments is the fact that others may process differently than I do and that they may be facing unseen difficulties that are affecting our interaction.

My graceless behavior extends itself to setbacks. I don’t perceive myself as experiencing them, as I think everything that went wrong for me was a failure because I could have prevented it if only I’d been smarter or faster. This creates a feedback loop where I amp myself up when I in fact need to slow down. If I’m being brutally honest, I have to admit that I struggle to emphasize when others face obstacles that are difficult to surmount. I typically hold that things would have gone better for them if they’d only planned better or thought things through more fully. There may be some truth to my opinion in particular instances, but, if our shared humanity is my bedrock, my rejection of their vulnerability rejects all of us in our vulnerable areas, harming where I want to be healing. The first step to experiencing a setback is to see it as one. The absurdity of life coupled with its inherent injustice means we will face unexpected events that require us to deepen into love rather than to wall-off in frustration.

Setback Characteristics to Consider

My thinking here aligns with theory and research on the characteristics of stressors and their corresponding effects on coping. In general, negative events which we think are due to bad luck that impact many areas of our lives for lengthy periods of time and which compromise our personal sense of mission are likely to be perceived as major stressors. Those we think we can overcome quickly, which are periphery to our life goals, and/or which affect only one area of our life tend to be easier to digest and manage.

How Long-Lasting Is the Setback?

To what extent is the setback temporary versus permanent? Unpleasant situations that are likely to be long-lasting tend to wear on us more than short-term stressors. Sometimes all the scared or angry parts of me need to hear is that whatever is going on that I don’t like will be short-lived, if in fact that is the case. For situations where a setback is likely to persist, I’ve found it most useful to remind myself of everything that is under my control that I’m doing to try to adjust to or to rectify the situation.

How Much Surface Area Does the Setback Cover?

Is the setback covering one area of life or does it seep into many areas? Reminding ourselves of all the things that are going right or over which we do have control can be calming if the setback is limited in scope. For more widespread calamity, adjustment may take more time.

How Integral is the Setback to Your Life Goals?

How significantly will your sense of purpose in life be impacted by the setback? I am personally very sensitive to negative interpersonal feedback and feel highly distressed when I receive it. However, staking my well-being on it doesn’t align with my core self or purpose in life. Knowing this fact helps me cope. Difficulties in peripheral areas that do not hit at our major life goals are likely born more easily than those that threaten the values we hold dear.

After analyzing the time-frame and significance of a setback, we will likely be left with a better understanding of whether it is something that needs simply the passage of time and patience to overcome, or whether we will need to shift our perspective on life itself as a result. Serious set-backs require more than a spa day or shopping binge to overcome, as we may find ourselves asking “who am I with(out) ___.” In other words, our very identity may be shattered or shaken. We will consider both insignificant and grave setbacks as we look into self-care for our affected parts of self.

Self-Care for Setbacks

Minor Setbacks

As a trauma survivor, I find it difficult to gain perspective on small instances of bad luck. Before abuse occurs, there is something a build-up, warning signs or other blips. After living through such events over the course of years, anything going off course for an instant can bring up an expectation of “here it all goes again.” I think we do well to show each other kindness (but not to enable) each other when we “over-react” to stressors; what you experience as “no big deal” may feel life or death to another.

In addressing insignificant experiences of bad luck, such as a broken windshield or a cold that leads me to cancel a fun event, I have found it useful to center myself on who I really am and what I really want from life. I let myself have the meltdown if it feels like it was “one too many things today” but I then try to put it into perspective. I personally do not find it even the smallest bit helpful for others to try to do this for me, as all I experience their “but remember ‘insert good thing’” as is invalidation. I have to work my way back to myself and to my purpose, both as a responsibility and as a necessity.

For negative interpersonal stressors over which I had little control, I find body-based self-care to be particularly useful. I easily dissociate if someone is unexpectedly rude to me, so it makes sense to me that grounding and returning myself to my physical being is calming. Exercise, a long walk in nature, breath-work and stretching tend to be my mainstays here.

It may not always be in my best interest to do so, but if I find stress and/or bad luck has built on itself and nothing is going my way, I tend to succumb to a bit of overindulgence. This includes eating out more than I would like to and/or purchasing crafty, self-care or luxury food items that I don’t really need. In moderation (which I definitely do not always have), I think there is a time and a place to live a little, but I also hope to weave my “treating” of myself more fully into other methods of coping so that it does not become or stay my default.

Serious Setbacks

My thoughts here are limited to perspectives I have personally found helpful in facing setbacks. I detest the idea of being prescriptive or of pouring shame onto fresh wounds of someone who is experiencing a major life setback. We cope in different ways; you finding your way through in your own time and space is all that matters.

I do believe that one way to honor ourselves (and each other) in dealing with significant setbacks is to allow for grief and mourning. Modern society often gives us the message that we must succeed and exude confidence, beauty, wealth and health at all times. When this doesn’t occur, we may feel like failures. Knowing it is okay to allow hurt and disappointment in, as well as sorrow and pain, and to bear witness to it for each other is integral, in my opinion, to a well-lived life. Bites of bitterness sensitize our taste-buds to the sweet moments.

As part of our grief, we may find ourselves opening to the full experience of life and experiencing gratitude. I desire safety, security and comfort above all in life, but a single-minded attachment to these outcomes can numb me to the wider range of feelings and possibilities that my experiences contain. Near-misses, especially, jolt me into increased hope and happiness for the moments in which I can be present.

Major setbacks may lead to a necessity for us to realign our values and sense of purpose. The dreams onto which we held may no longer be possible; who we thought we were or would become may no longer exist. This doesn’t mean, though, that we are meaningless. Instead, it can offer a window into a new construction of self that can be—although not what we envisioned—our truest and most authentic version.

Stressors, even major ones, do not have to compromise the good we can do in the world. The only way I’ve even glimpsed this reality is when I first open to the parts of self I’d rather reject, and secondly when others in my life have shown me compassion for the pain and suffering I’ve endured. It is a process to which I return on a sometimes daily basis. Finding nourishment in what feels like the breadcrumbs of life, thereby transforming them to plenty, requires time, social support and a mindset that welcomes one’s whole self.

How do you differentiate between bad luck and personal failing? Which characteristics of these stressors make them particularly challenging or easy to address? How do you cope with minor and major stressors?

Embodied Heart

That Time of Year

It has become more and more difficult for me to engage through writing these last few months. What I’m finally coming to accept is that I’ve slipped into a depressive state, which I will be processing in today’s #EmbodiedHeart post. I struggle with my mood primarily from a biological standpoint of hormonal fluctuations (PMDD) and seasonal variations. They are combining right now in an unholy synergy that is leaving me feeling quite down. The main symptoms with which I’m struggling:

Withdrawal

I am feeling less inclined to want to pursue social engagements and am finding myself opting out at the last minute. All the unpleasant parts of interaction seem heightened and the positives muted. I am also feeling very disengaged spiritually, which is highly frustrating because I just finished my Priestess training (I think this is a coincidence of time not a cause).

Anhedonia (Lack of Interest and Enjoyment)

This is the worst issue with which I’m currently dealing as nothing, and I mean nothing, seems fun or interesting to me. Typically I can pull myself along with a new project or at least a spending binge, but everything I’ve been trying to add seems “cluttering” and like it will become yet another responsibility. I have moments where I wonder what the point of me or anything is.

Hibernation

I’ve gained weight, am craving unhealthy foods, and want to go to sleep much earlier than normal. These signs tend to go along with seasonal affective disorder but began in late summer this time. My hypersomnia has been punctuated with a few nights of severe insomnia.

Shame and Worthlessness

This issue has been a bit strange because of the dissociative identity disorder. I feel shame and worthlessness, but at an internal distance—like someone else who rents out my body part-time is dealing with it and I wish I could do more to help them out. It is muted compared to the past when that part would take over and I would fall whole-body into the abyss.

I am not sure if this is symptom or cause, but I am also in more physical discomfort and pain than I have been for a while. I deal with several chronic health conditions which seem to be worsening along with the mood problems. My body isn’t an enjoyable place to be residing as of late.

Plan of Action

Practicing Self-Compassion

I want to be kind to myself during this time. I tend to berate myself for the ways in which I am lacking, rather than accepting my shortcomings and letting myself be with them. I want my thoughts and actions to support rather than antagonize the emotional vacuum in which I find myself. I especially want to improve my connection to and relationship with my body and am taking a day to go to the spa to do so!

Welcoming the Roots

These states tend to be time-limited and can allow me to go deeper into the underlying issues that affect me on a soul-level. I do not want to go on a weeding spree where I pull on every strand and am left in a tangle of memories and mess, but I do want to allow for any uprooting that may come. It’s a watery place in which I find myself and I hope I can let the tears, if there are any, fall.

Embracing Spaciousness

I’ve made a commitment this year to slowing down and examining ways in which I can simplify my lifestyle. Having everything going on feel like an overwhelming burden is an invitation to notice those people, events and processes in my life that are truly inspiring and joyful, and to let the rest fall away. I think it is human nature, at least in my nature, to try to fill up what feels empty in my life rather than to let it stay empty long enough to know whether the space is perhaps an opportunity to breathe deeply rather than a void.

Writing out my plan of action has re-centered me a bit and allowed me to see the potential benefits of what my body and mind are offering me currently. I feel slightly more hopeful that there is something to be gained by being here with it for a time, rather than demanding an end to any hints of depression as quickly as possible. If you struggle with depression, are there variations with season, body-state or other factors? What is the main sign that it has returned? What does your plan of action for addressing it typically include?