Today would typically be my next post for #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday. Unfortunately, my workload and health issues have piled up to the point where I feel like my day-to-day is a never-ending series of obligations. As a result, I need to slow myself down and respect my own limits. I want to carve out more time to dig into my spiritual practice so that what I write come as much from a place of authenticity as possible. I will still be blogging, but I am now planning to post about once a week, with additional posts as I am able. Looking forward to our continued conversations!
I’m interrupting my normal themed posts in order to share a part of my personal journey as it relates to mental health and being a trauma survivor. This particular post does not have a focus on spirituality, but I will be seeking out themes to which I can make a connection. I would welcome any comments about how what I shared impacted you or if you find yourself relating to any of my experiences.
“Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
― G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown
My mother remains a mystery to me. I lived with her from birth into young adulthood, but I never glimpsed behind the mask of mirrors she projected. She kept everyone at a particular distance; close enough to control but not so close that any vulnerability or genuine emotion was expressed. She would let me sit next to her and then unexpectedly shove me away.
She hid her true self under a mask of a loving, caring parent, when in fact she alternated in private between terrorizing, smothering and manipulating her charges. As soon as the phone was hung up or the car door shut or the last guest left, her polite, demure demeanor instantly transformed into an enraged, overburdened and abandoned character. And even this was a mask for whatever deep shame and revulsion drove her psyche, tossed aside for another version as soon as it suited her. She would scream and cry for days during her cycle, and, when asked what was making her depressed, would respond by saying “What do you mean? I’m always happy.” Every time I thought I saw her, she shifted and another mirror appeared.
What (not who) was I to this woman? I think I was an extension of her that she despised but needed, or maybe despised because she needed. She desired to possess me. I was to be her servant, happy that she allowed me to exist to ease her suffering. But of course I could never get it quite right and could never win her affection. She didn’t just fail to love me; she actively hated me. Had I stayed at home into adulthood and done nothing with my life aside from making a meager financial contribution and orienting myself towards pleasing her, she would not have made any effort to push me towards adult maturity. One of my greatest emotional burdens is that I’ve seen some of my siblings come close to this destiny after I rejected it. I was the oldest so the task fell to me initially; when I finally said “no more,” she simply adjusted her aim and found another target.
I’ve hesitated many times to share my experiences for fear of being called ungrateful and being judged for my estrangement from my family. Something settled anew in me when I decided to own it. I am ungrateful. Ungrateful for being sexually, emotionally and verbally abused. Ungrateful for being mocked and ridiculed every time I expressed an opinion. Ungrateful for being treated like an object or as an appendage. Ungrateful for the breadcrumbs of attention I was thrown, for which I was expected to grovel.
I want to wear my inner strengths that she labeled ungratefulness, entitlement and selfishness as a mantle; I would not be a fully functioning or even a marginally functioning adult without them. For wherever I am over-confident or proud in my everyday life, I offer myself grace and succor. To the parts of myself that are filled with shame and self-doubt, I extend hospitality and shout a message of “You are important!” “I see you!” “You have a right to exist!” to quiet the inner critic who wishes them gone.
I cobbled together a person from the fragments of my shattered mind. The embarrassment I’ve felt for my Frankenstein creation is being steadily replaced by an abiding sense of astonishment that the stitches are so well placed and the parts amble in a coordinated fashion. She broke me apart, seeking my soul, but I hid it away and now the rest of me—my mind, my body and my heart—have also been reclaimed as my own.
A major task of adulthood is making sense of our childhood, integrating the disappointments of our parents with their strengths in order that we may form our identity, develop close relationships and caretake the next generation. I cannot do this very well with my mother. I do see how hard she worked and I value the perseverance she instilled in me. I wish to feel sadness towards her limitations without being consumed with guilt, but she blamed me ceaselessly for her suffering without considering any of her own flaws. I wish to forgive her, but she never acknowledged that she did anything wrong towards me. I wish to connect to her, but she always kept me at a distance. I wish to focus on the silly, joyful, carefree times, but she didn’t allow herself to indulge in them with me.
So the best I can manage is acceptance. I accept that I’ve never really known who my mother is, that she’s existed in a kaleidoscope of interchangeable facades, and that she has been incapable of loving or even of seeing me as a person. I wish I could experience a genuine moment of humanity from her once in my life, but I accept that I will instead treasure every single one of these moments I’ve co-created with those who do love and care for me.
My daily life provided inspiration for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. As in I strongly desired to move to an impenetrable castle in the sky surrounded by an alligator-filled moat today when my neighbor decided it was a perfect time to host a live band in his backyard on the one day of rest I have. I decided to channel my frustration into examining why we have boundaries, how they may be experienced by trauma survivors, and how we can establish and manage them in real life. I’m also investigating local bagpipe musicians for hire (j/k)!
The Purpose of Boundaries
Boundaries in relationships convey safety. I see them as twofold: offering an invitation and granting permission to a request. We all have aspects of our physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental being that we cherish, that not everyone gets to access, that we elevate to the VIP section of our being. If people want in, they either need to wait for us to invite them in, or they need to ask permission. It is entirely within our rights to say no at any time for any reason. It should go without saying that this is also how we should treat others. I get weird looks occasionally when I ask permission for things most people would just take; I do it not out of a submissive personality but instead because it is how I want to be treated.
Boundaries and Trauma
One of the core features of an event that crosses from an everyday occurrence to a trauma experience is that it often involves a threshold of personal safety being desecrated or obliterated. This could be on a physical, sexual, verbal or emotional level. The individual emerges from the experience with some aspect of their very being shaken and betrayed. Concepts like complex PTSD and moral injury lend themselves to this type of experience.
What makes a boundary violation traumatic may be rooted in the power difference that frequently occurs in traumatic events. When a parent, teacher, coach, religious leader or other authority figure takes advantage of the imbalance of power to violate boundaries in such way as to induce shame, we are left feeling helpless and hopeless, not to mention estranged from ourselves. I’ve come to believe that some measure of us, perhaps called our soul, remains unvarnished no matter what our body, mind and heart have had to endure. This view has given me comfort in that the sense of something pure and whole lying at my core gives me the strength to reassert myself in the world.
We do well to speak our needs aloud before they become pressing. Giving those whom you encounter a fleshed-out synopsis of who you are in a casual way allows those who are emotionally competent to pick up your preferences and “no-go” zones. For example, I tend to try to find a way to mention my values, likes/dislikes and habits to people as I get to know them. I’d much rather they decide our level of compatibility or how well-suited we are to work closely together from the start. This approach will likely be much more successful if you are comfortable with who you are. If your outward stance on things is based on adjusting to what those around you think, it’s very easy to find yourself frequently offended. Others will walk all over your true values because they aren’t visible or known to them.
Not everyone has the capacity to discern what you are communicating through how you present yourself. Some individuals may have conditions that affect their ability to perceive social cues. Others know full well what you want but don’t care. In these cases, I think we need to be direct, unapologetic and unambiguous regarding where our conditions of relationship are located. For instance, there have been people I’ve had to tell more than once that I wasn’t interested in a certain type of relationship, with increasing bluntness until they finally got the message.
Handling Boundary Violations
When I first learned about the concept of boundaries, I naively thought that all it took to set them was to know what I wanted and share it with others; the potential conflict was the ending point in my mind, rather than the start. My life experience has taught me that many people respond negatively when a boundary is laid out. It can be very hard to hear a ”no” from someone else.
I think the reason we may respond to someone setting a marker with us in a defensive manner is that we are often conditioned to have to know what others want without them telling us. This means that someone needing to tell us that they don’t like or want something means we have failed in our minds, and this leads directly to feelings of shame. People tend to struggle to manage feelings of shame appropriately. It is significantly easier to call others “oversensitive” “emotional” or “demanding” if they express their true desires to us, rather than accept the limitations they are placing on our behavior towards them.
I absolutely hate it when my actions lead another person to feel shame, but I know in most of the specific cases where it’s occurred that the alternative was for me to act in a disingenuous way that would have caused me feelings of bitterness and resentment, and would have damaged the relationship more severely in the long run. If you find yourself often offended at others’ behaviors, it may be a sign that you are allowing yourself to proceed into situations that might have been preventing if you had established your limits with the other person earlier.
To circle back to what this means for trauma survivors, it is possible that we can do everything possible to cordon off aspects of ourselves as sacred, as our own, and desire to let others into those areas only when trust has been established, only to find that all the self-knowledge and empowerment in the world can’t withstand every threat. Sometimes we are too small or young or vulnerable or simply human to protect ourselves. It makes my blood boil to think of people taking advantage of others in this way. I’ve talked about my perspective on justice previously; all I will say here is that I think no one can take possession nor damage the core of who we are, and I think there are many more people in the world who would help us heal than hurt us.
Negotiating Boundaries in Relationships
I’m not sure if there is something inherently individualistic about the self-definition that comes with healthy and flexible boundaries. Many proponents of Goddess Spirituality emphasize the communal aspects of life and the interdependence which allows for reliance on others and work towards common goals. Even within this framework, I think there is a potential for each of us to have emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are our own, while also celebrating the interweaving of our lives.
Personal boundaries may be an artificial creation from a metaphysical perspective. If we see ourselves as one speck in the web of life, carefully carving out the diameter of our “speckness” may seem an exercise in pettiness and futility. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I cannot overemphasize the degradation and annihilation of self I’ve experienced being in relationship with those who lack the ability to acknowledge and respect boundaries. Being subsumed into another’s psyche is not healthy nor life-giving.
With these dialectics in mind, I think the key concepts here are fluidity and evolution. Visualize your boundaries as made of water rather than stone. Enough water moving in the same direction can be an incredibly strong force, knocking buildings off their foundations. Water can also be a gentle kiss on a misty morning. When our boundaries are fluid, we can respond to the specific situation in which we find ourselves, while also adhering to our general preferences and expectations to relationships. Maybe the particular issue facing us will work best with a soft stream redirecting the energy, and maybe it needs a waterfall torrent of strength to establish our presence. Liquid in nature is constantly evolving in response to the energy and forces surrounding, and so can we.
For this #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be sharing about sleep. Did you just yawn? Talking about sleep sometimes makes me tired 😊 Our bodies and minds benefit when we are able to get a good night’s rest. Mental health conditions common to trauma survivors are related to specific sleep problems. Specific behaviors can improve our sleep environments and we can elevate the act of sleep to a sacred practice.
Health Benefits of Sleep
Attaining a healthy night’s sleep affects nearly every aspect of our being, and is linked with living a longer, healthier life. Getting sufficient sleep at night seems to improve our fertility, immune system and metabolic functioning. The REM state of sleep appears to help our brain process memory. When we miss out on sleep, we suffer from short-term memory loss and our capacity to focus and learn is negatively impacted. Whenever I miss a few hours of sleep, I find myself having trouble keeping track of everything I’m doing and sometimes forgetting the next step in a process. Both of these experiences are indications of short-term memory deficits.
Sleep and Mental Health
Sleep problems can be symptoms of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety. Hypersomnia can occur with depression; this would include feeling tired even after a full night of sleep and engaging in excessive sleeping. Insomnia includes difficulty falling asleep, waking up repeatedly throughout the night, and/or waking up early in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep. This can be a feature of depression or generalized anxiety. Those who have bipolar disorder may feel energized despite sleeping only a few hours a night and can eventually swing into a deep depression.
PTSD is linked with numerous sleep problems. A specific symptom of PTSD includes having nightmares reliving the traumatic event. People who have suffered trauma are also more likely to have REM behavior disorder, meaning that they move during REM sleep, which can lead to injury to themselves or those with whom they are sharing a bed.
Some sleep experiences that can be startling if you are unaware of their origins include the hallucinations that can occur while we are falling asleep or as we are waking up. You may feel or see a presence in the room. In addition, we are paralyzed by our brain every night during REM sleep. When parts of our brain come to full consciousness without a simultaneous release of our muscles, we experience sleep paralysis, which can involve awareness without the ability to move your body. If these types of experiences occur frequently, they can be a sign of narcolepsy.
Behaviors that assist us in getting a high-quality night of sleep are called sleep hygiene. Medications to help us sleep may sometimes be necessary but can come with a lot of side effects. To improve your sleep environment, consider the activities that occur on your bed or in your bedroom. If you are spending time concentrating on your computer in your bed, you might be confusing your body. You are conditioning your body to associate your room as a place to stay very alert and focused but also to a place to sleep. This discrepancy can increase insomnia. Having your bed designated only for quiet activities may help you to attain a peaceful night’s rest more easily.
To the extent that it is possible for you personally, consider creating a sacred sleep environment. Think about the sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes that are most likely to induce a calm and peaceful place of respite, and redesign your sleeping space accordingly. I have a Goddess statue and a few trinkets in my bedroom that help me center. I’ve incorporated darker colors and blackout curtains in my design in order to bring the moon and nighttime vibes inside. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the extent to which these small changes have made it easier for me to get a restful night’s sleep.
Sleep is a biological act and does not necessarily or inherently involve a spiritual component, but I think it can be transformed when we view it as an active spiritual practice. For instance, when we dream, our unconscious mind has an opportunity to express itself. I think Goddess can speak to us during this time. In order to remember dreams, most people find it necessary to record them immediately after waking. This ensures that the vivid details will be captured. You may need to adjust this practice if you have PTSD and experience trauma-related nightmares. I have these in cycles; there are times I go without them during which I think it would benefit me to more fully examine my dreams and look for Goddess symbols.
The moments between sleep and awakening are a time when our mind can be particularly open. I tend to find myself immediately running through all the things I have to do for the day. A practice I am now incorporating is to spend the first light of dawn in a visualization. This will include creating a rich, full color picture in my mind of a nature scene, and using all my scenes to fill out the imagery. When I consider starting each day in a tropical jungle, snowy mountaintop or wind-raked beach, it seems a little easier to transition to addressing the mundane tasks that lie ahead of me. An interesting side effect of this practice has been that I am sometimes able to remember my dreams more fully, possibly because I am engaging similar brain areas.
I hope you will share tips on what you do to improve your sleep and reap its benefits. I know there are many other spiritual practices that relate to sleep and would love to learn about what you have found to be particularly meaningful. Sleep well!
Many trauma survivors have difficulty with medical procedures. These may be triggering for many reasons—they often include physical discomfort or pain, there is a power difference between the doctor and patient, and they include significant financial stressors and decision-making demands. I’m a proponent of working with a therapist to help to heal from trauma for many reasons, including the fact that mental health symptoms may make following through on medical care difficult or impossible.
I’m currently in the middle of having a root canal redone. As in, I had it done a few years ago, and now have to have the previous work removed and replaced. I was so triggered by the first experience I avoided dentists for a while, and have now found myself being verbally combative in response to those who are supposed to be helping me. Unfortunately, finding a medical professional who is sensitive to the needs of people with PTSD and trauma histories can be very hit or miss and I haven’t had a lot of success. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I wanted to develop a ritual to help me transform my feelings of helplessness in order to focus my intention, my voice and my energy before undergoing additional procedures.*
Gather the following items in your sacred space:
A candle (intuitively choose the color)
A piece of polymer clay
An oracle or tarot deck
Step 1: Cast a circle or center yourself using meditation, yoga, whatever you use to ground.
Step 2: Spend some time using your inner eye to create an image of a tree covered in leaves. Use all of your senses to draw out each element of how it would look, feel, smell and sound. Spend some time mentally relaxing under its branches.
Step 3: Ask Deity or your inner Wisdom to show you the specific question you need to ask in order to ground yourself before your medical procedure. For example, perhaps there is an attitude or strength you can cultivate for assistance, or a character trait that will be strengthened by engaging in self-care and following through on your doctor’s advice.
Step 4: After deciding upon the question, draw a Tarot or oracle card and meditate on what it reveals to you.
Step 5: Decide how you wish to use the clay. You can either shape it into the body part related to your medical procedure, or you can shape it into a representation of what the card revealed to you. Or both!
Step 6: Place your clay creation in front of the candle. Light the candle, and, if it fits your practice to do so, ask your Deity or Inner Wisdom to be present with you during the procedure and to guide you in developing the traits you need to undergo it successfully.
Step 7: Imagine the tree again, and imagine yourself underneath of it being filled with strength, voice, intention and energy. Spend as much time as you need to draw in the rootedness the tree offers. Listen for any healing messages, and thank the tree for its blessings.
Step 8: Thank your Deity or Inner Wisdom for guidance, and close the circle.
Consider taking something with you to your appointment that you can touch in order to ground yourself. The polymer clay could be baked and turned into an amulet for protection or talisman for blessing for this purpose. I created a witch jar filled with hearts to represent lovingkindness, and I wear a bracelet with chakra stones that also has an evil eye to ward off any negative energies.
*Please note that I am primarily focused in this post on routine types of medical care here; if you are having major surgery or testing that could be life-altering, I definitely encourage you to seek out additional resources and consult your support system as there could be an element of grief or direct trauma involved in those situations.
If you decide to use any of this ritual in your own practice, be sure to adapt it to your own preferences and needs. It may be worth doing at least parts of it more than once to solidify your mental imagery and connection to Source before your procedure. I welcome any links to other practices you have found helpful!