A tree without leaves to the right of a snowy path.
Embodied Heart

On (and Off) the Surface

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

Many trauma survivors are familiar with the concept of grounding. From a psychological perspective, it involves (re)connecting with one’s body and (re)turning to the present moment. As of late, I’ve found myself encountering it in a new and visceral way.

I experienced the coldest weather of my life thus far in recent weeks, with wind chills approaching -50 Fahrenheit. The ground was already coated in several inches of snow, which became “extra” frozen in these temperatures. Every step meant sinking into crunch, almost as if the snow had been freeze-dried. There was no moment to pause as I scuttled along with my dog for his bathroom breaks. My breathing itself had to be filtered through a cloth mask, lest I frostbite my lungs. Earth was there in sharpness and fury, present to me but without comfort. I found myself feeling oxygen-starved as I inhaled parched, brittle air. The ground crystallized itself inaccessible.

In less than a week, the temperatures soared upwards and all the snow melted. I suddenly felt held and met by the soggy grip of the muddy, raw-exposed grass. Air and land poured moisture in abundance. My breath met and melded with the fog that extended in every direction. All was soft and settled in respite. My dog and I meandered slowly, sipping in the warmth and the smells the hints of green engendered.

At the back of my mind, a simple fact lingered. Four feet below the surface, give or take some inches, it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit. All year round. There’s liquid water mixed with soil, clay, rock and sand. Chaotic shifts, heart of winter to mild spring in a week, are happening above, but, at the right depth, there’s balance. In parallel, the sun is always shining if one’s high enough in the sky and over the right location.

I am running to rest and resting to run, but when am I pausing? Where is my depth or height at which stability and brightness come through? To what roots and risings am I entwined? Part of my experience of PTSD has gotten mixed up with the actual meteorological conditions, so my anxiety breaks loose any time there is a major shift or a threat of bad weather. I am not always capable of digging deeply enough or soaring above to meet a moment of simple being amidst the chaos, but I am now fitted with an image of it that I hope will be a returning, a reconnection. Always, somewhere not surface, Earth is sun-kissed rocky warmth.

Embodied Heart

In Flux

I shaved my head! It was an impulsive action spurred on mostly by a need to follow through on the idea once it popped into my head (honestly, this is how I’ve made most of my boldest moves in life). It coincided with a decision to be a bit more public about my abuse story in another forum. Since that time, I’ve found it harder to concentrate and settle myself into deeper reflections in writing. The sharing and the shedding took a lot out of me, and I feel in the in-between of something. What the something is, I’m not quite sure.

Most of the feedback about my new look has been positive and I feel incredibly comfortable, actually more like myself, in how I’m styling my clothing and inhabiting my body. There is a looseness, though, to my sense of self. Something between possibility and loss that moves every time I think I’ve glimpsed it. My sexual orientation has been fluid for many years. I believed that my gender identity was very defined as a woman but now I’m not quite as certain. I don’t know if this is what is bubbling up or if there is another aspect of who I am that is disconnecting from a rigidity I didn’t know I possessed.

My nature is to want answers, to problem-solve, to analyze, and to arrive at an end point from which I can make decisions. Living in the in-between disquiets my energy and drains my spiritual focus. I’ve always been here, really, given that I have dissociative identity disorder, but I come across to most people as a highly driven, consistent and deliberate person. My physical appearance, with a buzzed haircut, is a better representation of the off-from-center way I see myself, but it hasn’t quelled the inner turmoil of struggling to definitively commit to one way of being in the world. Perhaps I don’t need to commit, perhaps being in flux is who I am.

If you care to share, I would be interested in hearing ways in which you’ve felt in-between two or more ways of existing. To what extent do you pressure yourself or yield to pressure from others in order to decide who you are? Have there been specific acts of self-expression, like my shaving my head, that destabilized rather than solidified your sense of self?

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?