Anxiety, Anxiety, Anxiety. We hear about it all the time. There are different types of anxiety and different causes. The word in itself alone can bring up fear for us. Weirdly, if you think about it, anxiety is just …anxiety. It’s there for a reason: survival instincts. It’s there to keep us alive. However, it can bleed into other areas of life other than just survival and that’s when it gets messy.
I still get anxious. Like, REALLY anxious. I’m not going to stand up here and say “I used to have anxiety, but I no longer do, and here’s how to…” Nah, nah. In fact, I’m going to admit, over the past few months, I resorted back to old ways I used to cope with anxiety.
I go into it more in next week’s post, but to give you a summary: I relapsed. A lot of life’s challenges knocked me down this past fall and instead of getting back up- I would resort to things to knock myself out. The areas in my life that were once stable, began crashing down. I was constantly getting sick and instead of using the sources and knowledge I had to cope with these things, I had a “fuck-it” kind of attitude and went back to old ways. I hid my habits, became distant, flat, and lost interest in everything.
This workbook includes the tools, awareness, and knowledge that I wish I had taken. Honestly, I have been avoiding putting this book out for a while because I would’ve felt like a hypocrite if I did. How could I lead others towards the light, if I wasn’t doing the work myself? So, today, I am using these self-awareness techniques when it comes to breaking away from anxiety and destructive coping behaviors. I hope that these tips will help you, too, climb out of the darkness. Yesterday doesn’t matter, today does.
Let me first start by saying Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a brilliant, brilliant man. He’s an author who has dedicated tons of his research towards PTSD. You may have heard of his book, The Body Keeps The Score. After reading this book a while back and listening to many interviews with him, I was not surprised when I found out his approach to treating trauma is done through bodywork, such as yoga. In fact, yoga addressed many trauma wounds that talk therapy was not able to reach or heal.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talked about the two most common therapies that are used in a New York Times Magazine post: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. He stated that the purpose of this therapy is to “desensitize” the patient to the fear, which isn’t effective therapy for trauma because desensitization is not the same thing as healing. The other therapy commonly used, CBT, is where the patient will look at their thoughts and see the illusions with a rational perspective. However, again, he pointed out that this is another ineffective therapy for trauma because “Trauma has nothing to do with cognition, it has to do with your body being reset to not interpret the world as a dangerous place.” Trauma needs to be reset in the primitive parts of the brain, which talk therapy, or CBT, cannot reach.
Most therapy uses the “top-down” approach, which addresses the “evolved” part of the brain, otherwise known as the neocortex. This is where you’ll talk and learn to observe your emotions and thoughts. Now, of course, this is helpful, but trauma is stored in the body through sensory. You cannot rationalize with that part of you that goes into “fight or flight”. This is why therapies such as EDMR, brain spotting, somatic therapy, yoga, and hypnosis really help propel one’s recovery from sexual abuse.
This is also why addiction is hard to break when it is just approached by addressing emotions. We must understand that aside from emotions and genetic factors, the limbic system in the body is highly activated. You cannot rationalize with surfacing addiction urges, just like you cannot rationalize with PTSD triggers. This is why this “bottom-up” therapy approach can help with addiction, especially if trauma related. I talked in my podcast (Episode 2) this past week about how to deal with this part of the brain, which is the limbic system.
I thought that by avoiding certain people, places, sounds, or experiences would prevent me from being triggered. Yet, after trauma your entire nervous system is still on high alert, meaning your body is still acting as if you are still in the trauma. If you are someone, or know someone that experiences frequent flashbacks, nightmares, or can’t seem to be brought down to earth, then here are some suggestions that have helped me, and still to this day continue to. The “bottom-up” approach to healing trauma is essential. It really gave me a glimmer of hope when I felt like I was failing talk therapy that I had been going to for years.
You’re shocked, speechless, and trying to put together the right words to say just within a matter of seconds. No, no, no. You don’t want to believe it. You’re scared for them.
When a close friend discloses they have been raped, you want to do everything you can to help them. You want to take their pain away. And as much as I wish it were possible, you can’t alleviate the pain from them. What you can do is give them comfort and unconditional support. That makes more of a difference than you may think. Now, before I discuss ways you can help, I’m going to give you a few tips on what to avoid doing when a friend discloses to you that they have been abused. From personal experience, the reactions of family and friends made a strong impact on me.
What NOT to do:
Don’t ask questions, especially ones that are not relevant at the moment. I know, there are probably a ton of questions surfacing, but hold back right now from asking them. Examples of unnecessary questions are: Why didn’t you tell me right away? Were you guys ever romantically involved beforehand? Did you try to push him/her off? Why didn’t you report it after? Basically, if you are questioning yourself whether you should ask the question or not, I’d advise to not ask it.
Don’t minimize it. Things like, “Well at least he didn’t…..,” or “It could have been worse if he..” is not the thing to say. Even if you were also abused in the past, avoid bringing up your story at that moment. By not bringing up past cases, you are giving your friend’s story that necessary space to be talked about. It also can feel overwhelming to hear other survivor’s stories at that moment, because they may automatically and mentally place themselves in the other story, especially if they were abused recently.
Do not give the benefit of the doubt to the rapist. “Were they drunk?” “Did he know what he was doing?” “Maybe he thought you consented to it,” “He was such a good person, I can’t believe he’d do such a thing.” When a friend tells you that they were abused, the focus needs to be on them and not the rapist. It doesn’t matter about all the past times the abuser has seemed like a good guy, and it’s not even that important right now regarding who it was. What matters at this moment is that your friend was raped and they need your help.
Which leads me to…
What TO Do:
Try, (I know it’s hard) to remain calm: Sudden outbursts and cursing the abuser’s name isn’t going to help your friend. When someone has been through something like rape, they need a safe, calm, gentle place to go to.
Fewer Questions and More Statement Responses: “I’m so sorry you went through that,” “You didn’t deserve that,” Empathy is key here. Instead of direction and problem solving, most survivors need a good listener at the moment. Other good things to say are “I am here to listen,” “I love and care for you, and will be here to help you in any way you need.”
Listen, Listen, Listen: Although you may want to go find the guy and kick him in the balls, hold off from telling your friend that. It may be a difficult story to listen to, but by just listening you are giving their words air to breathe. By just speaking out loud without questions and comments, the survivor feel heard. One of the worst feelings as a survivor to feel is to feel unheard, not believed, or misunderstood. I know you have a lot of questions and a lot to say, and it may feel like you’re not doing much by listening, but this is, in fact, one of the best things you can do.
“I Believe You,”: Is one of the most consoling things for a survivor to hear. Before telling you, they’ve probably had many back and forth conversations in their head about whether or not to say anything. This especially goes for cases when the abuser was someone you knew. A lot of the time survivors hold back from speaking because the pain of not feeling heard or believed just makes the wounds even deeper. So the fact that they are disclosing this to you means that they are really going out on a limb by sharing. They trust you. So by saying, “I believe you and am here to help,” seals that trust between both of you. Sexual abuse shatters the survivor’s trust in anyone, so to be that foundation of trust is one of the best things you can do. Your friend needs a trusting figure in their life right now.
Support Their Decisions: “That was a crime and I want you to know that I will be there to support you if you want to report it.” Remind them of that option, but don’t pressure them if they don’t want to. I know you probably want that prick to be charged but go with your friend’s decision. A lot of people ask “Why don’t survivors report rape?” and I can give a list of reasons right off the bat. When a survivor reports a rape, they are the ones who will be going through a lot of hell. Not the abuser. You see, there will be hours of sitting in waiting rooms at the hospital, station, or court. It’s torture. Rape kits feel beyond invasive. There will be stacks of endless paperwork where they’ll have to write that person’s name down over and over again. They’ll be asked many detailed questions, bringing them back to that moment of the assault for days on end. Going through this process feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. The survivor not only has the psychological reminders and flashbacks of the abuse replaying in their mind every day, but they will then literally have to devote their days to the case after reporting it. It practically becomes the core of their life during that process. What you can do is to offer to be there with them if they want to report it and remind them that they won’t be alone during the process.
**If your friend disclosed that they had just been abused: please also remind them of the option that by keeping evidence, it will help their case later on if they choose to report it. Examples of this are: Waiting to shower, brush teeth, eat, smoke, or drink. Honestly, after rape, all you want to do is to wash it off. Definitely validate that by saying, “I know you want to shower right now, but maybe wait until after you see the doctor just in case you will need it as evidence later on.”
If the rape just happened, reporting it is the last thing they are thinking about. Actually, they are probably having a difficult time thinking clearly at all, so a good first step to offer after listening is to go to the doctor or hospital. Remind them that they can still go to the hospital and not have to report it to the police right away. The police will be informed that a crime has occurred after the rape kit is completed, but no charges will be pressed until your friend chooses to do so. The hospital’s main priority is to take care of your friend’s physical wellbeing and collect evidence if they chose to report it.
As a child, when I spoke about the abuse, it was not handled correctly by my mother. This impacted me emotionally almost just as much as the abuse itself. There were a lot of excuses for the abuser such as: “He had a hard life,” and “but remember, he had his own problems.” There was also a lot of, “Your brothers can’t know,” “If your grandfather finds out, it would literally kill him,” “Don’t you dare tell anyone because it’ll make my family look bad.” However, looking back as an adult, I know her intentions were not to cause shame or to hurt me, but more that they were strong reactions that stemmed from her own fears and wars. She did the best she could with the tools and knowledge she had at the moment. But now after you read this, thankfully you will know better. The things is that: most abusers are people you know. I know you may feel shocked, betrayed, afraid of how relationship dynamics may play out within the family, community, or friend’s circle, but please believe your friend and tell them that. Remind them that you will support their decision no matter what. That’s what they need.
Recently, I disclosed to my friends about recent incidents that happened with someone a lot of people trusted, even myself. After opening up about it to a close friend of mine, I cried afterward. Not just because I was overwhelmed and afraid regarding the situation, but more because he responded to me so compassionately. It was then that I realized THIS is what support looks like. These are the responses I wish I heard when I was younger. If you are reading this as someone who has been abused: I want you to know that there are people and good friends out there like this that you can trust. They might not be blood-related, but there are still good, trustworthy people in this world. I promise. If you are reading this as a friend of a survivor: Please be like this friend who stood by my side. The reactions of friends and family impact the survivor much more than you think. When I felt like I couldn’t trust people again, these responses from my friend reminded me that there are people you can trust. There are people in this world who care.
Here are some of the consoling things that were said that you can also say to your friend who was raped or abused physically and/or emotionally:
“If something happened, I want you to know that it’s not “dramatic” of you to be uncomfortable.”
“I don’t know what happened, and I won’t ask but if you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Listen, you did not deserve that.”
“We are good friends and it does make things complicated but what’s more important is the RIGHT thing.”
“I got your back like a chiropractor sis.”
THIS is what support looks like, this is how to respond.
It was at a hot yoga class a week ago when the instructor had us go into frog pose. My body tensed up at just hearing the words “frog pose” and even more so as I sank deeply into it. Even though I’d focus on loosening up my shoulders, jaw, and hips one at a time, my muscles still tightened up seconds after I went focused on the next part of my body. I was ready to sprint the hell out of that 90 degrees heated room.
Like life, nothing is permanent, not even frog pose. Eventually, the instructor-led us into a restoring savasana and said, “This savasana would feel very different if we didn’t go through all of the poses before. It wouldn’t have felt as rejuvenating.”
That got me thinking.
Trauma is experiencing extreme discomfort that isn’t controllable. To self protect, survivors have learned to dissociate and find other coping mechanisms such as addictive behaviors to escape that discomfort. The behaviors had served the purpose of protecting us from feelings, memories, and experiences that we felt unable to handle. However, if we’re constantly numbing ourselves from the discomfort, we won’t be present to feel the pleasure in life either.
Numbing yourself with drugs or alcohol before sex can be a way to protect you from those flashbacks, but that also comes with never being able to truly connect with someone through sex. That trust and safety that you really desire within, will never come from numbness. In fact, it distances you not only from your partner but your body and spirit as well. The same goes for eating disorders, those behaviors give you that illusion of control but you are actually destroying your body as well as many other areas of life such as relationships, work, school, or inspiration for the future. Addictions such as these becoming replacements of where the trauma is in your mind but takes away your attention from everything else too.
One of the greatest milestones in healing from sexual trauma is learning to remain still and present during the discomfort. If we learn to be present in those moments, we also will start to notice other ways to respond to it rather than numbing out. Not being stoned, high, or drunk during sex gave me the awareness to know what exactly causes anxiety as well as the opportunity to speak up about it. It gave me back my own power in what I experience, rather than hoping for the best while numbing out from it. Making the promise to stop abandoning oneself while passing through the obstacles of discomfort will illuminate the opportunities of solutions to it.
Doing your best to remain grounded during these moments is key. Try scanning your body to locate where the anxiety is manifesting and then breathe into it. If you feel like you’re pulled up into a tornado of thoughts, focus on bringing attention to your lower body like your legs or feet.
If you are alone and are experiencing panic, one of the best tools I have learned was EFT, also known as tapping. Now, at first, I thought it was stupid and tedious. Yet over time, it has become one of the most helpful coping mechanisms that bring me out of that whirlwind of panic after experiencing anxiety. A great resource is Brad Yate’s YouTube channel. Try his “Trauma and Abuse” and “Sex Issues” EFT videos.
When we learn to observe the discomfort and remain present, we can ask ourselves what we need to feel safe. Maybe you have been in survival mode for most of your life, but now, I want you to know that you deserve to thrive and live a life of adventure and freedom while also feeling at peace. I promise, with time, you’ll learn how to move through your own versions of frog pose in life.
“In my dream, wearing torn flannel sleeves, I lit a cigarette between my teeth as I walked down the street underneath fall’s golden canopy. And no matter how hushed I tried to be, I’d walk over crunching leaves and twigs that would snap beneath my feet. It reminded me of the part I played around you: tip toeing around to avoid that break.
I’d continue to hold back.
You’d tell me this is a game, like I’m some object to claim. Yet, no one else was playing or saw it that way. How much proof did I need to get it through, that my decisions aren’t up to you? Dreams, six strings, and burning leaves, you’re now marked in my memory. There were moments you were so sweet, driving me around the brick streets, singing to me. Yet, after I said what I had to say, you crossed over into the wrong lane, and you took it too far that day.
That hit took me back to the past. How sick is it, you even knew about that? I no longer will be that sweet, pretty, quiet thing you wanted me to be. Your opponent in this “game” that you claimed isn’t the other men, it’s the fact that I will speak the truth until the very end. I know you must hate me for speaking about that, so just think of it as my way of hitting you back.“
-Again, September by Fiona McHugh
I remember a therapist I went to years ago told me that it is common for survivors to find themselves in abusive situations later on in life. Her words illuminated that dark corner in my mind that I had refused to look at. Many people, including myself, may be confused as to why this happens. In fact, wouldn’t you think it would be the opposite?
If you feel like you are repeatedly finding yourself in relationships or incidents that are hurting you, there’s a reason why. Before I continue, I want you to know that pain isn’t love. If someone doesn’t respect boundaries and hurts you emotionally or physically, yet tells you they love you- I want you to know that isn’t love. Maybe you haven’t experienced a safe and trusting connection before and it might seem foreign to you. You deserve to feel heard, safe, protected, valued, and respected. A major part of love is unconditional respect.
On an emotional scale, the abuse lies at the veryyy bottom. Whether it happened once or repeatedly, it greatly impacts one’s perception of how they believe people should behave towards them and what they deserve. Logically, we know that we don’t deserve any type of abuse, yet amid everything, it’s can be difficult to become aware of when abuse is happening. Meaning this: If you learned from an early age or a past relationship that love goes with pain or always being on alert, it may be difficult to notice red flags immediately because that pain and lack of boundaries is a familiar experience.
Repetitive experiences and emotions create beliefs. Overtime these experiences become normalized (even when they are not normal.)
To this day I’ll notice old beliefs. The other weekend I was sitting across from my roommate in our living room and found myself saying, “I know he hit me, but I don’t have a bruise on my face or anything, so it’s not that bad.”
Stunned, she said, “Fiona, he HIT you!” At that moment, I realized I had set the bar so LOW on what I deemed as tolerable. Now this just occurred this month, and at that point, I thought I had worked on these beliefs and boundaries (OK, not all of them.. yet haha). Apparently not. This is also the reason I am writing this because it reminded me that there isn’t a finish line when it comes to recovery. Of course, there are markers on the path, but healing is a continual process.
After my roommate’s comment, I began to look back at all the other things I would tell myself after being in weird situations with men such as, “Well, he didn’t rape me, it could’ve been way worse.” It’s embarrassing to admit that was even a thought!!! In my mind, anything that wasn’t rape wasn’t “as bad,” because none of the other actions were as traumatic as what I had experienced. However, that doesn’t mean that those actions are acceptable, tolerable, or ever ok for a human to experience.
If the bar is set at sexual abuse, anything above that experience may not seem as severe. Except it is. Listen, if you are in a situation right now, where you are questioning yourself whether someone isn’t safe to be around, chances are, you have that feeling for a reason. If other people are saying there is something off with that person, they may be seeing something you’re not. Like gravity, their actions will continue to fall down to where that bar is set. People who engage in abusive actions oftentimes continue to push the boundaries as much as they can.
Now, does this mean you are destined to forever be in abusive relationships? Hell nooo. That is why I started this blog, to help survivors break away from the responsive cycles that stem from trauma. Let me quote Alan Watts for a second:
“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.”
It’s time to rewrite and cultivate new beliefs. Now is the time to raise the bar. Someone laying a hand on you, threatening you, or constantly disrespecting boundaries shouldn’t even be in the picture of what you should tolerate. I don’t care if it’s a longterm friendship, partner, relative, or coworker. It’s just not acceptable.
Here are some categories to give you an idea of where to start:
Have you ever really admired a friend’s partner because of how well they treated your best friend? You deserve those same qualities, and you can be those qualities to someone else. Relationships aren’t meant to cause chaos in one’s life. Life is too short. You will find your tribe and partner. It will all work out, but just write down those boundaries and accept nothing less. If you’re doing this and then meet someone, that’s when you know it’s the right person for you.
I can’t tell if my head is throbbing because I’ve been crying for days on end or extreme dehydration from sweating out the remaining water in my body during hot yoga this past week. I’m writing this post on a Friday morning. Whereas I usually already have a blog post written and published by then. My world seems like it’s crumbling down. It feels like I’ve washed ashore, coughing up all the saltwater from the sea.
Last weekend I filed an emergency PFA. Right now, it’s too fresh to talk about in-depth and I want to speak about it when I’m in less of an emotionally charged state. What I will say is that it hit me hard with heavy emotional parallels from the past. I haven’t felt such an inherent sense of sadness in a long time. I can understand why most people don’t report because the court process is the most overwhelming experience. I honestly would’ve given up if I wasn’t so concerned about being protected.
I left work early because I couldn’t stop crying. Last night, I began to romanticize in my mind three glasses of wine and Xanax. Or the field trips to multiple liquor stores throughout the week because of the embarrassment of about what the cashiers would think of my frequent trips if I continually went to the same one. I’ve come too far from those habits to go back to them. Right now, I need to be that dependable person that I needed when I was younger. I cannot worry like my mother did, about what others would think, losing relationships, causing ruined relationships. Instead, I need to take my power back and become that person I would be in a heartbeat for someone else.
If you’re like me and tend to escape the chaos through substances or getting another tattoo, try pausing and using these tools below instead.
Write: Just write down a list of stressors, they sound irrational but it’s a cathartic release. I learned this from my woman’s studies professor who would have us write what we were stressed about before class.
Do Some Fucking Yoga: The waves of sadness and frustration washed ashore through each vinyasa flow. Pigeon pose will also aid in the release of emotions.
Focus on Health: Instead of red wine, I’ve been drinking a ton of GT’s cranberry kombucha. Instead of relapsing or living off of only green juice and cigarettes, I’ve been making berry smoothies and salads. Lot’s of Liposomal Vitamin C and Zinc to support immunity. Also GABA and L-Theanine for stress. If you don’t know about amino acids and their functions I suggest reading Julia Ross’s books.
Cry: It’s detoxifying, healing, and extremely embarrassing when it happens at work.
Make the promise to never abandon yourself. There are so many “should’s” that cloud our minds as well as concerns about people’s opinions. But you can’t let that stop you from protecting yourself. No one has the right to release their anger physically on you, no one has the right to tell you and decide if their actions and words are making you uncomfortable. Go with yourself.
If you are struggling with dark thoughts and feel like there is no escape, here is a link to a post I wrote on my old blog about moving through the darkness.
Dark thoughts have hit all of us. Some moments of despair are easier to walk through than others. There’s a spectrum of these thoughts, being that some feel more intense than others. It can feel as if a murky cloud has blinded your vision, making it seem impossible that you’ll ever see a sliver of light again. What causes this cloud? The thoughts? The blindness from the light? There’s probably a multitude of answers to these questions, and obviously, I don’t have all of them. At this moment I’m writing this, I believe that this cloud is made up of ideas: Ideas we’ve soaked up like a sponge from the earliest age, as well as voices we’ve heard over our heads since we were kids. All the rules, limits, fears, and restrictions we have been told or overheard make up the molecules of this “cloud”.
This fog you may be lost in isn’t the end or any reflection of who you are. The biggest lie we can ever believe is that the thoughts surfacing in our mind are who we are. Instead, it is how we respond to the thoughts that make up our character. Attaching our identity to these dark thoughts is what will trip us up. (Trust me, I’ve been there.) What has gotten me through the darkness, and is still my guiding beacon whenever the fog rolls in again, is releasing the attachment. Here is what I learned five years ago when I knew something had to change.
Firstly, this dark cloud isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is a gift. Sounds strangely annoying, but bear with me. This murkiness lurking around you isn’t the problem, it’s a signal that something in your life is off. It is a sign that some aspect in your life, whether tangible or intangible, has run the course and needs to be released in order for you to continue on. There is something that is weighing you down, which is why any glimpse of hope or the idea of happiness may seem exhausting to you. That’s the thing about depression, sometimes it can feel tiring to even think about being happier. So before you continue reading, I want you to thank this cloud for telling you something must be set free.
Secondly, knowing that you are programmed to survive can help you learn to let go of your attachment to these thoughts. As humans, we are built for survival. Think back to the prehistoric times. Our entire lives were built around surviving, and to this day, still are. Businesses, schools, hospitals, basically everything is built around the desire and concept of surviving. Even religions as well. If you think about it, we desire and are searching for the certainty of a form of permanence. With this knowledge, it helps you understand logically, that those thoughts about giving up are not you.
Strangely, when those dark thoughts do arise, they may seem more authentic and real compared to your memories of when you felt joy. Being in this state can make you feel like, “this is the real me” and that you see life clearly now. Personally, in previous times I’ve felt like those dark thoughts were more raw, real, and authentic compared to the moments I’ve felt inspired by life. Maybe you’ve experienced that too. The reason for this is because there are authentic emotions that tag along with these thoughts. It’s not the thoughts you experience are real, but rather the feelings that arise whenever these thoughts do. Your body and mind need to feel these feelings, emotionally and physically. Those thoughts are carrying them up to you. They are trying to bring to the surface those feelings you need to feel in order to realize what you must release. Feel every feeling that each thought brings up, find where in your body you feel it, and breathe into it. Once we give authentic attention to these feelings, they will dissipate, along with the cloud.
Lastly, we must understand our identity. The most important fact to know is that you are not your thoughts. Therefore, you are not a depressed person. Sure, you may be a person experiencing depression and/or melancholy thoughts, but that’s not who you are. You are grieving, not a griever. Being a griever is permanent (and nothing is permanent), grieving is a natural process we all go through on various levels. It took years of practice but when a negative thought(s) arise, I’ve learned to listen to it, and then reply “thank you, but that’s not me, that’s not who I am.”
We must accept these thoughts that are surfacing along with unwanted emotions. The more resistance we have to them, the stronger they will get. When we have resistance to these thoughts, the battle is tiring, leaving us exhausted at the end and wanting to give up. When we let those thoughts feel heard as well as the feelings, they will pass through. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the thought process of: “I should be happy.” “When will I get out of this period of sorrow?” Yet, the more we focus on what we think we are supposed to feel, the longer they will linger until we acknowledge them. Accept the feelings and thoughts, but it doesn’t mean it’s who we are or that we must act upon them.
The solution to this identity struggle and the murky cloud is: To accept and release. Because-It’s not about finding yourself or searching for a way out of the darkness, but rather to just, release. Release the rules you have carried with you since you were a child. Release the voices that have told you that you must do x, y, and z in order to be worthy and loved. Release the opinions and perspectives that others have placed on you.It’s time to let them go. That’s when you will find yourself.
For years, you have been buried under the “shoulds” of life, lines, fears, and phrases of others. Those dark thoughts and feelings are just warning signs that it’s time to unearth yourself from the burden of other’s you’ve accumulated unconsciously. You have been there all along, and that’s why you may be experiencing depression. It’s a voice, a feeling, a cloud that sweeps in when it’s time to let go of expectations you and others have of yourself. Give those feelings and thoughts attention. Accept them until they get tired, and then let them leave.
Slowly you’ll uncover what brings you joy, and what inspires you. You’ll find the message you are meant to bring to the world, once you let go of everyone’s limits. I can promise you, from experience, that there are going to be exhilarating events in your life that are not comprehensible right now. You’re going to look back at this present moment and thank yourself for staying and being gentle with yourself in the midst of this pivotal point in your life.
Please call 1-800-273-8255 for help in a mental health emergency. Or reach out immediately to someone if you are in a state of crisis.
“After, I drove home. Springtime flowers were once again in bloom. I pulled the car up to the same gray house, buried by violet hydrangeas and mossy green grass. I stepped across the stepping stones and damp soil that led into the home that used to keep secrets for me. I sat at the piano, as the peach sun sank into the weeping willow tree. Out loud, again, I began to sing, about it, about him. The echoing keys and distant melodies of my voice drowned out those floorboard creaks I used to shudder from, that rose from beneath.”
-excerpt from “Bloom” by Fiona McHugh
It was the summer I turned nineteen when I recognized what was happening. For the past year, I had been in a treatment facility for anorexia. My life was made up of group and individual therapy, EDMR (a trauma therapy), terrifying PTSD episodes, being dishonest on my daily check-in chart, escaping the treatment center, going back to the treatment center, putting ankle weights in my pocket during weigh-ins, and digging deeper into the trauma and the pain from other’s reactions. I saw myself nothing other than a victim of trauma and following mental issues that stemmed from it. That year I became VERY aware of how most of the depression and anxiety linked back to the abuse.(For some reason when I was younger I never put the two together entirely.)
Awareness is the first step, grief is usually its friend that follows. Although grief is one of the worst feelings, it’s a sign that you are aware and are in the process of accepting what has happened. (Just FYI- acceptance doesn’t mean it’s ok what happened.) Now, after the immense tidal wave of grief washes ashore (and it will sometimes come again and then go) we begin to see the roots and reasons of our present actions.
Although I became aware of trauma based actions and triggers, I began to solidify them as beliefs of who I was, creating an identity. These beliefs limited me in so many areas of life. For example, some things I believed were, “I can’t heal from anorexia because a lot of it stems from the trauma; I need to drink tonight because I can’t handle being with guys; I will never have sex without crying after; sex is always painful because my body tenses up; I can’t relate to anyone; the OCD impulses are too strong today and so I can’t eat; I can’t go to college because I’m sick; I no longer surf or do yoga because I’m to frail and weak; I can never trust men.”
Do you see how limiting these beliefs are? Now, I’m not saying they weren’t real symptoms I was suffering from. But I was labeling them as who I was as a person. I had accepted that life will always be a battle and I could never feel normal because of what happened. Relating to other nineteen-year-olds was incredibly difficult when your entire life and identity was built around trauma and anorexia. Seeing the problems and the symptoms is important, but believing that they are YOU can create a major pause in your life.
It was an evening during Mid-August when my therapist called me on this. Man, at first, I was offended, like REALLY offended. I was relapsing once again and she had the intake papers for me to sign on the glass table. (There were always glass tables so that no one could hide their food under it.) I refused to sign them, which is when she brought up her observations. She brought to attention that I was letting myself be a victim to my present circumstances instead of taking control. Sure, I was a victim during that moment of the abuse, and life at home wasn’t the most steady environment, but she said that it didn’t mean I couldn’t change that. She told me I had to step into my power, to recognize that I can make decisions and handle the outcome of them. There were solutions, but I wasn’t taking any of them. Instead I just told myself “I am this way because of the trauma.”
I remember leaving the facility and crying in my car for a long time. It felt like a personal attack (although it wasn’t) because I was so bound to these actions, they were who I was. Yet a week later, I began to understand what she was saying. The real recovery isn’t in the therapist’s office or center, it’s by what you do in the real world. That place was there just to keep me alive, it wasn’t meant to be the foundation of my life. That week, I signed up for my first college courses at a local community college. A lot of the grief was expressed through my paintings and writing, and so I decided my focus was in Studio Art. I began to practice affirmations every morning when I woke up. I’d go on long walks listening to affirmation mediations as well. On a piece of paper, I wrote down twelve intentions of what I desired to experience in life that wasn’t mental health-related. They all came true.
Now, have I had to go to individual therapy for trauma and anorexia since? Yes, I still do. Do I like eating? No. Are there moments where I catch myself identifying as a victim? Yep. BUT, Did I take an honest look at my thoughts and actions during those times and decided to not let it become who I am? Hell yeahh! There were many highs and lows since that summer, but never once did I question the decision I made to break the old agreements.
Ask Yourself: What beliefs do I have about myself that are limiting? Who do I want to be? Who are the people I feel comfortable around, and what qualities in myself arise when I’m with them? Chances are the qualities you like about yourself when you’re with these particular people are actually traits of who you already are. This also goes for qualities you admire in others. Go write a list of ten beautiful things you desire to experience in this lifetime or ten new agreements about yourself. If you continually remind yourself that you are not going to let yourself be that trauma identity, I promise, those ten things you wrote down will come true.
If you have any questions about breaking the trauma agreements or where to begin, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dogwood petals rained down in the streets on the way home. The heat still laid itself like a blanket on the earth. I felt as if I had wings, reaching the final stage of metamorphosis. At last, being able to escape the prison of fear’s cupped hands. I kept my CRV’s windows down as I drove home. The humid air, thickened by the essence of oak leaves and cut grass, swept in and warmed my body to the core of my bones.
My mind kept swerving lanes. At first I felt like a cleansing wave washed over me, leaving remnants of relief. But then I’d swerve and an immense weight of shame pressed down with regret. It’s hard sometimes to differentiate your own internal voice, verses the ones you’ve grown up with. It takes time to analyze whether they’re your mother’s or your own fears. As I continued to drive, her words began to surface. They felt like a heavy stones weighing on me. “You know, if you like sex so much, you may as well just get paid for it.”
-excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh
Rape takes something that most of the world sees as pleasurable and turns it into something terrifying, forcing one to see their powerlessness at that moment. There are so many different responses trauma survivors have when it comes to thoughts about sex. Some survivors avoid intimacy and touch at all costs, while some survivors experience hyper-sexuality. None of these responses are wrong or to be ashamed of. Shame is like a dark cloud, and it’s difficult to see the overall picture of what is going on within. When we remove shame from our responses, it’s easier to understand the trauma responses.
Everyone deserves to have a happy sex life. In the book (which I HIGHLY recommend) The Sexual Healing Journey, the author Wendy Maltz describes sex as a knife. The knife can be used for enjoyable experiences like cutting a cake at a birthday party, but it also can be used as a weapon. It’s not the knife itself that causes the pain or is the problem. Instead, it’s about the person who’s holding that knife that controls the experience. The act of sex itself isn’t the problem.
It’s common that survivors feel dirty or contaminated. As a child, I learned/experienced what rape was before what sex was. For some survivors, it may be hard to differentiate the two. I could write over twenty reasons I’ve personally struggled with sex and shame. No one talks about this stuff, for many reasons, but a major problem with that is sometimes the silence continues to fuel the shame.
Here are some shame associated responses and perceptions of sex:
Sex feels dirty and secretive: As I mentioned above, sex in itself isn’t dirty and secretive, but the act of rape is. Many of us were told to keep the abuse quiet by the perpetrator themselves or others in our household/community. This causes the survivor to feel as if they did something wrong because that burden is placed back on them. Certain traditions and religious communities also view talking about sex as taboo. I went to Catholic School as a kid, and sex was discussed as if it was the driving catalyst for the road to hell. I remember feeling unwanted and “bad,” as a kid coming home from school some days. If you were abused and also were raised in a strict religious environment, I want you to know that unlearning a lot of fear-based rules can help when it comes to releasing the shame. Sex is such a natural thing, and a lot of the world doesn’t perceive it that way. Learning tantra has been something that has helped me unlearn past beliefs about sex, while still perceiving it in a spiritual way.
Feeling embarrassed about avoiding and fearing sex: I think sometimes, some of us downplay the trauma to avoid the pain of that reality. When we downplay the abuse, we’re less compassionate towards ourselves. We may want to rush the healing process and just feel “normal.” Healing from trauma takes years, and there are many milestones that every individual reaches at their own pace. PTSD was so bad for me, even someone patting me on the back just sent off the emergency alarm system in my body. In fact, I hated the thought of sex more than I hated pop radio country music. I remember hearing friends talk about their experiences and thinking, “Why?” like, “Why would you do that? HOW could you like THAT?” I never dated anyone until I was nineteen years old, and felt so embarrassed about how inexperienced I was. Looking back, I wish I was a lot more self-compassionate. I would faint, experience flashbacks, nightmares, feel the experience all over again in my body physically every night as I went to bed – I mean, OF COURSE, I avoided intimacy while experiencing all of that. Jeez. If you can relate: Rushing things will only add more pain to the trauma. You will know when the time is right. Trust me, I wish I knew this. Fearing sex after abuse is so normal and understandable. I’ll be writing a post in the future about overcoming the fear of sex (w/o using substances to escape)
The shame of being hypersexual: I think a lot of survivors and society, in general, are confused as to why some survivors have this reaction. Around the age of twenty, I went towards the opposite end of the spectrum. I abused anti-anxiety meds and alcohol in order to cope with fear. I’d take a swig of vodka in my parked car before seeing people. Only a few people in my life to this day know the extent of it. There were times where it was obvious and other times where it wasn’t noticeable, yet there wasn’t one time where I was having sex sober. I was in pain. I caused a lot of emotional pain for others. I slept with people to reassure myself that I was “healed” and that I could handle sex without having an anxiety attack or flashback, which was a big fear of mine. I struggled with connecting sex with love in my mind. I got bored easily and chased after more risky situations to try to reclaim a sense of control that I had lost from the abuse. I cried a lot after having sex and felt ashamed, where then I’d respond back with “Fuck it I was broken anyway.” Sex can be used to escape, dissociate, or find control. This past year was when I really realized how my actions were making the pain and shame deeper. Once I stepped away from this cycle, I was able to put that energy towards healing and rewriting my future.
Whatever responses and shame you may experience with sex, I want you to know that you are doing the best you can. These are states of reaction to the trauma and not who you are as a person. In other words, your response to trauma isn’t your true nature or personality. You are not a prude and you are not a whore, you have survived sexual abuse. You are strong and brave. Your feelings and actions are normal and understandable. Trauma isn’t who you are at the core. I used to think that because of my experiences at an early age, my perspective of sex was tainted and that’s just how it was always going to be. Nope, no one’s identity is their trauma or their reactions to it.
Here are some things that I wish I had known when I was younger about sex:
Sex is not an obligation or something you owe anybody.
Sex should equally be enjoyable for men and women
You don’t need to have sex in order to be loved and valued. You are lovable and valuable because you exist.
Just because you desire sex, doesn’t mean you are creepy like a sexual offender.
You are a beautiful soul with a purpose and not an object for people’s gratification.
It’s actually common to feel aroused when you’re anxious or powerless during sex even though it’s also your biggest fear. Trauma doesn’t make sense, it’s not rational. A lot of responses in the body aren’t conscience based but stem from the limbic system in the brain (where fight or flight mode is activated). Vice versa; you may only feel aroused when you have control, this is just your brain trying to make connections and sense of things because that’s what brains do.
It’s ok to not want sex, and you are allowed to stop it from progressing at any point.
The right partner won’t reject you because of your past.
A lot of people don’t have orgasms after abuse. But I promise, one day you will be able to.
Your body will try to protect you sometimes, even in safe situations. For example; sometimes women feel pain during sex because that’s their body’s natural fight response. In cases like this, especially if it’s continual, I believe body work is the solution. Pelvic Floor Therapy (for trauma) is a MAJOR help. I’ll write a blog post specifically for women who experience this and resources that will help.
You are a warrior and have the ability to overcome any obstacle. I used to believe changing one’s perspective of sex was impossible. I still work on it to this day. Patience, awareness, and self compassion are your best friend.
“The next morning, I pulled off my clothes and slid into the lukewarm water. I sat there smoking a cigarette with the window open. A light swish of air came sweeping through the white tiled bathroom. For as long as I can remember, I hated taking baths. I felt like they made you sink to the bottom of yourself, all the way down to the basement of your body where all the clutter you refuse to look at resides from childhood. But, my habits soothed the discomfort. So even if I had sunken down past the floorboards of my surface self, I wouldn’t have been conscious enough to feel or recognize it. Last night’s dream kept replaying like a tape. The feelings began crawling into the corners of by body, as I felt it over again. Quickly jolting out of it, I noticed the ripples of water began to smooth. The bathtub water became a clear surface, reminding me of the calm after the nightmares. Climbing out of the pools of memories and into a white towel, I squeezed the excess water out of my hair. Through the foggy mirror, I saw my freckles magnified by my streaming tears. I splashed cool water on my face and opened the door. I knew what was coming.”
-excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh
After the sexual assault, there’s a sense of extreme discomfort when living in one’s skin. Sometimes it feels easier to leave your body abandoned. Addictions such as drinking, eating disorders, smoking, OCD rituals, all sorts of drugs, self-harm, sex (which may not make sense, but I’ll talk about this one in a future post) are often ways one escapes the present discomfort of living in the body. Some survivors have attempted to/have taken their lives because of the many overwhelming effects of the trauma that feel impossible to escape. I’ve personally been there, when the flashbacks happened constantly throughout the day and night- I lived in terror more than the present moment.
Abandoning the body is a form of self-protection, it is a natural human response to trauma. I don’t know about you, but I used to (and still do sometimes) feel like I’m floating above myself rather than living in my skin. At first, any type of action that was grounding terrified me. Breathwork, putting lotion on my body, baths, being held or hugged, seated meditation or savasana, all freaked me the fuck out. All of these actions brought me out of my head and awakened my physical senses. Almost every time, I’d go into fight or flight mode and find the nearest escape exit from the situation.
As someone who had an incredibly difficult time sitting still in one’s skin, I learned that going from being dissociated to grounded is an overwhelming feeling and oftentimes left me going into panic rather than a sense of calm. The trick is to ease yourself back into your body, and not to rush the process.
For example, instead of doing a cross-legged breathing mediation, try going on a long walk while doing breathwork or doing a vinyasa flow while repeating a mantra/affirmation. Or if putting lotion or coconut oil all over your body is too overwhelming, try your arms and then next time, another part of your body. If baths freak you out, try sitting in one for the length of a song.
This may sound ridiculous or absurd to someone that hasn’t gone through trauma. Like, taking baths??? Putting on lotion?? Even a freaking hug?? If someone has been dissociated and detached from feeling the sensations in their body, actions like this can trigger an overwhelming sense of fear because it draws oneself back to their body.
The first steps to take are to remind yourself that your body is safe to live in. I’m not saying you have to claim that you love your body right now or that you feel confident and 100% safe being in it. The trick is to do small things that bring you closer to feeling safe in your skin. And even in moments when you don’t, (because, hey, I still have moments like that) you know that you have the power and ability to decide to leave the situation.
So, some practices that can help you come back to your body are:
Walking barefoot on the grass, soil, or along the beach.
Focus on how your body feels while doing sun salutations.
Hold onto a crystal or stone and focus on how it feels when holding it in your hands.
Plant your feet on the floor, (or even stomp) to bring you back to your present surroundings. Or jump up and down while focusing on the balls of your feet.
Clench your muscles in a certain part of your body, count down to three, and release. This is called the Muscle Relaxation Technique.
Be intentional about the clothes you wear, or your hair and makeup if you are into that. (This act is a reminder to oneself on how to act gently towards the body and taking care of it.)
Splash your face with cool water.
Paint your nails
Sing or chant
Try going to get a massage, fitness class, or acupuncture session.
Write a list of the good things that would come if you stopped the abandoning/self-harm habits.
Like I said above, small steps. I know how overwhelming it feels to dive deep into a grounding practice. When you slowly start doing small things to bring yourself back to your body, you are teaching it that it can trust in you- and it can. This wasn’t your fault, and I want you to know you are safe and your body still loves you. It has done everything to keep you alive and is more than willing to trust you.