Yesterday I did something I don't often do, I started to write this blog post while I was still 'coming down' from an emotional storm. Partly because I wanted to be able to articulate what was going on in my head and emotions, and partly because it is a helpful way for me to make sense of the emotions that were crashing in on me for nearly four hours.
The trigger? I tried to get home on the bus using the Day Rider ticket I had bought in the morning, on my way to a Nativity Rehearsal (I know, that's a whole different story!). Normally, it's a matter of showing the ticket and walking straight on, but this time the driver asked for a closer look before pointing out that the ticket only allowed me to get to a stop at least two miles back from the one where I was trying to get on. It was also another three miles from the correct stop to my home. I had paid the right money, but the ticket was for less than I'd paid, apart from not remotely resembling where I got on the bus and where I needed to go - so my outward journey had been technically without a valid ticket too. Not my fault, not the fault of the current driver either. The only option? Walk the five miles home... so I got off the bus, shame faced.
Suddenly, the relatively benign set of emotions with which I had started my day, neither good nor bad, disappeared in a flood of...what feelings were they exactly? It felt like anger, but towards whom? I know I was frustrated - it is a nuisance - not sure I am the only person who has been missold a bus or train ticket and had to walk home as a result. Behind these (primary emotions) I also detected shame and an overwhelming sense of injustice. Extreme, right? Not if you know me or anything about BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder).
Some days, simple things are difficult. Going to any new place is a trial. I need to know exact routes - my favourite internet tool has to be Google Maps Street View, because this means I can actually do the journey in a safe, virtual world, before I venture out. I have learned to be this prepared for new journeys and modes of transport because the uncertainties of journeys often trigger negative emotions in me. Since having to get rid of my car, I have realised that public transport is a minefield of stressful situations for me. Even on my routine journeys, I rehearse each part of the journey in my mind, and constantly use self soothe music and/or mindful breathing while travelling. I find it difficult that I have absolutely no control over how well the journey goes, how timely it is, or even who or how many I travel with. My bus out from home yesterday actually arrived nearly twenty minutes late. So I guess, if I were to do a Chain Analysis on the triggering events, the meltdown began in that moment of anxiety as I raced to make my meeting up time. The disappointment of finding that a driver had taken all my money and not given me the correct ticket then resulted in an enormous break in my plan to manage myself and my journey.
You see, the sense of frustration would be shared among most people in the same situation. So far, so average. Frustration though wasn't my overwhelming emotion. As I walked away from the bus stop, all idea of 'being in the moment' and 'mindful' of my surroundings (which were stunning in the winter sunshine - something I normally really enjoy) were lost. Instead, I was overwhelmed with a sense of total failure, of thoughts of 'why me?', of a sense of grave injustice, of helplessness and weariness. I am certain that I was feeling despair in there - why does MY life have to be so hard?
Together we managed to come up with a plan. My immediate practical problem was solved with the offer of a lift. The emotional fallout, however, has taken so much longer to dissipate.
It took over three hours and lunch with my friend to bring an end to the whirling emotions, initially. I finally arrived home feeling exhausted and wrung out but still battling shame and a sense of injustice.
Shame is probably the most familiar of all my secondary emotions, but what part did it play in a simple mix up over a bus ticket?
Since completing my DBT therapy, I have learned to recognise when I am vulnerable and need to be gentle with myself. However, yesterday the rush of negative emotions took me by surprise. There are a number of reasons why such a minor incident could evoke such a reaction in me. I ended up being agitated and disturbed. What baffles is me is how relatively little the primary emotion (frustration) factored in my resulting distress.
It is now over 36 hours since the incident. I am beginning to make some sense of what was happening with my emotions:
1) Over the past couple of weeks my emotional 'skin' has been thinner. I have been extra sensitive to mood changes. I have limited myself in terms of TV programmes I can 'cope' with. I have also been misreading people's words and actions, interpreting them negatively. During these times I need to be kind to myself. Not to push my limits, particularly on things where my emotions are involved. Small as it was the bus incident felt an enormous disruption to my attempts to protect myself from a flood of unmanageable feelings.
2) Although I forget it at times I am so much better at managing my life and BPD than even a year ago. What this means, though, is that I lull myself into a false sense of security and fail to maintain a weather eye on my moods. There were warning signs last week, that I was more emotionally sensitive and despite using my emotion regulation skills the underlying difficult emotions were not being fully resolved. I didn't totally ignore all of the warning signs, but I did overestimate my current levels of resilience. This has meant that I have tried to do a lot more than my normal routine. Fine if I still had my car, I am realising that the additional time and effort needed to travel by bus actually needs to be factored in by me to my emotional management. As does the fact that most people find day to day life tiring at this time of year.
3) Subliminally I have been absorbing the overwhelming political message about 'people on benefits'. My aim is to be well enough to be able to provide for myself. To be able to buy presents for loved ones without putting myself under financial pressure. To 'feel' like a productive member of society. Problem is, by even allowing that pressure to push me beyond my emotional and mental capacity to cope at the moment is to buy into the lie that I do not contribute. I wish that we as a nation would value people for being human beings, rather than for the size of their income, how hard they work, what they do, what they are, what their status is. Any one of us could suffer from mental illness in the same way that any one of us can succumb to physical illness. I can suffer from BPD and a Flu bug at one and the same time, as the same person. Perhaps, recent noises from some Health thinkers about integrated physical and mental health services is finally acknowledging that reality! As I looked at the bus driver yesterday my shame came from the fact that I couldn't even rustle up the £1.20 to make up the shortfall on the ticket. That and the fact that a full bus looked askance at my lack of funds. I felt as if I had 'BENEFIT SCUM' written in red letters across my forehead.
4) Shame is an all pervasive emotion for me. It is most damaging when it gets out of control and connects with the shame I felt as a child survivor of abuse. The bus situation MUST have been my fault. Like the song in the Sound of Music, my negative voice tells me 'somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something BAD!' The shame I felt in not being able to pay an extra £1.20 (although I had actually already paid for the ticket I wanted!) opened the floodgates to a wave of shame from all the moments when I felt I was to blame for all the pain being inflicted on me.
Secondary emotions are the most problematic of the feelings to manage. This is because, they are often unconnected with the triggering incident. They are so powerful because they are ingrained on our minds, and our emotional responses. A positive emotion such as Joy is the secondary emotion to Happy. It goes deeper, it lasts longer, it has a more profound effect. A joke can make me happy. The love of a child gives me joy. That, I think is how I make sense of the difference between primary and secondary emotions. Both can be triggered by the same event and link into one another. Secondary emotions are rooted in past events and memories, with all their associations. Primary emotions are an immediate response to the present trigger, but they are reignited and fuelled by the power of the secondary emotions.
So, how do I manage shame? The short answer is I only manage it when I recognise it! So I:
a) RECOGNISE and NAME the underlying, more powerful emotion. This means taking time to be mindful and allowing myself to become aware of the feelings flitting across my mind, along with the negative thoughts which keep the triggers to the secondary emotions stoked.
b) If the emotion is SHAME or GUILT. I ASK if they belong to me ie have I done something that I need to remedy in a relationship, work situation, public interaction etc. If so, ASK 'is there anything I can do to remedy the action which caused the guilt/shame? Guilt can be useful if it reminds us to think of the needs of others. If either SHAME or GUILT rightly belongs in the past with someone who has done me harm and who has shifted their guilt onto me, then I try OPPOSITE EMOTION or give myself permission to continue doing the thing that has brought shame - this is a kind of reverse exposure. Why should I feel shame about having a long bath in the middle of the day? Why should I feel guilty if friends do something nice for me?
Yesterday my friend encouraged me to consider with RATIONAL MIND, how much shame belongs to me for being on benefits. We then listed the positive things I am doing to help others when I feel able.
Today, I am exhausted. I can accept that I am not up to great feats of intellect or action. It's ok to give my emotions, as well as my headachy brain time and space to recover. I can also be encouraged by the fact that the after effects of emotional storms are no longer measured in days or weeks, but hours and days.
And....breathe.....I've survived another one. If you need me, you'll find me self soothing and being kind to myself.
(dbtselfhelp.com has useful advice and DBT worksheets to use: http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/opposite_action.html)