Sunday, 17 January 2016

Sometimes I feel Sad - and that's OK

Most of my life was spent avoiding painful emotions, any dip in mood was met with a frantic increase in activity, avoidance and, frankly physically and emotionally draining 'coping mechanisms'which, if I'm honest, weren't particularly effective. At the time those coping skills, poor as they were in the long term, actually helped me to 'function'. The problem came as the cumulative effect of using my 'coping skills' became self destructive. I felt I had to keep using them because I was so in fear of the huge torrent of grief that had been dammed up for decades, that I believed my very life depended on me stopping myself from feeling, ANYTHING.

As I have described elsewhere in this blog, the use of those coping skills resulted in me being unable to feel anything. I had reached the point where not only was I lacking in any energy to keep going, but as my GP told me, if we looked under the 'bonnet' I would find that I had long been trying to function without 'any engine at all'.

Over the past five years since that point, I have slowly built up different sets of skills and found out that the huge emotional breakers I have feared for so long didn't kill me. It has not been an easy process, developing skills takes time, effort and determination. One of the first set of skills essential for me to learn and practice were the distress tolerance skills. If I know I am equipped to cope with the feelings I fear so much, then my very existence no longer depends on preventing myself from feeling.

As time has gone on, the importance of Distress Tolerance has reduced in proportion to the number of times I find myself in crisis. The second set of skills which dovetailed into the first was the Emotion Regulation Skills. In practice, the ability to identify and name the feelings I feared so much was one of the most important points in turning the corner from the way I had lived for so long. Rather than sitting frozen in fear of a fog of indefinable feelings, I can name my 'demons' and once named the sting is taken from them.

The sets of DBT skills along with the routine practice of Mindfulness have helped me to stop the constant rise and fall of difficult emotions, to give myself time experience them, without living in constant fear of being overwhelmed by them, so that I am able to effectively manage relationships which for so long were damaged and broken by the uncontrolled impact of my emotions.

The most vital fact I have needed to face up to is that I cannot escape emotions. Simply because they are part and parcel of being human, and I am in fact a human being, contrary to how alienated my emotional responses have made me feel. Emotions are an important part of the way I am built. All emotions have a function and actually are beneficial.

I have had to adjust my thinking about emotions from seeing them as some internal monster, ready at any point to wreak havoc on my life. As someone who, due to biological and social, environmental factors, is more emotionally sensitive than average, emotions have always loomed large. Due to the experience of trauma in childhood, there has been a significant amount of grief to manage. In the past that grief has been unresolved because most of my energy was focused on avoiding feeling it. If I cannot identify the grief, and name it, it can connect in an endless stream with any difficulties, or sadness I am feeling in the present. My baseline emotion is at a higher level than average, that means that I have always struggled with a high degree of underlying grief and sadness. So, it is understandable that even the most seemingly insignificant trigger to grief in the present may well lead to overwhelming waves of grief.

It has taken me three years of working on DBT skills to understand this about myself. If I struggle to understand why my responses are so extreme, how hard then, must it be for those around me? I think sometimes, this is what makes me feel like an alien, even when in the most supportive of company. I am only just beginning to be able to articulate this process for myself.

As I have moved along the path of recovery, I am learning to recognise sadness as an emotion in its own right. Rather than try to avoid feeling it, for fear of it connecting with the overwhelming grief of the past, I am learning to accept it for what it is in the here and now. The past and its experiences are done with. Sometimes I may still feel an echo of the grief of the past, but I no longer need to fear it as massive, rolling breaker, rising threatening above my head. The waves of sadness are more manageable as a result. Not only do I now possess the skills to manage my emotions, but I have learned to accept even sadness as an important part of being a human being. It's okay to feel sad, because sometimes there are things in the here and now to be sad about, and that's okay.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Stepping Over Our Wounds (via Henri Nouwen)

There is a struggle for those of us who bear the scars of old wounds. Each time a new hurt happens, it can rip open wounds, which remain fresh, because, instead of allowing the pain to fade and heal, in time, I know I have spent too long living with and feeding the underlying hurt by living and reliving the most painful of memories. It's as if I have a belief that I could 'undo' the past by remaining inside the trauma, condemning myself to be held captive in an never-ending 'time loop'.

I have a choice, to remain forever frozen in those moments of pain and so prolong the suffering, or accept that they have happened and will leave me with scars, reminders of what I have survived, but no longer capable of stopping me from moving forward. I found this meditation from Henri Nouwen helpful in explaining that choice and the moment when I can 'step over...' and move beyond the most difficult of experiences. I may be a product of my past but I do not have to be its prisoner:

'Sometimes we have to "step over" our anger, our jealousy, or our feelings of rejection and move on. The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there. Then we become the "offended one," "the forgotten one," or the "discarded one." Yes, we can get attached to these negative identities and even take morbid pleasure in them. It might be good to have a look at these dark feelings and explore where they come from, but there comes a moment to step over them, leave them behind and travel on.'

A note of caution if you find this thought of 'stepping over wounds' challenging - acceptance and moving on from the wounds of the distant past is not condoning all of the wrongs done to us, nor does it prevent us, if it is the right time and circumstances for us from seeking justice. What acceptance does is to help us recognise that no person, circumstance, substance or material possession will be able to undo the injustices and pain of the past. Nor does acceptance entirely remove the shadows cast by such traumas. What it allows us to do is accept that we have had the strength and courage to survive the worst. Having recognised that, we then have a choice: to remain trapped in the past, or to build on the strength and courage we have to live whatever life we choose, for ourselves. The prison door is open, but I still need to walk out of it, myself.

There are Still 'Bad' Days

The thing is, outside of my emotion fogged vision of 'how life should be', it's actually not easy for anyone. That little realisation has taken me so long to get to, it's not funny. We're all guilty of it; that conviction that 'everyone else' somehow is living a gilded, perfect life. The belief that 'if only...', my life would be problem free and perfect. As I have learned to deal with the nuclear emotional fallout from the combination of my biological predisposition and impact of social environments, I have learned to be less focused on my own storms and able to see more clearly the world and people around me. The grass is always greener...? Only if I am entirely focused on my internal struggles.

The impact of mindfulness is often described as suddenly feeling 'awake' to life in the here and now. For me, practising mindfulness and DBT skills is not about distancing myself from my experience of 'real' life. Rather, it is to replace coping mechanisms which cushioned me and separated me from both the environments and relationships I was living through. In a sense those skills which helped me survive trauma and the symptoms of mental illness, actually built a wall of 'bubble wrap' around me which became so deep that my emotional experience eventually became total 'numbness'. Recovery has meant that I am able to feel and experience life as it is. I do feel more aware and more awake to life more clearly. It is not distorted by either emotional responses which cause me to be terrified of my life experience, or those emotional responses which are so maniacally 'happy' that they deny the impact of real day to day difficulties which are part of life.

As I have moved from clinging on by my fingertips in the most terrible emotional storms, to a mix of calm and 'choppy' emotional experiences (ie 'normal' life), I have the energy to recognise more clearly life as it is in the here and now and, more importantly the emotional energy to cope with everyday ups and downs.

The picture I have in mind is the difference between the scenes from 'The Perfect Storm' where a small vessel is tossed about mercilessly and hopelessly on huge waves, beyond which it is impossible to see, to the kind of 'swell' which is more common, where waves can be felt and seen, but where the ultimate destination can be seen beyond. That is the difference between, 'before' and 'after' skills and learning how to use them to manage my emotions.

So, here I am at a time of year that is not the most uplifting, recognising that I am having a few 'bad' days. The difference for me now is that I can see beyond these days, that I am certain, 'this too will pass'. The other thing is that any fears I have that 'bad' days mean I am relapsing back to the previous 'Perfect Storm' days are unfounded. I have moved from merely surviving and existing, to a life which is meaningful and worthwhile. As long as I continue to build on the skills I have learned and use the helpful techniques that help me manage aspects of life that other people may take for granted, then my internal as well as external life will more closely reflect the life experience of most people.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Sound of it golden for you?

'Click, Click, Click' these used to be the first sounds to enter my consciousness as first the radio, then the TV and finally the phone were switched on. There was no point in my day when I was able to hear 'background sounds', or even the sound of silence. From the radio in my car to my ipod constantly plugged into my ears when working 'quietly' to everyone else's music or endless chatter, I never considered that my quiet times were anything but.

Three years on from beginning to practise DBT skills, and mindfulness in my daily life, I have found that there are many times when I am enveloped in the 'sound of silence'. Everyday, after the initial alarm, I potter around my house doing my daily chores and even eat, drink and read in 'silence'.

If I'm honest, I have only recently become comfortable with silence. In the past there was an urgency in blocking it out. So much energy was invested in damming up the feared internal distress that both physical and mental 'busyness' became an ingrained habit. In the same way that I invested every last drop of physical energy in my paid work, I invested all of my time alone in noise to drown out my internal distress.

There is a reason that some of the torture techniques recently reported from Guantanamo involve noise. Either incessant blaring music or 'white noise', but then again the difference between music and noise is in the ear of the beholder! Walking in nature without my ipod is relaxing simply because I am no longer forcing into my mind noise for fear that I will be overwhelmed by the internal noise within.

What has changed is the realisation that I no longer fear the feelings that used to overwhelm and defeat me. I have learned to move on from my past and my present is no longer burdened with long remembered hurts. Some emotional pain is justified but it becomes suffering when I allow it to mar my experience of more positive experiences in the here and now. Scars exist and are a natural part of having survived trauma, but they fail to heal if I keep tearing the scabs from them. If I can learn to accept the feelings without trying to drown them out with constant noise, then the rawness of the scars will lessen and heal without the underlying distress keeping the emotional pain fresh.

Silence has an important role to play in healing. In silence I find space to feel, think, reflect - important that it does not become brooding. This is where the disciplines of mindfulness give me the skills I need to make the most of silence. Focus on the immediate, the here and now, ground myself in the present and when feelings which are unconnected with my current moment arise, let them go. The fear of being unable to cope with silence goes, the more I practise non-judgemental, one thing at a time.

Something else which making room for silence does, is that it allows me to enjoy even more the times when I listen to music or watch something. When I am able to enjoy the silence, then I am able to experience and therefore enjoy the non silence even more. Silence and space allow me to enjoy the times and experiences which fill the silence. I can appreciate the night sky most when I am in an environment which is far from artificial light - when I am far from light pollution.

The problem with my previous fear of silence is that in an effort to run from it I cluttered my mind and emotions with noise and mental pollution. If I can give myself space and time to experience silence, then it allows me a purer experience of life when it comes into that silence. The other thing about 'silence' is that outside of a vacuum, which none of us live in, it is never absolute. There is always something we can listen to, if only we could switch off the artificial sounds with which we swamp ourselves!