Feeling Overwhelmed: it’s a PTSD thing

I think this is something a lot of us can relate to, especially those of us with PTSD and complex PTSD. I know I sure can, and there have been times where writing a new post seems like moving a mountain and I just can’t do it. Welcome back, Linda Lee!

A Blog About Healing From PTSD

3i1_this_charming_charlie_tumblr_584Image from This Charming Charlie on Tumblr.

TWO WEEKS AGO, when I started this brand new blog, I had big ideas for my first post. I was thrilled that the name I wanted — A Blog About Healing From PTSD — was available. I picked out the theme, loaded a header picture, wrote my description page, and got all the settings the way I like them.

But when I started to write my first post, I froze.

No, my problem isn’t writer’s block. I’m not depressed, not anxious, not sick, and I’m certainly not too busy to find the time to write. My reason for waiting two weeks before writing my first post is something that happens to me a lot, in all kinds of situations. It’s maddening, it’s debilitating, and most people don’t seem to understand it at all.

My problem: I AM OVERWHELMED.

When I’m overwhelmed, the simplest…

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Shouting at cars

I can relate to the “exaggerated startle response” and always being told by everyone to “relax” and “chill out” that this blogger describes. People suffering from PTSD and C-PTSD have to deal with the impatience of other people who don’t understand what it’s like to walk through life feeling like you might get ambushed any second.  You feel constantly in danger and become hypervigilant about everything. It’s not like we want to be like this, you know!

Always waiting for the other shoe to drop…

afraid-to-be-happy

I think I made a kind of breakthrough in my therapy session tonight. For years one of my problems has been this overwhelming fear that something bad will happen to one of my kids. (I don’t like to even say the D word because I irrationally believe if I say it, I’ll somehow make it happen, by putting it out into the universe or something).

Of course all parents worry about their adult kids, especially when they know they’re out there somewhere in cars, which we all know are dangerous hunks of metal capable of the most ghastly and gory deaths you can imagine and operated by countless idiots and drunks on the road who can’t drive. I think my apprehension about something bad happening to my adult children edges into OCD-type territory though, because of how overpowering and pervasive these thoughts are, intruding where and when they are not welcome, even though I know that in all likelihood, something bad will NOT happen and even if it does, worrying about it excessively is like living through it twice. I think about my hypothetical reaction to such an event and wonder how I would retain my sanity, if not my will to live. I always marvel at people who have lost a child in a sudden manner like a car accident (a long illness is more bearable because you have time to prepare for it and process it) and wonder how they can still go on with their day to day activities–going shopping, paying bills, working at a job, watching a movie, hell, even having FUN sometimes. I know that wouldn’t be me and I obsess over how I might react.

I’ve been so haunted by the remote possibility of getting THAT life-changing phone call late some night (you know the one), that it’s even been a recurrent theme in my writings. I had a dream over a year ago about losing my son, and wrote a post about it, called Losing Ethan.

fine_line

Anyway, I decided to bring up this problem because it doesn’t exactly make my life happier and it annoys the hell out of my kids. The first thing my therapist did was tell me to stop BEING those feelings, but just OWN them. In other words, he’d noticed that when I talk about bad feelings that make me ashamed or anxious, I always use the term “I am….” Instead he told me to practice saying, “I feel…” or “I have…” In this way, you create a bit of a distance between yourself and the bad feeling. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel it, but with a little distance, the emotion can be explored, almost from the viewpoint of a third person. Ironically, what happens is you feel the emotion MORE (I can’t really explain why that works but it does).

His advice was brilliant, because a few minutes later, I made a connection. In 1998, with my then-husband in jail, I was forced to learn to drive his stickshift truck. I had to teach myself and never learned to park the truck properly. So after picking up my kids from their after school program and pulling into our driveway, I set it to Neutral and the truck began to roll downhill–containing both my kids, then ages 5 and 7, straight toward a TREE. The events that played out next are described in this post, called The Tree.

The important thing is, I’d connected this traumatic event in August of 1998 to my current obsessive thoughts about tragedy striking and generally always feeling like I’m about to receive some devastating news–and I knew immediately that these unpleasant thoughts are based on guilt and shame. I started to tell my therapist that I always felt guilty that the truck had rolled and that I *could* have killed them. For about 10 years I couldn’t even talk about it, because any time I did, I’d start feeling very dissociated and anxious. My ex knew how to press all my buttons, and knew this was my biggest one. If he wanted to upset me all he had to do was remind me what a rotten mother I was to almost kill my kids that night because he knows I’m still struggling with guilt over my failure to protect them, my failure to be smart enough to know how to park a stickshift.

I’m always very mindful of my body language, voice and gestures when I’m in session, probably as much as my therapist is. These things can tell you a LOT about yourself, not just about others. And I realized as I was making these connections that my body relaxed and I leaned back but my voice became softer and sadder. I was opening up to him in a way I hadn’t before. He just listened, with what appeared to be a great deal of empathy.

somedays

And at some point I felt tears come to my eyes. My eyes just barely glistening, tears not overflowing, but there, making the backs of my eyelids feel warm. I looked off to my left like I always do when I get deep into stuff, and kept on talking. I felt myself opening up and feeling some kind of generic emotion that wasn’t sadness and wasn’t guilt and wasn’t gratitude or joy but was none of these things and yet all of these things. I wanted to share all this with him. I heard myself speak and my voice became thick and my eyes burned again.

There was more, much more, but I’ll end this here because I’m getting emotional writing this. The important thing is, I almost shed tears in front of my therapist tonight. That might not seem like such a big a deal, but for me it was a huge deal because I haven’t been able to cry in front of another human being in about 15 years–which I realized is when THAT happened. (It might have been longer than that though–my memories of the time I was in my horrible marriage are gray, shadowy and even have yawning gaps in places).

What happened tonight is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg–I was seriously fucked up for a very, very, VERY long time, at least since age 4 or 5–but it’s significant because it means the wall in my head that prevents me from really being able to connect to my emotions is developing a few weak spots.

Derealization and depersonalization in NPD and BPD.

Worlds_Collide___Phaeton___by_Meckie
Worlds Collide-Phaeton: by Meckie at Deviantart.com

A common symptom of both NPD and BPD is dissociation: a splitting or fragmenting of the personality not very different from what occurs in the Dissociative disorders such as DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) and Psychogenic Fugue. It usually happens in response to a severe loss of supply or major narcissistic injury, or a sudden awareness of oneself as not oneself (realizing your false self is not who you really are–which happens when a narcissist becomes self aware). These disorders themselves, especially NPD, are dissociative in nature because a split in the personality has occurred. In the narcissist, it’s a substitution of the original personality for a false one.

Borderlines, rather than having a false self per se, are more like chameleons, adapting their personalities to fit the people and situation around them. That’s why Borderlines can seem so changeable.

I first started to experience dissociation as a young child. I remember at age 4, waking up for breakfast and walking down to the kitchen where my parents were already eating, and seeing colored specks like glitter falling all around me. When I asked my parents if they saw the “glitter,” they just looked at me like I was crazy. I also had dreams that would continue after I awoke and often felt I was living in a dream. Maybe that’s the case with most young children though. I also remember hearing music from TV shows late at night after everyone was asleep that couldn’t possibly be coming from anywhere, as this was in the 1960s and no one had the capability to record a show on VCR yet, nor was there TV after midnight or so–all we’d get in those days was a test pattern until morning.

I remember at around the same age, banging my head against the wall in the family room to relieve some kind of congestion in my head. I think it may have been to relieve those odd feelings of unreality–not much different than the way a Borderline will sometimes cut herself to “feel alive.” In fact, this may well have been an early symptom of my BPD (and I always thought it was autism).

Most people have probably experienced dissociation, perhaps under the influence of a drug. Sometimes people experience it on hearing shocking news that could be either tragic or fortuitous–like hearing one’s child just died, or winning the lottery.

But for people who have certain personality disorders (as well as people with various dissociative disorders and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, and also those with PTSD and C-PTSD), dissociation is both common and chronic. It’s also severe enough to sometimes interfere with functioning.

Q: So what does dissociation FEEL like?
A. Because something so ungrounded in the tangible and everyday reality is so hard to explain in words, I’m not sure if these descriptions of what it feels like will make a lot of sense, but I’ll try.

Derealization.
I’ve actually experienced this the most. The world seems odd and dreamlike. Reality seems somehow “off” the way things are in a dream. In a dream, a familiar scene can look the same as it does in reality, but at the same time there’s this feeling of offness and otherworldiness about it. When I was younger and used to ride the subway, sometimes I couldn’t look up at the people because they all seemed like masks…sinister, somehow. It’s a very weird feeling but not always unpleasant. Sometimes that dreamlike oddness about everything is sort of compelling and interesting.

Depersonalization.
This definitely causes me serious panic attacks. I first had episodes of this at about age 9 or 10 and thought I was going crazy. I felt oddly disconnected from my body, like I was floating. People talking to you sound like they’re coming from either a great distance or out of a tube. You can’t focus on what they’re saying because you’re freaking out and panicking but trying to hide it to keep from appearing as crazy as you feel.

I think people with NPD and BPD (as well as the Schizoid, Schizotypal and Paranoid PD’s) who do not improve or try to change, are probably at high risk for developing psychotic disorders and even schizophrenic like conditions when things are going badly for them, there’s been a massive loss of narcissistic supply, or when the person becomes gravely ill or very late in life.

Bring it on!

itsmytime

This week has been very difficult for me emotionally. It started with an unnamed, free-floating but intense anxiety and panic, to the point I could barely function. A few days ago I plummeted into a black depression that seemed different somehow in quality from my prior zombie-like apathetic depressions. it felt more alive and more proactive in some way. I’m pretty sure I had an idea all along of what was about to happen but it hadn’t quite bubbled into conscious awareness yet. Its rising through the murky swamp of my unconscious caused me to panic and then a kind of grief took over but I still couldn’t name what it was.

Most of you who read this blog regularly know I began this blog almost a year ago as a form of self therapy (because I couldn’t afford a therapist). From the beginning, I committed myself to 100% honesty. Well, I’ve probably fallen short of that goal, as I’ve omitted some important discoveries and other things about myself that I simply didn’t feel comfortable sharing, even under my alias.

Last night–nearly 11 months from the day I started this online journal–I had a huge breakthrough. Prior to this, I tried to sleep but could not. When I did my dreams were upsetting and I had this overwhelming sense of aloneness and separateness. I woke up shaking and close to tears. I gave up trying to sleep and talked to 2 close Facebook friends for awhile. They’ve been a bit worried about me this week because my mood has been so erratic and I’ve done so much crying, which until recently has been unusual for me. I cried all the time as as a child but then dried up sometime during my teens.

Several things have led to my breakthrough: writing a LOT about my feelings and recovery from narcissistic abuse, reading as much about narcissism, BPD and PTSD as I could get my hands on, trying my best to always be honest no matter how painful or embarrassing (but not always succeeding), and finding God and the power of prayer. It’s been an incredible roller coaster ride.

For several weeks prior to last night, I’d been praying for the ability to regain the easy access to my emotions I had as a child, only tempered with the wisdom and restraint of an adult, of course. I kept reading, writing, and trying to elicit emotion through music, movie-watching, and self-reparenting. I knew this required making myself as vulnerable as possible. I took myself to see “Inside Out,” which loosened something inside me but not quite enough. It was like one of those almost-sneezes that never quite comes out and leaves you wanting to punch a wall in frustration. Nothing much happened after that. I was growing impatient.

dear_past

A week ago, I fell into my panicky, anxious state followed by a “wet” depression (that included tears instead of my usual catatonic apathy). I didn’t even know what I was crying about. I lost my motivation to write (in retrospect, I think this as a form of self protection when I needed it). I was snappish and irritable on the job but would come home and set aside alone time so I could just let everything out without fear of embarrassment or shame. I knew instinctively something important was about to make itself known and that scared me, but I felt a kind of excitement too.

It happened last night at about 3 AM after my Facebook friends and I ended our conversation. I read something that triggered a deep knowledge that hit me like jolt of electricity. For a few terrifying minutes I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath and I might even throw up. I felt hot and cold flashes and started to shake. What I learned was overwhelming and devastating–but I also knew I’d known this for a long time but had repressed it.

Everything suddenly made sense and I felt like I was seeing my situation and all my relationships—hell, over 50 years of my life–with eyes that had been closed since I was very young. I remembered, vaguely, that someone told me something when I was four years old. I couldn’t remember what was said or who said it but I did know whatever it was had been the catalyst when all my problems started that would not abate for over 50 years. One day when I’m ready I’ll remember what actually was said and who said it. I cried harder than I’ve cried since I was about 12. I can’t go into detail right yet about what this discovery was–I’m not ready. I may never be ready. But it’s something that although its discovery is incredibly upsetting to me, it’s also something I needed to have in my conscious awareness before I could really start to do the hard work necessary for real healing.

God answers prayers in his own time. He’s working on me. I have faith he works on all of us if we reach out with a sincere heart and ask for help. Now that I have this information that was revealed to me, the next step is to figure out what to do with it. Right now I just feel shell shocked. I have to be gentle with myself while I work through and try to understand everything that happened. I’m working on finding a therapist to help me sort it out because I think it’s too big for me to handle all by myself anymore. All I can do right now is keep on praying and writing every day and working on myself and being as mindful as I can until I find someone appropriate. I know the work ahead of me is going to be harder now than it has been and that’s okay. It may take a long time and that’s okay too. I feel like I graduated from something last night. I’m ready for the next step. Bring it on!

Somehow I feel lighter today although I’m exhausted and desperately need a good night’s sleep.
I know I can do this thing. But for the love of all that is holy, WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG?

The honeymoon is over.

lost

I’ve been feeling quite strange the past week. It’s the worst I’ve felt in about a year. It started with feelings of anxiety and panic, racing and morbid thoughts and a feeling of unnamed dread. I’d try to nap and my heart would start racing so I’d give up. DBT skills didn’t work and some of my BPD (or PTSD) behaviors returned–negativistic behavior, feeling offended easily, sulking, fits of anger (not directed at anyone but expressed in imaginary conversations with myself in the car or at home), low frustration tolerance, paranoia. I’ve been less motivated to write. I’ve been neglecting housekeeping and eating right. Getting up in the morning is excruciating.

It was all I could do to make it through work. I was feeling sorry for myself all day and at the same time felt guilty for feeling that way. The anxiety has lessened but it’s been replaced by despair and some kind of deep sadness.

I don’t cry easily, but I started crying a few hours ago and couldn’t stop. It feels good to cry, but the feelings are so painful. I feel unworthy. I feel impotent. I feel angry at my parents for training me to be such a good little victim. I hate my ex. I hate myself. I suck at everything. I can’t relate to people. I hate people. I want to connect but I just can’t. I think people will hate me if I let them get too close. My world is so small and constrained and unsatisfying because of my fear of relating to others and reaching out, and because I never have enough money to do anything or go anywhere anyway. The summer’s slipping away and it reminds me of all the lost opportunities and all the doors that have slammed shut, never to reopen. That’s where my head is at. It’s a bad place to be. I feel like I’m losing control. It’s like a war inside my head. I hate all this wallowing in self pity but maybe it’s an opportunity to nurture myself.

I need to find a therapist. This blog is a wonderful tool for healing and it’s something I won’t let go of. It’s brought me a lot of joy. A lot of frustration too, but mostly joy. So I’ll keep blogging. I’d still rather do this than anything else.

But something, I don’t know what, has been triggered–by what I don’t know–and I’ve reached a point where just writing isn’t enough. I need someone to talk to who can help me sort out whatever’s going on in my head right now. I think journaling every day may have brought me to this point.

I’m not giving up. The good thing is that my emotions, while not really under my control at the moment, are there for me to feel. I’m not depressed in the apathetic, almost zombie-like way I used to get depressed when I was living with my narcissist ex. This is an active depression where my emotions are accessible to me and I can sort of name them and I just have to let myself feel them. I’m grateful for that at least. This is what I wanted. But what do I do with them? Can they make me a better, kinder, happier, more empathetic person? That’s what I really want. I need to find someone who can show me what to do with all these emotions.

I guess this means the honeymoon is over, and now the real work begins.

This TV movie about child abuse was way ahead of its time.

Today I was thinking about a TV movie I saw back in the 1980s that has haunted me ever since. I decided to watch it again tonight (you can watch the entire movie on Youtube–it’s in seven parts; I have posted the first part). It’s called Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night and was first aired in 1977. Susan Dey (of Partridge Family fame) played an abusive, alcoholic mother to a 4 year old girl and she becomes completely unhinged. The movie is extremely triggering and may be upsetting to some.

There are several things about this movie that I found quite interesting.

— Rowena (Susan Dey) seems to have every symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder–but a case could also be made that her symptoms could well be untreated severe PTSD caused by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her own parents. This movie illustrates why I think BPD is really severe PTSD caused by chronic childhood abuse and could make a good case for that.

— Rowena’s parents are both textbook examples of malignant narcissists. Her mother is cold, rejecting, gaslighting, and blames her daughter for her unhappiness, as well as pathologically envious of the attention she receives from her father, who sexually abused her (and apparently still does).

— Rowena’s psychiatrist is a narcissistic jerk who coldly dismisses her from a breakthrough therapy session at the moment she recalls and re-experiences a long forgotten memory of being locked in a closet as a small child. This turned out to be an extremely cruel (and unwise) thing for him to do.

— In the almost 40 years since this film was made, not much has changed. The child protective system is still hit and miss at best and often tragically incompetent.

— It’s a fascinating and convincing study of the way the pathology of abuse infects succeeding generations.

The movie, being made for TV, isn’t perfect. There are a few holes in the plot and certain scenes just seem contrived. I also can’t help thinking of “Dean Wormer” from the movie Animal House whenever John Vernon (the head doctor) is onscreen. But the acting, especially by Susan Dey and the little girl who plays her daughter Mary Jane (Natasha Ryan), as well as the caring doctor who stands up to the Powers That Be and tries to protect Mary Jane, is top notch.

“Ordinary People”: a case study in malignant narcissism.

ordinary_people

I remember when I first saw this 1980 Academy Award winning movie being quite triggered by it, because the main character, Beth Jarrett (played convincingly by Mary Tyler Moore) reminded me so much of my mother, all the way down to her impatient, flippant mannerisms, fake cheerfulness, and clipped speech. And at the time I felt very much like the teenage son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who was clearly suffering from a severe case of PTSD and depression, which no doubt had its roots in his mother’s emotional abuse and coldness.

“Ordinary People” (directed by Robert Redford) is about an upper middle class family from the Chicago suburbs, but the individuals involved are certainly not ordinary–or at least you hope they aren’t. Moore’s Beth Jarrett is a high-spectrum malignant narcissist who cares only about her social position and status and the appearance of having “the perfect family” and “the perfect life.” She is always perfectly dressed and coiffed, and can pour on the fake charm whenever she is trying to impress their friends and colleagues. Beth’s husband Calvin (Donald Sutherland) provides his family with their affluent lifestyle and is a good man who cares deeply for his family but is codependent to his narcissistic wife, who makes endless demands on him to keep up the image of perfection, and you can see from his demeanor it’s destroying him.

Their son, Conrad, is his mother’s scapegoat, and while she never actually says so, it’s clear that she blames him for the accidental boating death of her Golden Child, Buck (shown only in flashbacks). Conrad was with Buck at the time of the accident, and suffers from survivor’s guilt in addition to PTSD which was probably caused by his mother’s horrific treatment of him as well as his guilt over the accident, because he was unable to save his older brother’s life. The movie begins just after Conrad has been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt. I think there is more to Beth’s hatred of her child than her belief he is to blame for Buck’s accident. I think she hates him because he sees the truth about her, and calls her out on it. He is sensitive and able to see through her mask of perfection to the monstrous narcissist she actually is, and she can’t handle that.

From the very beginning, we can tell Beth despises her depressed remaining child. Her attitude toward Conrad is dismissive and impatient, and she makes no attempt to understand and appears to have no empathy for the emotional turmoil he’s in. She always puts her own needs ahead of her son and husband, and berates Calvin for attempting to understand his son’s pain. There’s not one moment where she shows the slightest shred of sympathy or love for him, and yet on the surface, no one would call her abusive, because of the mask of normality she always wears. Here’s a scene where Conrad attempts to talk to his mother about why they never had a pet–you can see how disconnected Beth is from Conrad’s (or her own) emotions, and Conrad’s hurt comes out as rage.

There’s a heartbreaking scene where the grandparents are present and Calvin is taking pictures. When he asks Beth to pose with her son, she glibly changes the subject to avoid having to SAY she doesn’t want her picture taken with him, but her disgust is obvious. Calvin insists, and Beth smiles with gritted teeth as she coldly stands next to her son. Conrad, who is sensitive, picks up on his mother’s hatred but tries to smile anyway. Beth, still smiling her fake smile, demands that Calvin give her the camera so she doesn’t have to have her picture taken with Conrad, but Calvin keeps insisting. Conrad, fed up and hurt, loses his temper and screams “Give her the goddamn camera!” It’s scenes like this that so brilliantly depict the subtle emotional abuse a malignant narcissist mother inflicts on her most sensitive child.


The camera scene.

Conrad begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) who begins to get Conrad to open up about his feelings and show his anger. He also begins to date a girl he met in band practice (Elizabeth McGovern), who is upbeat yet understanding and helps bring Conrad out of his shell.

Calvin and his mother seem to be constantly arguing. Calvin tries to referree, but can’t seem to appeal to his wife’s loving nature, because she apparently has none. After one of these arguments, Conrad calls out his mother for never having visited him in the hospital, adding that “You would have visited Buck if he was in the hospital,” to which Beth retorts, “Buck never would have been in the hospital!” This is a clear implication of the higher esteem she held her older son in, who she believed would never have “gone crazy” and had to be hospitalized. Unlike Conrad, Buck would have enhanced, rather than diminished, the image she had of having the perfect life and perfect family.

Beth’s evil really comes out when they go on vacation to Texas to visit with some of Calvin’s colleagues. While golfing, Beth sweetly suggests to Calvin they go on another vacation–which would be during Christmas. Calvin agrees, but suggests they should bring Calvin along with them because he might enjoy the trip. To this, Beth flies into a narcissistic rage and loudly berates her husband for always trying to include Conrad in everything. During this rage, she projects her own anger and selfishness onto her husband, who unsuccessfully tries to stand up to her. Later in this clip, there’s a chilling scene after Conrad’s parents return home and Conrad tries to give Beth a hug. Beth’s face stays cold and hard and you can feel the hatred and disgust she has for her child while she barely returns his embrace at all.


The golf scene and “the cold hug.”

Conrad finds out his friend Karen from the hospital (Dinah Manoff) has committed suicide. Frantic, he makes an emergency appointment with Dr. Berger, and shows up in his office in a broken state. He rages and then sobs uncontrollably and everything comes pouring out: the whole story about the night Buck died and how he blamed himself, his mother’s hatred for him, and how he was never good enough. Dr. Berger listens and holds him like a parent would a child, and finally Conrad begins to calm down.

Gradually, Calvin becomes more aware of his wife’s malignant narcissism and is beginning to doubt her ability to love anyone but herself. One night Beth finds him crying alone and asks him why he is crying. Calvin asks Beth if she really loves him and she gives him a non-answer, saying “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.” Calvin admits he is not sure he loves her anymore. He’s beginning to see the soulless monster she really is. Early in the morning, Beth leaves for good, not saying goodbye to her husband or son, leaving them to fend for themselves and try to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives together. No doubt both are much better off this way.


Calvin’s realization and confrontation with Beth.

This is one of the most convincing and well acted movies about the havoc a malignant narcissist mother can wreak on her family I have ever seen, and 35 years later, it still hits home because of the uncanny similarities I see to my own mother (who was not as outwardly rejecting or quite as malignant as Beth Jarrett). Every one of the 9 DSM indicators of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is evident in Beth. If anyone is interested in studying the myriad ways a malignant narcissist inflicts their abuse and scapegoats their children, this movie is the best case study I can think of, outside of having to deal with one yourself. Of course, not all malignant narcissists are upper middle class like Beth is, but even though the specific words and actions may differ from one social class to the next, the manipulations and abuse are always the same.


This trailer shows other scenes of the way Beth emotionally abuses, gaslights,projects, and triangulates against her surviving son.

Going insane: how I got diagnosed with BPD

going_insane

I thought I should explain how I got diagnosed with BPD. Although my out of control behaviors in 1995-1996 were due to prolonged emotional and mental (and some physical) abuse at the hands of my ex (on top of having been a victim of narcissistic abuse growing up), the focus of this article isn’t on narcissistic abuse or the way my ex behaved, but rather on my reactions and how out of touch with reality I actually became.

My memory of this time is sketchy and fragmented, almost dreamlike, so what I’m about to write may not flow together well. I believe my fuzzy memories of these two years were due to 3 things: (1) intermittent substance abuse, including alcohol; (2) being so out of touch with reality; and (3) I may have blocked out some of these incidents or partially blocked them out so they seem sort of grey when I think about them now, like a dream.

In 1995 my ex’s mother could no longer live alone so she came to live with us. At first things went smoothly, but she had Alzheimers and was deteriorating fast, and soon her care was left entirely to me. At the same time I was the stay at home mom to a 2 and 4 year old. My ex had started drinking a lot during this time, and said it was because he hated his mother (a malignant narcissist herself) and his behavior toward her was very abusive. He justified his abuse by saying she deserved it because of the way she had treated him. My children saw this behavior but in my emotionally weakened state due to his constant gaslighting, projecting and triangulating (he had turned most of our friends against me) as well as isolating me from those who could help me, I began to collude in his abusive behavior toward his mother. I didn’t physically attack her (he did) but in my frustration with things like her wetting the bed I would yell at her whenever he did and sometimes even when he wasn’t there. I also didn’t try to stop him when he used to spank her like a naughty child.

My ex was drinking heavily and smoking a lot of pot, and I joined him. At night, after the kids were asleep, we would often both be drunk and high. Sometimes his friends came over, who were all younger than we were (my ex’s friends were always younger than him). Sometimes things got wild. I was no longer attracted to my ex by this time due to his constant emotional abuse, so when I was drunk I openly flirted with his friends. I was unfaithful too, but so was he (I am definitely not proud of any of this, especially because I had young children at the time).

We fought constantly. One night, drunk, he threatened me with a gun. I ran down the street screaming and went and hid in a grove of trees for hours in the freezing cold. On several occasions I called the police and they would show up to fund us both drunk and didn’t know who to believe so they would leave and tell us to sober up. At this time I had no control over my reactions or my emotions. I acted more immature than my own kids sometimes.

I used to sleep during the day and wasn’t as good a mother as I could have been. I was testy, impatient and neglectful. I loved my kids dearly, but just didn’t have the emotional stamina or energy to deal with them more effectively or lovingly. (I tried to make up for that later).

Soon the dissociative episodes began. Sometimes things looked weird. People looked like they weren’t real and they seemed demonic. I began to have delusions of reference. I had the weird sensation of unrelated events or conversations somehow referencing exactly what I was thinking. I felt like I was outside my body a lot, as if I was watching the events of my life unfold instead of being in them. This began to happen when I started distancing myself from my emotions into a “comfortable numbness.” (This is common in PTSD and BPD). But it wasn’t comfortable–it was horrifying. I think I was unconsciously protecting myself from feeling too much emotional pain. The abnormal had become normal, the insane had become sane, the evil had become good. I walked through my days in a sort of fog, but not all the time. Occasionally, when triggered, I would come back into myself and “go off” on my ex and experience a tidal wave of unbelievably painful and intense emotions. Instead of spending my evenings doing quiet things with my family, I spent that time on the computer in chat rooms, talking to men. I imagined I fell in love with one or two of them. My emotional reactions to these online entities I had never met were as intense as if they were actual relationships, but all of it was fantasy. To me it felt real.

I couldn’t sleep at night, but would sleep most of the day away. I didn’t take care of the house and only did the rudimentary necessities for the kids, in between taking care of my ex’s mother’s almost constant needs. I lost patience with both her and the kids easily. We ate cereal and yogurt most nights for dinner because I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to cook anything.

I started a job after awhile at a hotel. I had a short affair with the disc jockey/maintenance man there. I wasn’t in love with him but I enjoyed the kindness he showed me, that my husband wasn’t giving me. One night he confronted me about it and I confessed everything. He didn’t seem upset but admitted he was having an affair too. Strangely, we did not fight about this. I really didn’t care whether he loved me anymore; I was convinced he hated my guts.

I quit my job on a whim even though we needed the extra income, because my ex had squandered over $100K we got from the sale of his mother’s house. One day I just decided not to go in anymore. I didn’t even bother to call, which normally is out of character for me. I started doing really crazy things. One night after a really bad fight I went into the closet in the master bedroom and sat on the floor crying for what seemed like hours. My ex didn’t seem concerned and went out instead. I don’t know why I was doing this; I felt like I had lost my mind and there was no reason for doing this. I had no idea what I was doing; I was just reacting to my pain like a wounded animal. The episodes of dissociation and delusions of reference became worse. I imagined everything–even voices on TV or songs on the radio–were coded messages that referenced something in my life. This is impossible to explain if you haven’t experienced it but it was very strange and disorienting.

delusions_reference

One day shortly after the closet incident, I left the kids in the house with him and decided to go driving. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, but I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to drive at 90 mph (the speed limit was 65 mph). Normally I’m a very cautious driver but during this time I had thrown all caution to the wind. I wasn’t suicidal in the sense of making a conscious effort to kill myself and I didn’t even contemplate suicide, but I was taking huge risks with my life. Miraculously, nothing happened, not even a pullover by police. I returned home feeling exhilarated from my crazy drive, but immediately that feeling disappeared and I was hit with the horror of my reality and started screaming irrationally and throwing things against the wall just to hear them break. I don’t even know what set this tantrum off–probably nothing at all, but I had this overwhelming desire to act out my excruciating emotional pain. I had no control over myself at all. When I thought about my behavior later on, I was horrified. I wasn’t even drinking anymore by now, so I wasn’t drunk. I was just insane.

My ex told me I was crazy. He always did anyway. But I really was crazy. He told me I should commit myself to a mental institution–or he would. To his surprise (and mine) I agreed. In that moment of clarity, I realized how crazy I had become (due to his emotional abuse of me, but that didn’t make me any less crazy). I allowed him to drive me to the mental hospital, which turned out to have an excellent program and engaging activities. I felt relief in entering that hospital and spent the next three months there. My Axis 1 diagnosis was Major Depression and anxiety, and my Axis 2 diagnosis was BPD, as well as substance abuse. I was also diagnosed with PTSD. I received daily therapy–both individual and group, as well as DBT classes–and I was put on Depakote (a mood stabilizer), Prozac (for the depression) and Klonopin (for anxiety). I stabilized during my stay but I wasn’t as committed to using the DBT tools I learned there as I became later on. I remember calling my mother from the hospital and telling her what was wrong with me, and her attitude was like, “so what? You need to be a mother to your children.” She didn’t even know I was in the hospital. So much for maternal support.

I had mixed feelings about returning home. I was overjoyed to see my children, but wasn’t too happy to see my husband at all. I really just wanted to stay in that hospital for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to face reality.

Fortunately, my mental state never got that bad again, but his abuse was to get much worse. He used my descent into the madness of severe BPD and major depression as an excuse to punish me for “having gone batshit insane” when I should have been a better mother and wife to him.

I still have a lot of guilt and shame over the way I neglected my children when they were so young and helpless. I wonder sometimes how much my not being there for them may have damaged them.

When I look back even earlier at my life, I can remember similar incidents of being totally unable to control my emotional reactions to stressors and triggers, with periods of almost robotic numbness and dissociative episodes in between outbursts. It was a pattern I was familiar with, but it reached its pinnacle in 1995-1996. I had a relapse in 1997 and spent a week in the psych ward at the regular hospital, and got the same exact diagnosis as the year before. Over the next several years, while I was still married to my ex, I spent most of my time in a state of emotional numbness, living on “automatic pilot.” It wasn’t until I finally got the POS out of my life that I felt safe enough to begin to let myself feel emotions again–but this time with mindfulness and acceptance instead of allowing my emotions to control me. I still have a long way to go.

20 Signs of Unresolved Trauma

Here is a fascinating article about how trauma due to abuse can lead to a post-traumatic condition that resembles Borderline Personality Disorder in almost every aspect. I wonder if this could mean I don’t actually have BPD. I have a lot of these symptoms, although they’ve improved over the years. I was diagnosed with BPD twice but maybe my therapists were wrong. These are symptoms of C-PTSD (which I have seen compared with BPD which it closely mimics). I thought I had recovered from my PTSD but maybe I have not. I’m still going to assume I’m borderline for now, but this makes me wonder. Borderlines have most of these traits, including dissociation.

I am also adding this website to my blogroll because I think it could be of great help to survivors of trauma and abuse. A social worker friend of mine just told me about it. She does not think I’m borderline. Now I’m REALLY confused.

Discussing Dissociation

Unresolved Trauma

Many people enter the therapy process with minimal awareness of their trauma history.  When the trauma survivors are dissociative, they have the ability to block out an awareness of their trauma.  They may know that their family had problems, or that their family was dysfunctional, etc, but they may believe they were never abused.

child abuse child abuse (Photo credit: Southworth Sailor)

However, blocking out conscious awareness of trauma does not mean that the survivors have no effects of that trauma.  Using denial and dissociative skills does not mean that the abuse did not happen.  Denial means that the person simply is refusing to acknowledge or accept the fact that they were traumatized.  They are pretending they were not hurt, when they were actually hurt very badly.

Even if the memories of abuse are hidden from the survivor’s awareness, blocked trauma / unresolved trauma creates very noticeable and obvious symptoms that…

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