30 March, 2006

It's like a train wreck

For years, I had therapists who insisted that I would only have memories of my childhood when I was ready for them. I always figured that by “ready” they meant I would be able to cope with the memories; that I would have skills for dealing with them; that I would have a strong support network in place. I thought they meant that I could have the memories, but also live my daily life in between.

So I admit I’m feeling a little resentful. Through a combination of events, I don’t currently have a therapist. Most of my friends live in other states. I haven’t had the mental energy to keep up with my primary source of online support. My best friend has been getting increasingly volatile and difficult to talk to in the best of circumstances. So my tangible, daily support network consists of my wife. She is a wonderful, loving person. But I also realize that she’s not able to provide all of the support I need. And she really doesn’t know any more than I do about how I can cope with what’s going on.

On top of all of this, I’m getting very mad at the jerks on the Internet who feel the need to create websites about how people who forgot childhood abuse and then remember it as adults are making it all up. I was checking Google to see if there was an online version of The Courage to Heal. Most of the sites that came up were the ones debunking “false memory syndrome.” I suppose it’s my fault, for persisting in clicking on those Google links, even though I know the sites are going to be… um, wrong. And yet I click. On more than one site. On more than one day. This, from a person who generally doesn't even rubberneck at accidents when I'm driving!

The people writing these sites give me no credit whatsoever for being able to make up something that’s actually interesting. Really, now! When I was a kid, I created whole worlds! I can make up stories about things that are actually unique and original. So why would I bother to make up run of the mill physical, emotional, and sexual abuse? Why not come up with something like being kidnapped by fairies, or traveling through time?

In my more rational moments, I can laugh about it. I mean, where is the benefit to me in making up the memories? Oh, right, I really wanted to be unable to do anything I really enjoy because of the crippling panic attacks; I really couldn’t figure out how else to have nightmares every single night; I love shuddering and flinching during sex, and it’s a great way to build a healthy relationship. Yeah, that’s it.

So here I am, waiting (and waiting) for the people at the counseling center where I had my most recent intake to call me back. I would give up on them and go find a therapist on my own except for one thing. I am so emotionally drained, and having such a hard time getting myself to trust anyone right now, that I’m just not able to get the resources together to go find a different therapist. I need therapy in order to be able to advocate for myself to get good therapy. It was hard enough to manage to find the therapist who ended up dropping me after I was hospitalized. Going through the process all over again is more than I can bear.

Right now, it’s all I can do to hold myself together waiting for this stupid clinic to call me back, and talking myself into going and into talking once I get there. I suppose, in the meanwhile, it would be a good idea to stop reading the idiotic “false memory” sites, because I know if I keep reading them, I’ll manage to convince myself, once again, that I made everything up.

23 March, 2006

Long and rambling

Behind the cut there is a rambling post about childhood abuse stuff and current frustrations with health professionals. It may or may not be triggering, and it’s definitely self-centered, so be aware before you read. Oh, and it’s not about spanking in any but the most general way.

When I was a kid and got hurt, or someone hit me, they would often say, “Stop crying, that didn’t hurt.” And if I didn’t stop crying, they would “give me something to cry about.” Which is to say, hit me harder, hurt me more than I was already hurting. I suppose it was intended to give me a sense of perspective.

Another way my mother would encourage me to have a sense of perspective was to say, “If people could survive Auschwitz, surely you can survive this.” I was an adult before it occurred to me to think that most people didn’t survive.

When I complained about someone saying something that hurt my feelings, they would remind me that sticks and stones can break my bones, but words could never hurt me. My family always said I was too sensitive. They say this even more now, when I object to them saying things that are categorically racist (black neighborhoods are dirty because black people are lazy; black men are in jail because they’re all criminals… and we won’t even go into their “joking” use of the n-word around me, or their delight in referring to me as a “negro” because I won the National Achievement Award for Outstanding Negro Scholars when I was in high school). Because, of course, they don’t see me as black, so they don’t mean me when they say that blacks are bad people. And if I take it personally, clearly, I’m way too sensitive.

Why do I bring this up?

Because I feel like my health care providers are doing exactly the same thing right now.

My doctor is one of those people who thinks that the problem with fibromyalgia is that the people who have it just have a low pain tolerance (and, by the way, don’t exercise enough). It doesn’t matter that I experience migraines, abscessed teeth, and broken bones as mild discomfort. Because he can’t see a testable cause for the subjectively greater pain of fibromyalgia, he has determined that the problem is a low pain threshold. These things don’t really hurt, he is essentially saying. (And then went on to comment on how if you have a headache and then bang your foot, you stop noticing the headache because of the pain in your foot. You know, why not go get something to really cry about….)

And then there are the mental health professionals I’ve been dealing with.

I was in the psych ward recently because I made myself admit to W. and one of my friends that I was feeling suicidal. I felt guilty for admitting this, since it felt manipulative to ask for help (I was nearly 15% sure that I didn’t really want to kill myself, after all). My experience in the psych ward was horrible—I had no access to any of the things that make me feel safe or comforted, but the staff there acted as though I was unreasonable to not say I felt safe there. When I commented that it felt like being in the psych ward was a punishment for asking for help, I had more than one doctor on staff tell me it wasn’t a punishment, and then sternly add, “Well, now you know what happens when you tell people you’re suicidal.” (I had managed to convince myself they hadn’t really said that, until W. mentioned one of the doctors saying it to her as well.)

The staff at the hospital misdiagnosed me (in not only my opinion, but in the opinion of everyone who knows me that I’ve talked about this with) with borderline personality disorder. They offered no help for the panic attacks and anxiety that caused me to become suicidal. The antidepressant they had me start ended up causing increased anxiety (this isn’t their fault: it’s an antidepressant that usually reduces anxiety).

And over and over, the therapists and psychiatrists I’ve seen have insisted that since my life now is good, I’ve got no real reason to be so anxious. They tell me that I have a low tolerance for distress, and that my problem is that I am unable (read that: unwilling) to just get on with living my life and choosing not to feel the emotional upsets. When I asked for something I could do to reduce anxiety and panic attacks last week, the therapist I was seeing gave me a handout for people with a low tolerance for frustration that said, among other things, that a good way to better tolerate “distress” is “With comparisons: Compare yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you. Compare yourself to those less fortunate than you; read about disasters, others’ suffering.” Because if people could survive Auschwitz….

I recognize that these people mean well. They are probably trying to help me. But somehow, it feels like they’re doing exactly the same things my family did to help me when I was little. If my body hurts, it is because I am a wimp, and I should be distracted with “real” pain. If my feelings are hurt, I should be told that I’m too sensitive, and reminded that other people are worse off than I am. They should tell me there’s nothing to be upset about, rather than help me to cope with the things that are causing almost constant anxiety.

Rather than getting better services, more suited to my needs (which is what my old therapist said would happen if I went to the psych ward), I have been dropped by my old therapist, and shunted from one person to another. I haven’t had a therapy session that wasn’t either an intake for care, or a termination of services since February. I am likely to stay at the center I’ve been referred to now, and they told me today that I won’t be assigned to a therapist for three more weeks. On the advice of the psychiatrists, given the adverse effects of the meds, I’m not currently on any medications for anxiety or depression.

And boy oh boy, are my inner children ticked off at me. I forced myself to admit, over and over, that I was definitely physically and emotionally abused as a child, and probably sexually abused. This by itself gives me severe panic attacks after doing it, and I’ve had to do it over and over and over, without actually getting any help in coping. Instead, I’ve been informed that my life is good, I’m clearly successful and accomplished, I am in a good relationship, and I am able to be in contact with my family, so I should stop feeling so anxious and depressed. (The psychiatrist doing the intake today actually said that in pretty much those words.)

I keep taking the risk to trust people, in the hope of getting some help, and instead, they send me to someone else, telling me I should be able to manage.

It really frustrates me. And I can’t help but think, “Would I be getting more services if I were acting out?” But I’m trapped in being “good.” And because the mental health providers recognize that I’m not going to actually do anything to hurt myself or others, or anything impulsive or dangerous, they trust that they can leave me to muddle along on my own with less help than I was getting when this whole business started. And I can’t help but feel the same desperation I felt when I was a teenager, knowing I needed help dealing with all of the stuff that had gone on, and realizing that it wasn’t going to come any time soon. (Yes, rationally, three weeks isn’t very long. But emotionally, it’s about 2 ½ weeks longer than I can handle right now.)

20 March, 2006

Denial: Pondering my childhood, in five parts

Denial, part 1:

My mother always insisted, “We’re not poor, we’re artists and intellectuals.” The thing is, we definitely were poor. Not working class, because working class implies that you have a job.

I have my ideas about why my mother chose to say this. She wanted us to think we were smart, to think that we could make choices in our lives. And, subconsciously, she wanted to pass on her internalized classism. She didn’t like poor people, she was ashamed of her background (rural and poor). She didn’t want us to be like the people around us—uneducated and uninterested in education. She wasn’t able to move out of poverty, and she didn’t know how, but she wanted to encourage us to use our brains and our talents.

There were some advantages to this. She didn’t encourage us to drop out of school to get jobs. She didn’t make fun of us for reading or drawing or playing instruments. She didn’t complain when I applied to colleges, and didn’t say that I shouldn’t go to a liberal arts college.

But she left us thoroughly aware that there is something shameful in being poor. And she coped with poverty through denial.

Denial, part 2:

The same thing was true of my race, although that wasn’t talked about very often. When my family acknowledges that I’m biracial or black, it’s always with the comment, “We don’t see you as black.

Despite the fact that my skin is darker than theirs, despite my kinky hair, despite my black father… we are not supposed to notice that I am black. When I protest racist comments they make, I am reminded that they don’t see me as black. They are surprised when I mention experiencing racial profiling, I suppose because they expect the rest of the world to go along with their belief that I’m not “really” black.

In fact, the only time they bring up my race on their own is to explain that they could have gone to college or grad school, too, if only they had been able to take advantage of affirmative action. Because, of course, no one else in our family had the advantage of having black genes, so they couldn’t get all of the scholarships I got just for being black.

It doesn’t matter that the scholarships and grants I received were primarily need-based aid, which any of them could have gotten. And it also doesn’t matter that what fellowships I received were highly competitive, and not many other people received them, regardless of race. The fact that I had very good grades all through school, and that I scored well on standardized tests, and that I worked my butt off through high school and college and grad school… these things don’t count, and the only reason I have gotten where I am is because of affirmative action.

I am constantly reminded that my siblings are all really smart (they are, don’t get me wrong), and their failure in school was because they didn’t do well with the structure (this may be true as well). They are the ones who are talented (they are), and I’m just “good at school.”

Denial, part 3:

Strangely enough, my mother also denies that we were abused as kids. She will admit that we were hit, but she doesn’t consider it abuse.

I will grant this much. I don’t think anyone had bones broken. We weren’t starved. We weren’t burned often, and burns were generally on the lines of collateral damage.

But we regularly ended up with welts and bruises. We were hit with hands, with belts, with switches, with whatever happened to be handy when someone in charge got angry. We were yelled at, belittled, demeaned. And even though some of the apparent neglect was because, despite her best efforts, my mother couldn’t afford to meet all of our needs… some of the neglect was because she chose not to respond to our needs or to admit that we needed to have attention and care, and that we weren’t mature enough to carry the burdens she laid on us.

Denial, part 4:

Why, then, would it surprise me that no one in our family would even hint that at least we girls were sexually abused?

I struggle with my own disbelief. I can intellectualize it: I know that I, and each of my three sisters have between us virtually all of the signs of having been sexually abused as children. I know that when I first had consensual sex, it caused almost intolerable panic attacks (because consensual sex requires you to actually be in your body during sex, which is terrifying). And I can realize that there’s really no benefit whatsoever to me in making up a history of abuse.

But even in my own mind, I find it nearly impossible to actually believe that I was sexually abused. I dismiss the visual aspects of my panic attacks, assuming that it’s marginally possible that I’m making things up or misinterpreting what I see. I ignore the content of the “nightmares” I have when I need to relax my mind enough to fall asleep, because I have no evidence that they are memories rather than products of my imagination.

Denial, part 5:

When I say something to someone that indicates I was abused, I feel almost intolerably guilty. I am assaulted with voices in the back of my head that shout that I am a liar, that it isn’t true, that I am being manipulative. Despite the fact that I know I’m a rotten liar, I feel every moment that I am deceiving people when I talk about abuse.

I am baffled by the way that my mind tries to bury any evidence of abuse, and to minimize the things I remember. Intellectually, I know that it makes sense. This is a defense mechanism. I kept myself as safe and as whole as possible when I was a child by blocking out things that no child should have to cope with. Even though I know how much these defenses are hurting me now, it is so hard to let them go.

Because it does feel safer not to remember.

I can feel the rage and terror welling up behind those walls. I thought I had come to a degree of acceptance, to an ability to connect with my family on my own terms. And I’m so afraid of losing what little love they give me, if I were to admit even to myself that they hurt me over and over again when I was small. To admit that they probably recognize that the things they say to me now can only work to erode any confidence and pride I feel in my accomplishments.

I don’t want to be angry, I don’t want to feel the fear. And yet, I’m getting to a point when I can no longer tolerate the weight of my defenses.

12 March, 2006

Just a quick update

There hasn’t been much spanking going on in our house lately. I wish I could say that it were because I haven’t needed it, or even that we’ve been too busy, and had guests too often.

Unfortunately, the problem is more complicated than that. I have needed spankings. But the window of opportunity is slim, because I’ve been having panic attacks almost constantly for the last month or two. I was having them pretty often before that, as well.

Part of me knows what’s going on. My brain has decided, in the absence of any input from me, that it’s time for me to start processing through stuff that I would rather keep buried in the back of my head. Actually, my goal is to drop it into some mental bottomless pit, and never hear from it again.

I approach the problem intellectually and logically. At least, that’s my goal. There are two rational explanations for what’s going on.

Explanation one is that I have a serious mental illness, one that keeps me from being able to trust people, that makes me uncomfortable with touch, that keeps me constantly on guard against making mistakes of any kind, that gives me nightmares. And that I have had this mental illness since infancy.

Explanation two is that I was abused starting when I was an infant and small child, causing me to have all of the problems listed above.

Most people who know me say that explanation two makes more sense.

But there is that constant voice in the back of my head that insists nothing bad ever happened, and that I’m just making things up. The voice in the back of my head isn’t able to give me a good reason for why I would want to make things up, but it still insists that it’s true. It warns me that no one will believe me, and that no one likes someone who tells lies, and so if I talk about things that might have happened, or even if I admit them to myself, then no one will love me ever again.

Intellectually, I know this isn’t true. Unfortunately, these problems go on at the emotional level, and there is no reasoning with my emotional side. It points out that blanking out anything bad has kept me safe all of my life, and it’s got no intention of letting me talk right now.

Or maybe it does, because I assume that the panic attacks stem from my emotional side, and if those aren’t a demand to remember things, I don’t know what is.

My intellectual side, the side that I understand, the side I can control, spends hours every day trying to puzzle things out. Trying to figure out what really happened, what could have been so bad. And the scary part is, even with the things I know for sure happened, that I do remember, or that family members have talked about, things were pretty darned bad. So there’s another part of me that is afraid to remember.

Because if the things I know for sure happened are as bad as they are, there is no way I want to remember the things I managed to block out.

So there have been panic attacks, and while there have been a couple of spankings, it’s been difficult, because it’s been hard to get into the right head space.