That Is My Fault

Relationships with PTSD are hard, and not the least because PTSD isn’t a constant, it’s a changing condition. For me it got worse before it got better, but that’s the overall picture. I can go weeks without severe symptoms, or I can’t go two days without severe symptoms. And I never really know which it will be.

Not only is that constant change hard for me to manage and navigate, it’s hard for the people I’m close to because sometimes I’m available and sometimes I’m not, sometimes I can handle stress and sometimes I can’t, sometimes I can be warm and affectionate and sometimes you can’t get near me and I don’t return hugs. It surprises me not at all that relationships with post-trauma partners reportedly fail at a higher rate than the general population. I get it. I live with it, and the constant struggle to maintain healthy relationships.

It can become easy to start blaming everyone else for relationship failures when you experience PTSD, especially if you have been working to communicate your experience and be open with your partner. I felt that I had been clear about what I was experiencing and how it was affecting me, I thought I had addressed feedback on some behaviors I had that were hard to understand and accommodate and I HAVE A DEBILITATING MENTAL ILLNESS, I AM DOING THE BEST I CAN HERE. HELP ME OUT.

What I wasn’t able to see for some time was the part that was my fault. And I say that in a way that takes on responsibility rather than blames, because if this is a process of learning and healing and growing, blame is unhelpful but taking responsibility for something I can change is a healthy way forward. And while what I was doing was informed by my experience with PTSD, once I learned what it was I could see where it was coming from and start to do things differently.

I was getting my guard up so high and was on high alert so often that I was not engaging with my partner – to the point that I stopped even hugging as a greeting, stopped making eye contact and started freezing.

There were a lot of external reasons for my being on high alert, but I was also choosing to stay there on autopilot rather than be aware of my surroundings and my situations and respond to reality rather than perception. I was letting my symptoms run the show, which happens more easily when I’m tired and feeling worn out. Is that common and sometimes hard to help and just give me a break and let me do what I feel I need to do right now? Yes. But there are always trade-offs, and I was trading my need for walls for my need for connection, and losing connection in the process.

I can’t make connection someone else’s responsibility, and I want connection, so I have to take that on. It’s not easy, and requires energy, awareness and courage, but it’s on me, and not having connection was my fault. Now that I recognize that, it’s something I can work on and take steps toward, all while still working on communicating what I need and not overwhelming myself by going too far too fast. But like taking responsibility for my recovery, I’m pretty sure this is a step worth taking.

Strengthening Your Wrists

I recently heard Adriene Mischler say that when we start out in yoga, we often notice and say that our wrists are weak or that they aren’t able to hold us up.

Many yoga positions require you to hold some, most or even all of your body weight on them. For yoga beginners or those who don’t practice frequently, this can hurt. And why wouldn’t it? We don’t often hold our weight on our wrists, which are not a particularly strong part of the body.

It takes time, practice and frequently holding the poses to develop the strength to hold yourself up on your wrists, and to learn the techniques to make this easier, such as transferring some of the weight to your fingers.

It takes time, practice and frequently doing it to develop the strength.

I think there’s a lesson here that works for a lot of aspects of PTSD.

 

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

If boundaries are new to you, or new again (because if you live with PTSD you’ve had your boundaries obliterated and may need to reestablish them), here’s where to start.

I had no idea what “boundaries” meant, at least not in the terms I was hearing them used. I had been called a people pleaser, and really good at customer service, and really helpful and the person who would be there if you needed anything. I would do whatever I could at whatever inconvenience to me for other people. I had no idea that wasn’t a good thing. And I had no idea that it was stacking up the consequences of a dangerous habit. And that I would end up being really, really resentful and trapped without knowing how to set myself free.

It takes practice, and it starts small, and it starts with the people furthest away from you.

If you have found yourself without healthy boundaries post-trauma, and my experience resonates with you, maybe what I did to get free will resonate too.

If you are post-trauma and you had the experience of being trapped or not able to get away from the person or event or thing that traumatized you and changed your brain, you may have a path in your brain that says that you can’t say no, because you tried that and it didn’t work and you experienced trauma anyway. That path is powerful, and every time you aren’t able to say no, it gets stronger. You have to build a new path. You also have to be really kind to yourself when you do, because it is hard, and it will take time and practice. But you can do this.

I started with saying “no” to the people furthest away from me, the people I had the least to gain or lose from. I turned down requests for help or involvement (while feeling like I was a bad person for doing so), I stopped replying to people who only contacted me when they wanted something from me (ex-friends, exes, etc.) and – perhaps most importantly I started getting clear with myself about what was important to me to spend my time and energy on. I wasn’t spending my time and energy on me, I was spending it on everyone else, and I had none left for me. So I wasn’t healing. And how could I when all of my energy was being constantly sucked away?

When I started getting clear with myself about what I could tolerate and what I couldn’t, what I could do and what I couldn’t, what I needed for me to heal me and what I had available after that, I could start setting boundaries with people closer to me – friends and family.

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Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

Let me reiterate: this is hard, and it takes practice. You are re-programming your brain.

Not everyone will like your boundaries. Not everyone will respect your new boundaries. So it’s important for you to know what you will do if your boundaries are crossed. And sometimes that means letting go of relationships.

Boundaries are not mean or selfish, they are necessary and healthy. Clear boundaries and clearly stated boundaries are kind. They don’t leave room for interpretation, they establish the rules of engagement. They protect you so that you have what you need to live the life you choose for yourself. It’s good to practice clear communication of your boundaries, and it’s good to respect your own boundaries, and to require that other people respect them too. However, you owe an explanation to no one.

The people who respect your new boundaries, who understand and can give you that space, are the ones to keep with you. Those who will not can fall aside as you move forward. But first, look in the mirror, tell yourself that you are enough and that you are worthy of boundaries, and begin the process of getting clear with yourself on what those boundaries need to be.

Managing PTSD: Keep Showing Up

Continuing to do things that aren’t working isn’t a path to successful recovery or management of post-traumatic stress, and there are a lot of things that don’t work. But there are things that consistently do work for many – meditation and breathing, yoga, EMDR, drum circles and theater (not kidding, read The Body Keeps the Score if you want to know more) – but they only work if you do them.

Which means you have to do one of the hardest things for someone with PTSD. You have to keep showing up to do them.

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Photo by Luis Aquino on Pexels.com

Particularly if it takes a while to be diagnosed (two years for me), you can get to the point that showing up to anything, even just yourself, is too overwhelming and too hard. I recently watched a video about military veterans with PTSD and their service dogs, and how one man had grocery shopped late at night to avoid crowds and be around as few people as possible when he went out until he was matched with his dog. I completely understand that.

But it can be damn near impossible to get yourself to do anything that is uncomfortable, including the things listed above that are supposed to be “easy” or “simple” or “calming”. For some of us, those things are not. It has taken me months to be able to do yoga consistently and for more than a few minutes at a time, and I’m just now pushing myself to stay with the positions that are hard for me to hold.

This stuff is hard. All of it. It’s different with PTSD. It is really hard to show up once, much less every day. But the work to heal and the desire to not stay trapped by your brain are worth pursuing, worth attempting, worth working toward, even if it’s in small bits. However small a step you take to show up, it echoes throughout the universe and is heard. I hope that you are able to hear it.

Working with PTSD: Why a Schedule Matters

Getting myself on a schedule was a challenge last year. I like to wake up naturally, and sometimes that’s my only option, because when my brain wants sleep, it will sleep.

I’ve found that having a schedule that mixes external obligations with internal goals is working for me this month. Yesterday I was feeling really overwhelmed with my workload but needed to be at a meeting shortly after lunch. Being on time was a struggle for me last year as it can take me longer than I think to get out of the house, so this year I’m trying to be aware of that and focus on leaving on time. I was 5 minutes early (the new goal) and the meeting went really well. It’s a project that I’ve had a lot of frustrations on but we had a great discussion and left with a clear path forward and assigned next steps. It felt really good.

This morning I had a meeting with a recently funemployed colleague, and the ideas and work we discussed were inspiring and energetic. Again, getting out of the house and being on time was a positive experience and well worth the effort. To add to that, I was on top of my work before and after these two meetings because I was concerned about fitting everything in and staying on schedule this week while I juggle multiple projects.

I’m a planner so scheduling naturally works for me, but staying on schedule has been a challenge the last few years as anxiety has been a barrier to that. I’ve had to recognize that it’s an issue and something I have to be intentional about changing, and like any other change, I have to work at it and practice it.

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I’m excited that I’m only two weeks into the year and this is already proving positive for me. It can take a lot of my energy to be on time and be engaged in project meetings, and in the past that effort has wiped me out – sometimes for the rest of the day or for a couple of days. Managing PTSD is an energy suck, especially early on, and it takes a lot of work (it’s taken me 3 years. honestly) to be consistent and on time with work.

What I’ve also recognized is that for me to be my most productive at work, I have to stick to my non-work schedule too, the taking care of me schedule. Even on the days that morning stuff gets moved to evening because I don’t have enough time when I wake up, I’ve started being careful about stopping, eating and completing my daily routine. So it’s not a hard and fast schedule, but it’s a schedule that prioritizes taking care of myself so that I can be in a place to walk out the door on time and deliver projects to my clients in a way that meets both my expectations and theirs.

1% Better Requires a New Yoga Mat

My 1% is a little longer than a week this time, but includes a few elements. Every day I’m checking my HRV when I wake up, doing a guided meditation, practicing yoga (and I mean practice cause I’m not very good at it) and I’m working at least 45 hours a week.

Whew!

This is a lot for me to do at once, but it’s what I’ve been trying to be able to do for months. I just kind of quietly started shortly before New Year’s Day and have kept it up for a couple of weeks. Except for the working, that’s new this month for me to push past 40 hours, and I am certainly feeling it.

  1. I check my HRV every morning when I wake up. I have a heart rate monitor and an app that do it and after 2 minutes I get a number on a scale of 1-10 that shows my relative “readiness”, essentially how much stress tolerance I have that day. I’ve been in the 6-7 range, which is a bit low, and I am struggling with being overwhelmed and lacking creativity in a way that is consistent with those lower numbers. It’s ideal for me to be a 9 or 10, but I haven’t been a 10 yet this year and I’ve been a 9 only 6 out of 14 days. 7 is when I have to start paying attention and be mindful about not pushing too hard and 6 is when it’s pretty likely I will have a meltdown if I’m not protecting myself from what might seem to be pretty minimal stress. I’ve done this every morning for 30 days in a row now, and I’m getting pretty familiar with what the number – a proxy for my stress tolerance – can tell me about myself and how it can help me manage PTSD.
  2. I’ve been doing a guided meditation from Audible with 20 sessions. The first session is 5 minutes and you work up to 20 minutes on the 20th session. I just started it for the second time because I wanted a little more practice with some of the breathing techniques, which were new to me, and I am changing up how I do it. The first time through I laid down because that was the most comfortable and I did it right after I checked my HRV, so I didn’t have to get out of bed and could comfortably roll into my morning. I think that was helpful, and a good way for me to get started. This time through I’m listening to the sessions in the evening while seated on my yoga mat. My goal is to meditate twice a day, morning and evening, which I will start doing once I finish this round of 20 days.
  3. I’m watching Adriene Michler’s latest 30 day yoga video series and have somehow managed to stick with it for two weeks! Day 5 was rough, which she mentioned in her daily email, but also Days 6-13 were rough, so… Today was the first day that I wasn’t resentful or pissed off about it, and while I wasn’t jumping on the mat in a hurry to get started, I wasn’t mad about it either, and I didn’t swear at her today. In all seriousness this is a really great video series, and it’s free! It’s helping me go through the process of regaining strength (because hiding in my bed has turned my muscles to jelly), and after two weeks I’m starting to see and feel some muscle again. Yay!
  4. 45 hours a week might seem arbitrary, but that’s where I need to be to get my billable hours where I need them while still working on my company and giving time to non-profits. Being an entrepreneur and small business owner means WORK, and there for a long time I wasn’t putting in the hours I needed to, plain and simple. After analyzing my company performance and work hours (I track them all!) for last year and setting some clear time off and pro-bono goals for this year, I know where I need to be, and it’s a minimum of 45 hours a week. I’m pushing myself to reach that this month because I also need to know if this is a workload and pace I can handle. I don’t have the endurance I used to, and this may not work for me! But I only know if I try it out, and I was 48 and 50 hours the last two weeks. It’s hard, and I’ll see where I am in another two weeks, because today I had some doubts if this is really a pace I can successfully keep.

And I bought a new yoga mat that arrived yesterday. It turns out that a 4mm thick mat wasn’t enough to cushion my knees in several poses (my yoga space has a tile floor), and now that I’m doing yoga every day I can’t fudge my way through very comfortably. New mat is 6mm, which is much more comfortable but also a bit slippery, and still smells like PVC, so I’ll let y’all know how I fee about it in a couple of weeks. Until then…onward to 1% better!

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