Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mowing the grass

Do you remember, waaaay back in March of 2006 when I sent letters to my dad's second wife and her son (who was living with them with his 4 year old daughter) warning them about my dad? Maybe not. Well, I was completely terrified at the time, thinking (quite seriously, even though I knew it was unlikely) that my dad would come to Seattle, find me, and kill me. At the same time, my right shoulder started hurting very badly, to the point where I could barely lift my arm. This wasn't the first time I'd had shoulder problems, far from it. I had pain and limited movement in that shoulder since I was 17 and my dad threw me against a wall, flinging me by my right arm. The ongoing discomfort was something I just lived with, just like many of the struggles I had accepted as just a normal part of my life even though they would not be normal for most people. Periodically, I went to doctors and tried to get some help with the anxiety, sleep problems, migraines, digestive distress, flashbacks, panic attacks, etc. Sometimes the doctors tried to help out in small ways, some were dismissive, and some just didn't seem to get it. My shoulder pain has a clear physical cause (yet it wasn't treated), and the other problems are symptoms of PTSD. It wasn't until recently that I started finding doctors and other professionals who acknowledged PTSD as an actual disorder that could be treated.

I've been going to physical therapy for my knee, and one day I noticed someone getting their shoulder worked on. While my physical therapist is rubbing out my knee, I usually make small talk with her (and not so small talk. I told her that my dad was physically abusive and that I have PTSD. She tells me about her new baby, and grills me about whether my boyfriend is "the one".) I mentioned to her that I had ongoing discomfort in my shoulder, and wondered out loud if physical therapy might help. Of course, as a physical therapist, she figured she could help. "Just make an appointment with your doctor," she told me. "See if she'll give you a prescription for PT and then I'll be able to do an assessment."

Easier said than done. This was at least a month ago, and I kept putting it off. My doctor is completely wonderful, but I dread going to the doctor. It's because my mom would drag me to doctors all through my childhood. I think in part it was the only way she knew how to take care of me, and also because it was a way of deflecting the real problems in our family, and the real problem with me, which was that I was being abused. Instead, she acted like I was some kind of sickly, fragile child who's problems could be solved with medication (rather than GETTING ME THE HELL OUT OF AN ABUSIVE HOME). This was silly, because I was the girl in the neighborhood playing sports with the boys and staying outside in the dirt as long as possible. I was far from fragile, especially considering the physical abuse I took. When I really needed medical attention, like when I had physical injuries, my mom would never take me to the doctor in a million years. It would raise the kind of questions she was trying to avoid.

I grew up feeling like I was a problem- abnormal, messed up, in need of fixing. When I went to the doctor as an adult, I felt like they didn't take my complaints seriously and thought it was all in my head. I got used to getting what felt like half-assed care that really didn't address the root of my problems. For example, when I went to the doctor in 2006, when I hadn't been able to lift my arm for a month and couldn't even hold a bag or backpack with that arm, I got one session of physical therapy and that was it. It wasn't enough to help, and I didn't push the issue. After all, when had my problems ever been taken seriously? I just lived with it, like I was so used to doing.

I finally did make an appointment for last Friday. A couple of hours before, I started thinking about how I would have to tell my doctor how my shoulder was injured, and that triggered a panic attack. I was imagining her looking at me like I was a freak, or with some expression that said I was to blame, like, you must have been a really bad kid to deserve that! I had to call my boyfriend to talk me down, but I was still feeling scared and my eyes were filling up with tears. I was sure I would start bawling as soon as I tried to talk to my doctor. I tried to imagine telling her about the pain in my shoulder without explaining how it happened, or making up a story, but I knew I couldn't do that. All this, and this is a doctor I've been seeing for 3 years and who I like and trust. It really struck me how re-traumatizing it is for me to talk about that beating, even 21 years later. At the time, I thought that beating would end my life.

I managed to stay calm until I was alone with my doctor, and relatively calm as I explained about my shoulder. I cried, but I wasn't bawling. I immediately saw sympathy and understanding on her face, and a mix of horror and anger that someone would do this to a child that I have seen on people's faces before. That felt comforting. She did a lot of the same things she did when I went to her for my knee- asked questions about how it happened and how my body was, and moved my arm around to see where it hurt the worst. She said she thought it was a partial rotator cuff tear that never healed properly. She ordered an x-ray, which, like my knee, probably won't show us anything but if she wants to order an MRI she needs the x-ray first. She wrote me a prescription for physical therapy, and said if that doesn't seem to be helping we'd get the MRI to learn more. She also asked me about how I was dealing with the PTSD (since this was the first time I'd told her about it). I told her about my therapist and the work we're doing, but that I was struggling with anxiety and nightmares. She wrote me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication to take at night, and asked me to see a psychiatrist because PTSD was beyond her level of expertise. I didn't feel like she was saying I was crazy, in fact, it felt like she was taking my problems seriously and trying to help in a more holistic way. She was satisfied that I had the right therapist, but because my work with her has been so successful, a lot of painful stuff is coming up including what seems to be repressed memories. This is a good thing for my recovery, but the anxiety and sleep problems are making it harder to deal with, as if the memories aren't hard enough to process. My doctor is hoping some treatment for the anxiety will help support the recovery process I'm working on with my therapist.

I am so relieved! My shoulder pain is not all in my head, and it is a perfect metaphor for what happened to me from the trauma- it damaged me physically and emotionally, and without treatment it will continue to hurt. Treatment, while difficult and sometimes more painful than just living with the injury, will give me the chance to strengthen that area and live without constant pain. Recognizing how serious the damage is, rather than making it feel more overwhelming and hopeless, makes it feel more manageable and gives me hope that I can get better in all ways.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My thighs are not amused

I have returned to hockey! I played in my team's season opener last Sunday. Yes, I am way out of shape. First my ankles started hurting, and then my thighs just threw in the towel. At some point, I was saying, "go legs, go!" and my thighs were saying, "I refuse to participate, at least in any meaningful way." My thighs talk all fancy.

Finally, the muscles around my knees were crying out in pain. But, not my knee injury. That knee felt fine, at least until I left the ice. It felt a little sore that night, along with my hips, stomach, back, shoulders, and arms. My hips and arms are still sore.

So I got some helpful feedback from that game- I am out of shape. This is not surprising, since I hadn't played since January 23. Some other feedback- my knee is going to be okay. I will be back to where I was pretty quickly, I think. Well, maybe I don't want to be where I was. When I looked at the pictures our team photographer, awesome cheerleader, and all-around fantastic friend Anne took, I was somewhat surprised by how BAD my hockey stance is. I mean, I knew I hunched over, but I really hunch over. I could see from the pictures how I am doing myself no favors trying to skate efficiently like that, and trying to use my stick effectively with my shoulders up around my ears and my chest sunken in. At the Maria Rooth clinic they told us to "be proud" and hold our chest high when skating (and bend your knees. Everyone tells you to bend your knees.) I used to have really bad posture all the time. I made a conscious effort to stop slouching and did get better, but now I need to do that with hockey.

Conscious effort works well for me. I do my best when I put my mind to something and just focus on it. It works even for things that seem impossible, like getting from high school drop-out on the streets to CPA. Keeping the focus and patience are the biggest challenges. My goals usually take time, and it can be hard to keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak, when your current situation seems nearly unbearable, completely chaotic, or confusing. Getting from point A to point B is even harder when you can't even conceptualize what point B should even look like. For instance, even though I believe in myself and my ability to take on challenges, I think about my brother and it seems I'm never going to get over his death. I feel so conflicted, and guilty, and how could I ever accept what happened? It seems wrong, like I'm condoning something that never should have happened. His death will always be wrong, and I don't know how to just live with it without feeling torn apart inside. Similarly, I struggle with finding some peace with my childhood and my family, because I'm still raging against the moral wrongness of how I was treated. It feels like I'm giving up and conceding defeat if I try to move on from it, somehow. It's something I'm talking to my therapist about, because I am so conflicted and don't know how to work it out. It seems like I'm just punishing myself because I have all this outrage and no where to direct it.

In other words, the challenge I usually run up against is sustaining my focus on goals that usually come with some type of internal conflict. I struggled all through college and grad school, and still do, with the idea that I was selling out, abandoning "my people" on the streets, people who were fucked over by their families and by society, like I was. I feel guilty that maybe, in looking for stability and safety, I'm buying into some bullshit societal brainwashing on what being successful means. That I'm giving in to a system that abused me, victimized me, blamed me for what it did to me, and then abandoned me. It seems like something is missing if I'm not raging against something, and since I don't have much to rage against (except some vague concept like "the machine" or maybe later in life, the dying of the light) I'm usually raging against myself and my own choices.

Change does come, though. It is often so subtle and gradual that I don't even notice it for a while and I'm surprised when I realize how much things have changed. It happens to me in practice all the time- I can barely do something, or just totally can't, and it feels completely unnatural, then I realize I'm doing it without a problem. Not that long ago I was really struggling with anxiety at work. I felt overwhelmed. I didn't feel like I was getting enough done each day, and that I was perpetually behind in everything, with more work piling on every second. I started carrying around a notebook with my to-do list. When I write things down in the list, it kind of takes some of the stress of it out of my mind. I guess a lot of my stress was thinking I would forget things I needed to do, and not knowing what all was out there. I couldn't prioritize because I didn't know what I needed to get done. Even with something as simple as keeping a to-do list, I felt a little conflicted, like I was giving in to some goofy self-help technique, some self-proclaimed time management guru says I should keep this detailed to-do list and review it every day and I'm buying this silly crap when the real problem is that my boss is giving me more work that any reasonable person could handle! You can probably imagine that with that level of internal rebellion I have a hard time getting anything done without a huge struggle. I still feel stressed and sometimes anxious with all I'm doing at work, but it seems a lot more manageable now. I can see, from the things crossed out on my list, that I am getting things done each day. I'm more organized, and I think people I work with can tell I'm more on top of things. It didn't all change the second I decided to get more organized and use the list, but my anxiety has gone down and my work has improved.

Hockey does come with some conflicting feelings since it involves other people and the dramas that invariably crop up, but for the most part hockey is the most unambiguous part of my life. It's pretty easy to set a goal that I will improve my skating posture. It gives me something to focus on while I deal with the slight amount of fear I have of getting injured again and the rebellion and pain in my muscles while I get back in shape. I suppose I could set a goal that I will be less internally conflicted, but who even knows what that would mean. I don't want to stop being who I am, and it's hard to unpack my defiance from how I think about myself. The even larger issue is that of survival. My rebellion, anger, not giving in to my parents, some core of myself that I refused to compromise, kept me alive and psychologically intact through all the trauma. I didn't go crazy, and I kept a strong sense of myself. You don't just let go of an identity that literally saved your life. I am so aware, every time I think of what I went through and what happened to my brother, that I could have lost my mind and I could have died. So how do you let go of that? Making peace with my past seems impossible. Along with a lot of other impossible things that usually turn out not to be impossible. Just challenging.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Identity Politics

At this time (in my recovery), I don't have a strong voice. This has made it hard to write. Right now I am trying to just write without thinking about it. Usually the voice that comes out in my writing is a driving force in my writing, so I really don't have much forward momentum for this. I often think about life as a journey, or path we travel, which has a certain linear progression about it. The way I feel is making me feel lost. A lot of what I feel is what is bubbling up from my past, sometimes triggered by emotions connected to things that are happening now, although it is hard to tell if the emotions are coming from the past or the present or a combination of both. So where am I? I have a life, and an identity, that is connected to events and circumstances happening now and from what happened to me when I was a kid. I am living in both, and I don't know what from either makes up who I am.

Trauma interfered with my emotional and psychological development. I had to shut down to protect myself. Now I'm trying to do some of that development, feel those feelings of grief, fear, anger, and confusion. I'm trying to process and let those struggles flow through me, and live my current, adult life at the same time. I feel disconnected. I have feelings, strong, powerful, intense feelings that are only loosely connected to what is going on in the present. I have adult relationships that make me feel like a kid sometimes. I have an inner life that often makes me feel isolated from the people around me. I live in two worlds. This is nothing new. When I was a kid, my life at school and with friends had to be kept separate from my home life. My home life didn't make any sense in the context of life outside. The rules of my family were different than the rules in the real world. Surviving my family took different skills than being successful in the outside world. My home life wasn't real, but it was. Everything I perceived and felt about my home life was contradicted by the power structure within that world. Most kids learn about how to be in the world; I learned how to straddle two worlds, neither one of which made much sense to me. I felt powerless in both. I felt crushed, dehumanized, attacked, belittled, ignored, and rejected. I felt numb, limp, empty, and insubstantial.

That existence was dry and cold. I looked around me and all I saw was sand, shifting into mounds that looked indistinguishable from each other, and empty sky. Now I've been pitched into a swamp, sticky muck, humid, and dripping into my face, covering my arms and legs, clinging to my skin. The thing they have in common is there is nothing solid, and I don't see any path forward, any direction. I can pick a random place and struggle my way there, over shifting sands or squishy mud, but is it really progress? I still can't see where I'm going. I'm just going on faith that I will eventually get to someplace different, a place where I can see where I'm going and make some decisions about my life that will mean something for my future.

Worse than that, I feel insubstantial. Whatever the opposite of solid is, that's what I feel like. Like I don't have edges. Mushy. All I have is rules and schedules and structure in my life to try to keep myself together, and this pulsating pressure that feels like it will rip me apart. I don't really understand this, why I feel this way, why I feel like the expectations and influences of other people can distort my whole being, why my perceptions and point of view, hopes and dreams and plans, seem like a fiction, as real and solid as smoke, or fog. I guess I kind of do know why- it's because I was made to feel like my feelings, my personality, everything that I was as a kid was wrong or unimportant. That's the foundation I have to build on, and since I can't build anything resilient on that, I'm trying to go back and strengthen the foundation without being able to completely pull it down and start over. So it's like I'm traveling two different paths, paths that keep pulling on each other like magnets. I'm not sure when or if they will come together though, and where I might be if that happens. Or who I might be. So I look around and see life that seems like it should be more linear, more straightforward, and I feel very far away from other people. Even though I now see and recognize different parts of me and how they split apart, I feel sometimes far away from myself. Disconnected. Then I watch Lost, and enjoy how complicated it is, and that the challenge of tying up all those loose ends is nothing compared to bringing my own life into some sensical order. (I know sensical isn't a word, technically, but it's the opposite of nonsensical.)