Saturday, February 7, 2015

An Alternative to Self-Harm, an Anxiety Attack, and Just Yuck

So, I'm seeing a new therapist.  He and I are finding our way.  I felt like we were floundering for a bit (turns out, so did he), but I feel like we have a plan now.

I have gone to therapy for many years, off and on.  I've seen several therapists.  And sometimes I feel like I'm in therapy to keep a grasp on reality when my life is crazy.  That my therapist is my anchor.  Because sometimes the waves are so far over my head and I can't even find a piece of driftwood to cling to.  Therapy has been the lifeboat for me many times.

Other times therapy is my mental gym and my therapist is my personal trainer.  His job is to help me strengthen my weaknesses.  To prepare for competition or just to feel my best.  This time is one of those.

This therapist (Jason) is my coach.  His job (and my job) is to help me fight.  His job is to help me win.  In my fight against self-harm.

Which is kind of an uphill battle because I'm still not sure I want to give it up.

I know that doesn't make sense to most of you, and I'm happy about that because it means this isn't a part of your life.  But some of you will get it.  Self-harm is a drug.  It's soothing.  It's numbing.  It feels good.  It stops the pain.

Anyway, all of that was just an introduction to where I am now and what I experienced today.

In therapy we discussed what happens when I get triggered.  There are many things in my past that have been traumatic.  When something happens that reminds me of one of these, I can be taken back.  I go into fight, flight, or freeze.  (Which is something I'd surprisingly never connected with self-harm before - good job, Jason.)  I can be a child again.  Or a teen.  Or even a toddler, depending on which trauma is triggered.

So, in my last session I had a particular trigger in mind, because I almost self-harmed a couple weeks ago and have been craving it a lot since.  I figured that was a good place to start.  Jason asked me how old I feel with this trigger.  Five.  I am five years old.  Didn't have to think about it.  I am a helpless, powerless, scared little girl.

As we talked more, we discussed the place in our brains that thinks logical thoughts and the place in our brains that thinks save-your-butt thoughts.  The animal brain that's ready to fight the saber-tooth tiger.  When a person has PTSD, and is triggered, the thinking part doesn't get to play.  It gets completely bypassed.  The run-so-you-don't-die part takes over.  It's visceral.

And through all these years of therapy I've learned so many techniques to deal with those moments.  I know behavior after behavior that is healthier and longer lasting as a fix.  To get me through those moments.  But those are not habits for me yet and they are in the thinking part of my brain.  The ones I've used for years, the unhealthy ones, the ones that are habits are in the get-me-through-this-alive part. 

Those unhealthy behaviors are the ones in the path of the trauma brain process.  Trigger - freak out - make the pain stop.  It's very automatic.  Again, visceral.

So my therapist introduced a novel approach.  Skip the thinking.  We're not going to think our way through this.  We're going visceral.  Since your brain isn't going to take the thinking path, we won't either.  We're going very basic.

We're going to use my senses to shock my body out of that moment I feel trapped in and back into the real moment I'm in.  My new mantra is "new moment-new experience."  This moment isn't that moment.  And more importantly, I am not that little girl.  I am a forty-five year old woman.  I have forty more years of experience than she does.  I am strong.  I can make my own choices.  No one else has control over me.  I don't have to do what I don't want to do.  I am powerful!

So how do we slap my brain in the face and tell it to wake up and see that it's a new moment when it's on the path to destruction?  We're going to use my senses.  Like smelling salts, we're going to smack my brain and tell it to wake up.  To break that spell (from Sleeping Beauty) that's got me mesmerized and is calling me to the spinning wheel to prick my finger.  And I think it's a good plan.

My assignment for this week and next was to find five things that are very unpleasant to me (that attack my senses) but that aren't harmful and don't relate to or bring up any trauma.  And for extra credit, I could try them for real.

I figured out several things I could use, one or more for each of the five senses.  I have a couple of them in place and am working on the others.

I tried one of them earlier this week.  I was triggered by something that has frequently led to self-harm in my past.  And then I grabbed the lavender oil.  I HATE the smell of lavender oil.  It makes my muscles cringe.  I used it like smelling salts.  And it was enough to remind me of my mantra.  New moment-new experience.  Then I took a few deep breaths.  I smelled it again.  Ick!  And I reminded myself that I am not that person anymore.  I can face this.  A few more deep breaths and I was better.  The problem wasn't gone, but it wasn't beating me in the head and punching me in the stomach anymore.  It was just there and I'd get through it and it will pass and soon it won't matter anymore anyway.  That was a good moment.

Sometimes when I'm in therapy, and we come up with a new plan of attack, I'm so sure I understand how to use it.  And then I leave and get into the real world and realize there were a couple points of clarification I didn't get.  But I often don't realize that until I use my new behavior wrong.  And that can turn out bad.  Like today.

I've been on edge for a while now.  Three or four days.  No, I guess it's been longer than that because I was feeling it before I went to therapy Monday.  So at least a week.  It's a difficult thing to describe.  It's like all the nerves in the periphery of my body (especially my arms and shoulders) are on hyper-alert.  It's hard - even painful - to have people close to me.  Like closer than about three feet away makes me cringe internally (although I try not to show it if I'm in public; I don't want to be rude).  If someone touches me, my body starts to whimper.  It hurts in a psychological way.  But the feeling of wanting to climb out of my skin is very much a physical thing.  When I am alone again I find myself shaking my arms trying to make the feelings stop.

Today I was hit by this when I was alone, but stronger.  Out of the blue and without a trigger.  I've heard restless-leg syndrome described and it kind of felt like that, but through my whole body.  I felt like I just needed to shake my whole body, like a dog after a wash, hoping whatever was hanging on that was hurting (and kind of electrified) would fling off.  And I could settle.

So I thought I would try one of these new behaviors.  I got my piece of newspaper out (which I absolutely HATE the feeling of) and rubbed it between my finger and thumb.  I opened it up and started to glance through it, while paying attention to the way it felt in my hands.  My anxiety climbed higher and higher until I felt like a balloon that was over-filled and ready to pop any minute.  I couldn't touch it another second.  I threw it away from myself.

Very quickly I went from wanting to crawl out of my skin to feeling like I was going to explode and wanting to crawl out of existence.  I found myself with my head in my hands, rocking back and forth.  Pretty strongly and swiftly.  Trying to dispel this energy which was attacking me.  I was deep crying.  I added Lamaze breathing.  Kept rocking.  And I turned on the stopwatch on my phone.  I had the sense that this moment was a panic/anxiety attack and have heard that they pass much more quickly than we expect in the moment.  More quickly that it feels like.  Estimating the amount of time from when it hit hard before I turned on my stopwatch, and including that time, I think it lasted about five minutes.  Five horrific minutes.  But I got through them.  And it helps to know how long it lasted.

At that point I still felt like crawling out of my skin but no longer felt out of control, held hostage by my body.

So it was yucky.  Lots of yucky.  But I learned a lot.  I learned that moments pass.  Even the horrible ones.  I learned that there are other tools in my mind and body that I can use that my body will sometimes lead me to if I will listen.  And I learned not to use my new shocking tools for a panic/anxiety attack (I'm not sure if there's a difference between those two and don't know which it was).

Rough day.  Still crawling out of my skin.  Still want that three-foot bubble.  But no longer screaming internally.  I'll take it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow. I hope the I-hate-this-slap-your-nonthinking-self thing works. It so wouldn't for me. I need balance when I'm in that state (and by the way, that's exactly what fibromyalgia is for me - a huge and painful desire to crawl out of my skin) and that balance has to be that there are safe and loving people around me. I imagine my Heavenly Mother's embrace and a view from a mountaintop. I will be praying for you tonight and tomorrow. I'm sorry that you're suffering. I'm glad you have a good therapist. I hope the slapping yourself thing works. Yikes.