The people that I admire most have the ability to be authentic and true to form. This is not an easy task. It has taken me a long time to feel safe and secure in this world enough to basically strip down naked in front of complete strangers. Nowadays I use that figuratively however in my drinking days it would have been literally. In other words, be vulnerable.
Vulnerability. It’s a great buzz word and is used everywhere today. From Brene’ Brown (love her) to my dedicated and very patient therapist (love her too!) I constantly hear about the necessity of being vulnerable. But what does it really mean? Merriam- Webster’s definition of vulnerable is “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded”. That sounds like fun. My definition of being vulnerable is more in the realm of “terrifying” and “I think I am going to throw up and pass out”. Either way, I am going to let it all hang out in this writing.
I am the sum of all my experiences, but they don’t define me as a person. I hope that you will be able to find something in this writing that speaks to you. Something that moves your through whatever it is that you are going through in life. Life is truly worth living. Let’s chat about the “Realignment of 2019”
Wow, who would have thought I would be sitting here getting ready to write about my “2019 Realignment”. I wanted to refer to it as a nervous breakdown, but my friends thought that it sounded too dated. I find it interesting that we spend our entire life just trying to get “there” Where the hell is “there” and if you find it please let me know where it is. My search for the “there” came to a head in April 2019. What do I mean? Well, let me look at the equation. Unresolved childhood trauma + sobriety x 11 years + buried grief = meltdown. I thought I had my shit together, after all I had lived through my dysfunctional childhood, abusive first marriage, sobriety, death of my son, my parents, and finally my mother in law. I have helped so many people over the years and I am the “strong one”. I am the one that constantly hears, “You are so strong, I don’t know how you do it all.” or “You have been through so much and you still give to others.” Apparently, I am not superwoman and it took a long time for me to realize that. Unbeknownst to me, I was chasing this elusive “there”. You know that place. When I get “there”, everything will be okay. If I help one more person, make more money, find the perfect weight, and volunteer just one more time it will be perfect. I will be perfect and then I will be good enough. Wrong.
The fall and winter months have always been the hardest. For years I would start dreading them starting in August with horrible anticipatory grief. My sobriety date is November 18th, my older son Brandon’s birthday is December 7th, Kevin’s and his mom’s birthdays are on the same day of December 10th, Justin’s birthday is December 14th, Christmas, my birthday on January 1st and then finishing with Justin’s death date on January 12th. I kept busy as I always do. The more I keep busy the less I feel. I am getting tired on this hamster wheel but I just don’t know how to get off the damn thing. The universe made that decision for me.
Here is a spoiler alert. When your mental health is spiraling down fast you are most likely the last person to know it. In the fall of 2018, I was experiencing my typical bumps in the road. Pockets of overwhelming shame, guilt and panic were continuing to surface along with some pretty intrusive memories. I have a great therapist and have enough experience with EMDR that I started to work through these flashbacks. I remember that I would get flashes of the pictures of my dad and mom in their hospice beds and then Justin in his casket. I couldn’t shake them and they were physically and emotionally tearing me down bit by bit. The individual sessions were only keeping me afloat. I didn’t realize that was all they were doing. I was basically a pressure cooker and the EMDR sessions were allowing some steam to escape just enough to keep from blowing. I never slept well since I got sober and it wasn’t uncommon for me to be irritable and forgetful. My body hurt all the time and I was eating Motrin like candy. I kept buying all these supplements thinking that I must have some sort of deficiency. When you live with undiagnosed PTSD it becomes a part of your life and you tend to just say to yourself, “Well, that’s just the way things are”.
When I thought of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I envisioned Police, Fire, EMT’s and Veterans. I learned very quickly that we all have certain degrees of trauma. Mine just happened to catch up with me when my mother in law died. I thought I was doing a great job of handling all the years of pain. After all, didn’t I spend my life assuring others that the death of their loved one by suicide wasn’t their fault? Wasn’t I a beacon of light for others? Deep down I blamed myself for Justin’s death. If only I had taken action when he said he was depressed. Even after all I learned in these past 11 years about suicide and mental health I just couldn’t let myself off the hook. The fact that I even reached Utah was an absolute miracle. As I waited for a bed, I sat in my backyard with a friend trying to smoke cigarettes. This was quite interesting since I quit 9 years ago. I spent 7 dollars on that pack and couldn’t even smoke one. You see, I was willing to do anything not to drink even if it meant smoking. Cookies seemed to help and a combination of Benadryl and Dramamine got me in the car and on the plane.
I remember sitting on the plane thinking how the hell did this happen? Who goes to treatment sober? I was in a state of disbelief but knew I had to get someplace safe. You know when you are in trouble when your husband tells you he is concerned about your mental health. I felt like my body and my brain were not connected and in some way they weren’t. The gift of disassociation.
When I got to treatment, everyone kept talking about this Trauma Timeline stuff. Then I find out what that exactly means. Basically, you write down every traumatic event in your life in 5 year increments. You want me to do what? It’s funny because I associated “trauma” with horrific events such as those you would experience in a war zone. When I arrived, I was having so many panic attacks and flashbacks that writing everything down came easily. I wasn’t attached to each of the events on the page. It was almost like this was someone else’s life. The emotions and feelings that were attached to these memories were overwhelming. During this process, I felt like my skin was on fire, my heart was going to explode and my lungs were going collapse. I wanted to find the deepest darkest closet and curl up in it. I felt completely raw and exposed before I even stood in front of my housemates. They don’t tell you far in advance that you are going to do this exercise. They like to throw it on you within a few days of arrival. The reason for the urgency is that the soul surgery cannot begin until the wound is exposed. Have you ever heard of what happens when someone has an infected wound? Well, visualize a group of therapists standing around you while you take a wire brush and clean out that soul hole. That’s what a trauma timeline does. I briefly remember standing in front of the class. As I looked at the laminated rectangles on the floor representing the years of my life I couldn’t believe what was about to happen. I was sick to my stomach and almost ready to throw up. That quiet voice whispered, “Okay Dawn, how free do you want to be?” Zero to Five, Five to Ten, Ten to Fifteen and so on. It would have been nice to do this a hell of alot sooner in life. Keep moving, keep moving. At the end of the timeline I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. A pounding heart and head, dry heaving, shaking and dizzy. My years of pain released in a span of one hour. Unfiltered and raw. The applause of my peers ended with hugs all around. I sat back in my seat knowing that I had completely disconnected from reality. I prayed that this was going to be the pathway to healing although I also thought that I would be crawling through glass on my hands and knees through this process. This was just the beginning. Now let’s visit the “Shame Chair”.
Everyone has one of these in their house. This chair is the ugliest chair around and sometimes we even inherit this lovely piece of furniture. God forbid we should get rid of this hideous chair, it was Grandma’s after all and has been handed down from generation to generation. You can try to coordinate it with the couch and the curtains or maybe just move it over a few inches so it looks like it belongs. How about we just put it in the middle of the room and walk around it every day and pretend it’s not there even though we will occasionally stub our toe on it. Eventually we will just place a slipcover on it. You know the ones that don’t quite fit like the picture shows and have strange seams in weird places. Yeah, that will fix it just cover the damn thing up. You are probably thinking, “What the hell is she talking about?”.
Well, every morning we would rush down to the table to see what the schedule was for the day. I honestly think that the main reason was to see how much pain we were going to in based upon the clinical programming. When I first got there I was thrown right into clinicals day one and within the week witnessed my first shame chair re-enactment. Basically, the person sits in a chair facing an empty chair. “You” are shame and the empty chair is “True Self”.
What I learned during my 45 day “spa vacation” was that shame is a manufactured emotion. I didn’t think much about shame in my life and how it could be impacting all of my relationships. For me, shame felt like this deep dark self loathing and I didn’t even know where it was coming from. Of course, my life had been “somewhat difficult” (minimizing a bit) but I know it’s not all my fault. Or did I. I carried the shame of my alcoholic family for generations without knowing it and then eventually manufactured my own shame through experiences I had in childhood.
The book I am currently writing will give details of my life’s journey but for now a snippet will do. One of the major barriers to writing my book was trying to figure out where to end. I always thought that I wasn’t old enough, didn’t have anything to say that was profound-once again- I will write the book when I get “there”. Oh yes, the elusive “there” again. My epiphany came when I was wandering around in my own world trying to figure out my next move in this lifetime. Okay God, now what? Now that I have realized that I am enough as I am, what does that look like? All I wanted my entire life was to be okay from the inside out. I feel that as humans we all start out that way. No one comes out of the womb and feels “not enough”. The lesson I learned through this process was that what I needed all along was “here” and not “there”. The present is where I found that I could embrace the little girl who found joy in ladybugs and drawing all the while who was terrified of being alone. I will consistently encourage the young girl who is fearless in her dreams and aspirations even though she is unconventional in her thinking and at times ostracized . I will continue to reach out and show compassion for the young mom who teaches her sons to swing, tie their shoes, hugs and kisses them tirelessly all the while terrified and trying to protect them from the chaos swirling around them. Forgiveness, love, and understanding for the middle aged woman and mother who feels the need to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders to feel loved and blames herself for all things gone wrong and at times refuses to allow herself grace.
I am the sum total of all my experiences and extremely grateful for each and every one of them. Although they have been my greatest teachers I no longer need them to define who I am and what I do. They have shaped me, not defined me. One of the many gifts of being human is the ability to change. Today I get to make changes in my life to live congruent with my Core Values of Humility, Uniqueness, Vulnerability and Love. Never underestimate the power of choice because you always have one. The good news is that you can also choose differently. Today I choose to be happy and full of love-One day at a time.
For more information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CLICK HERE