The Role of Trauma

This week’s safe coping strategy is:

Link PTSD and substance abuse. Recognize substances as an attempt to self-medicate.

I don’t know if I qualify as having full-blown PTSD or not, but I don’t think that’s the point here. All I know is that my drinking picked up speed very quickly following my miscarriage in 2011. Then, it improved a bit. I went a long time without drinking, as I was pregnant with my second son from January to September 2012, and breastfeeding him after that. When I was diagnosed with melanoma in March of 2013, it started back up again, and was about 10 times worse than before.

These were two traumas I experienced, and I went into a sort of anxious shock after each. Though, I didn’t recognize it for what it was, either time. I didn’t recognize that I was in a pit of depression, and I didn’t realize that I was having full-blown anxiety attacks pretty much all the time. And I certainly didn’t recognize that I was using alcohol to numb myself to the anxiety and the pain. But looking back, I can see that’s exactly what was happening. I’m like a textbook case for self-medication.

Some people endure massive trauma: complicated military service, sexual abuse, death of a spouse, severe illness, loss of money or property, losing an important job. And these people often become addicts too, in response to their tragedy. But, “smaller” tragedies can have the same effect on us.

It can be easy to miss the signs as an addict. All you know is when you drink or use, you feel better. And at first, you think it’s no big deal, because you’re not really doing that often. But it soon begins to take over your life, before you’ve even realized it. In AA, they call addiction a “cunning and baffling disease” because it seems to creep in slowly and sneakily, and wreaks havoc before you even know there’s a problem. The people in your life can often see the problem right away, but unless they confront you, you rarely see it for yourself.

Ask yourself now if there is any trauma in your life you might have been numbing yourself to. It can often make you feel a little less shame and guilt to realize your response to your trauma was completely normal. And if you’re getting the help you need, and staying sober, then you’re doing the right thing and you’re on the rig

Grounding Techniqes–Moving Beyond Bad Feelings

I mentioned in an earlier post that using grounding techniques are a good way to manage anxiety and depression, and also any urges or cravings to use that you may encounter. It’s a means to detach yourself from any emotional pain you’re experiencing, and using your external environment to center yourself again.

Grounding is more than just talking yourself out of the craving or distracting yourself. It’s really getting your mind to move away from the feeling and getting out of the bad moment. It’s not the same as just relaxing yourself. It’s a technique to use when relaxation is not enough. When you just can’t seem to pull yourself out of the bad moment.

You first need to practice getting in tune with your emotions and feelings. Really tap into what you’re feeling, and what might have brought it on. It’s impossible to be grounded if you don’t even know you’re having a craving or an overly anxious moment or a depressed day, or suffering PTSD symptoms. Be aware of your surroundings, and get to the core of what you’re feeling, and why you’re feeling it. This takes some practice, but over time you will get to know your mental self much better. Learn to rate your feelings on a scale from 0 to 10. Feelings that are lower on the scale are safer, and can be dealt with using simple relaxation or distraction. But if you find yourself at a 6, 7, or even a full 10, you need to ground yourself.

Grounding is not a way of coping with the bad or negative feelings, but a way of eliminating them completely. So, if you feel like you need to use grounding techniques, don’t use methods that cause you to focus on the negative energy, such as journaling or trying to talk yourself out of it. The best thing about grounding is that you can do it, and no one will know you’re doing it. Most of these techniques you can do silently, in your head, and get through a tough moment in a crowd, in the middle of family dinner, anywhere.

There are a few different methods to grounding, and you can use one or any combination of them that work for you. Try them out, notice what improves your mood and what doesn’t. Some of these may seem silly, or you may think they won’t work, but keep an open mind and give them a try. Anything’s better than feeling miserable, right?

1. Describe your environment in detail. Focus on the details of the room or space around you, the very minute details. What color are the walls, or the furniture. What’s the texture of the item you’re seated on. What is the temperature, what does it feel like. “This chair is green with blue flowers. It is soft to the touch. I feel warm, but not too warm.” The point is to hone in on these details, and think about nothing else. Don’t think about how they make you feel. They just are. You are giving your brain a break from whatever it is that’s bothering you, and occupying it with something else.

2. Play a categories game with yourself. Start listing off all the things you can think of in a particular category. State capitals. TV shows you enjoy. Rock musicians. The players on your favorite sports team. Kinds of dogs. Foods that start with the letter P. This grounding technique forces your brain to concentrate on another subject.

3. Describe the steps of an everyday activity. Such as, how you brush your teeth. How to make pasta. The route you take to work. Take a moment to list each step, in the order you do it. “First, I back out of my driveway. Then, I turn left. Then I drive for two blocks. I stop at the four-way stop.” And so on. Run your mind through the steps slowly, and in as much detail as you can think of.

4. Read something aloud to yourself. Pick up a magazine or a newspaper. Or pull your favorite book off the shelf and open to a random page. Choose a passage and read it out loud to yourself, concentrate on each word. On each syllable. When you finish a sentence, really reflect on what that sentence said and meant.

5. Say a safety statement. Bring yourself back to the moment, and remind yourself that you’re safe. “My name is _____. I’m living in the present, not the past. Today is Wednesday, July 8, 2015. I am going to be okay.” Just reassure yourself that you don’t have to live in the past, you don’t have to worry about the future, you are safe in the moment you are in.

6. Use humor. There’s a lot of truth to the old saying, “laughter is the best medicine.” And laughter is also an automatic emotional defense mechanism for a lot of people, and for good reason. Laughter produces endorphins, which decrease physical pain and lessen stress. Laughter is also described as “contagious”, and can bring people together, increasing your own sense of belonging and feeling loved. Picture or recall something funny you have seen or heard before, or watch your favorite sitcom and just have a good laugh. It will have you calmed down in no time.

7. Repeat a saying. Find yourself a mantra. Even something as simple as, “I am okay,” will work. Or try things like, “I am safe.” “I am going to be ok.” “I am happy with my life.” “I can solve this problem.” Keep it positive, and repeat it to yourself several times. Eventually you will believe it, and you will feel much better.

8. Count to 10 or recite the alphabet. This is a good one, because these are really easy to do. Recite one slowly, and really concentrate on each number or letter.

The idea behind all of these is to move your mind from the panicked or sad or angry or dangerous moment into a safe, happy moment, and to do so semi-permanently. And grounding techniques are very effective because, as I mentioned earlier, you can usually do them without anyone around you knowing there’s anything wrong at all, so there’s no need to feel self-conscious.

Remember to stay in the moment. Don’t let your mind wander to the past or present, and also don’t let it digress back to the problem you’re having. Stay focused on neutral details, not on your feelings or emotions. You are distancing yourself from these feelings. Try a grounding technique the next time you find yourself in a low mood, in a panic attack, having a craving or feeling any kind of emotional turmoil. It will greatly improve your day-to-day life and make negative feelings much easier to cope with.

Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the biggest problems I face. I have dealt with crippling anxiety for most of my life, and it was the biggest factor in my addiction to alcohol. It’s normal for everyone to have a certain level of anxiety. It’s our brain and body’s defense mechanism for the stressors we face every day. But if it is having a negative impact on your life, career or relationships, then it is true anxiety and needs to be treated so you can live a normal life.

Anxiety disorders are often stereotyped or misunderstood by those who don’t suffer from them, and it’s possible as a result of that many people are afflicted with anxiety and don’t even realize it, or what it’s doing to them.

It’s estimated that 3.3 million Americans live with some form of anxiety disorder. This can range from generalized anxiety to severe panic disorders. Anxiety disorders come in many different forms, and it can be difficult sometimes to know that someone is suffering from one.

For example, I have trouble being in large crowds. But, I never had a full-blown panic attack in a crowd. My anxiety would manifest as anger and frustration. After spending time in a large crowd, I get snippy and short with people and I’m easily agitated. But people probably just see me as being rude or angry, not suffering from an anxiety attack.

Panic attacks aren’t all like what you see in the movies either. Not everyone is hyperventilating into a paper bag, turning red and fainting. Sometimes a panic attack only involves a rapid heartbeat, or breaking out into a sweat. But, if this is happening because you’re stressed or obsessing about something, likely something small, then that’s a panic attack.

Sometimes a panic attack makes you have a funny “fuzzy” feeling. Like you can’t focus or concentrate, and you get a little scatterbrained. Most people don’t realize this is a response to anxiety. Or you just feel very tired and fatigued. And you have trouble focusing on anything except the thing that’s causing you to panic. I used to have obsessive thoughts about death. When the thoughts started in, I couldn’t stop them. And I couldn’t think about anything else, sometimes for hours on end. It was very overwhelming, and I was miserable.

For me, getting a hold of my anxiety and treating it with therapy and medication was key to my sobriety. When I first left my rehab home, I thought I had all the tools I needed to stay sober. But, I hadn’t addressed a big issue: my anxiety. When I got home, all those old stressors were still there, and my response to them had not changed. My anxiety quickly reclaimed its place in my life, and I was back where I started: drinking to dull the feelings.

The second time I left, I was armed with new knowledge about handling anxiety. I use different grounding techniques to prevent anxiety attacks, like counting backward from 100 or focusing on something else to take my mind off of the anxiety-triggering event. Or, I use breathing techniques or meditation. I also now take anti-anxiety medication when I feel really overwhelmed. And most importantly, I’m teaching myself how to alleviate some of the stress in my life and cut out things that used to cause me anxiety.

I used to have a lot of codependency issues, and took everyone else’s problems upon myself. If someone I knew was suffering, I felt like I needed to suffer right along with them. And obviously this caused me great stress and anxiety. With the help of my counselor and psychiatrist, I am learning to recognize which problems are really mine, which ones I can actually change, and which ones don’t belong to me at all and I just need to let go of.

If you suspect you may have an anxiety issue, or if you know that you do, I urge you to seek therapy or counseling. Sometimes just talking it out with a professional can help alleviate some of the panic. And it may benefit you to also see a psychiatrist or your medical doctor to get a prescription for an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. I used to scoff at the idea of taking a pill for my mood, but when I finally decided to give it a try, it was life-changing. And I mean that literally. Situations crop up now that previously would have wrecked me and impacted my life negatively, but I am responding to them with a much cooler and clearer head than I ever thought possible.

Anxiety is a normal thing, but if it is a problem for you, seeking help is important. You should be able to live your life without the terrible panic and fear that you live with now.

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad

For the past two or three days, my anxiety has been rampant. And for no apparent reason. Things are moving swimmingly. Yes, my youngest has been sick for a few days, but nothing serious. Yes, I had to leave work early on Monday to retrieve said sick child from preschool, but it was a non-issue for my boss. Yes, the weather has been cruddy and I like my sunshine, but that’s not usually something that sets off the anxiety.

I think it’s just rearing its ugly head to remind me that it’s there, or something like that. Hey, don’t forget me! Your old pal, anxiety! Just popping in to say hi! It’s been there all my life, so it’s been hard to just kick it out the door and not look back.

I have a prescription for Clonazepam which it says on the bottle to take “as needed for anxiety.” At first, I took it a lot. Nearly every day. And lately have been trying to go without. Sometimes, I feel myself getting uppity, and I go for the bottle, but my husband encourages me to take a time out, breathe, let the feeling pass, and in 5 or 10 minutes if I’m still on edge, then take it.

And that’s been working pretty well. The idea is for me to have the medication for only a few months anyway, so I do need to start recognizing the anxiety for what it is, the actual level that it’s at when I start to feel it. And to train myself to get over the hump and move along with my day.

But, the other night, I didn’t take it at bedtime, though I wanted to. I hardly slept at all that night. I’d roll over and glance at the clock just about every half hour, all night long. And there was nothing specific on my mind, just a bunch of thoughts racing through my mind. I’ve got a long to-do list to accomplish before the kids’ summer vacation starts, but there’s still time for it all to get done. I just felt…on edge. Jumpy. Unsettled.

At bedtime last night, I was feeling slightly anxious, but ok. So, again, I didn’t take it. But, when I caught myself wide-eyed, and for some reason drafting my father’s eulogy in my head (he’s 54 and not even ill), I knew it was time. Somehow I’d let my anxiety take over my brain again, and all my swirling, crazy thoughts had led me to that place again. I haven’t been like that in a while, the anti-depressant I’m on has helped me immensely. But, I guess there’s still going to be those times when I fill up with steam and have to let it out somehow, before I explode again. So, I got up around 1:30 a.m. and took the medication. And I feel calmer this morning than I have in days.

I had so many awful days before, when I was drinking. And now that I’ve started having good days, and lots of good days in a row, I guess it’s easy to forget that there will still be bad moods, tough days and a little anxiety sprinkled on top, because that will always be a part of who I am. But, I’m learning that I have tools to get through: meditation, talking it out to someone, focusing on a hobby or my writing, going for a walk, having a cup of tea, basically just relaxing and getting my mind out of the irrational-worry gutter.

Anxiety was a big part of what fueled my addiction. If it is for you too, I suggest that you try to focus on worry and anxiety as a part of your recovery. Not focusing on it enough played a big part in my relapse, so I’m trying to really focus on it now. Trying to be aware of it all the time. When it’s not there, I’m so happy and peaceful; a new and completely amazing feeling for me.

Take each day, each moment, as it comes, and try to remember that you’ll be ok. You’ll get through. Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue. That just makes you human.

The Future Belongs to You

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” –Carl Jung

I read this quote last night from a book I’m reading, and I just loved it. It’s very similar to a safe coping strategy post that I have already done, and it is an idea that gets repeated continually in any rehab program or set of recovery meetings you attend. I heard a version of it at nearly every counseling session, every rehab group meeting, every AA and SMART meeting. It’s the cornerstone of getting and staying sober.

This particular version of the idea sticks with me for two main reasons. The first being that I can change the idea that I am a product of what has happened to me. In my therapy sessions we talk a lot about what my childhood was like. What it was like to grow up in a strictly religious home. What it was like to be one of the poorer kids. What it was like not growing up near any extended family. What it was like to see alcohol drank in my home. How my parents’ divorce affected me. How my awkward teen years affected me. And then they get into all the stuff that happened in college. And all the recent trauma I’ve been through.

I used to blame so much of that stuff on how I “turned out”. And to a certain degree those things DO mold us and shape us and send us down certain paths that lead us to where we are today. But to a much lesser degree than I thought. And people who went through much more difficult situations than I did find a way to move past it, to thrive even. Letting go of blaming others for your troubles is a big lesson, and one that needs to be learned to know you can heal from your addiction and you can go on to live a positive life.

And those things you think have caused your problem are not you. They are a part of you that you carry with you wherever you go, but they aren’t you. They aren’t a sum of what you are. They are only a piece of what you’ve become.

The second reason I like this quote so much is the idea that the future is so wide open. I fear the future more than anything. It’s a good portion of the reason I am on an anti-anxiety medication. There is so much unknown in the future, and I just do not do well with unknowns, in any situation. It’s like that feeling when you see someone squeezing a balloon. You’re afraid it could pop. It might, it might not. And if it does, you won’t know when to expect that loud startling noise. It could happen any second. That is a really good metaphor for how I see the future. There’s always a balloon being squeezed somewhere, and it could pop in my face at any time.

I’ve learned through a lot of therapy how to better manage my anxiety. I’d love to tell you those days are behind me, but they’re not. Although those moments of panic that I have about it are happening far less these days.

And I try now to see the future as Carl Jung describes it. It’s what I choose to become. And I can choose to become anything. I can try new things, and maybe I’ll enjoy them. Maybe I won’t, but that’s ok, I just try something else. The future is mine, it belongs to me. It doesn’t belong to my past and it doesn’t belong to my addiction and it mostly doesn’t even belong to any other person. It’s mine to do with as I please.

In the darkest days of addiction, it’s very easy to think that your future belongs to addiction. I can never get away from this. I can never get out. It has complete control of me. This is what I will be forever.

Once you break free from that thinking, give up your alcohol or drugs and let your mind clear up a bit, you can see that your addiction is not in charge, and it never was. It has extreme control over your subconscious thinking, there’s no denying that. But it is not in control of you, only you are in control of you.

Whoever you become in the future is the result of the choices you made, and the paths you took. There will be bumps in the road, but do not let them define you. They happen externally to you. Respond to them, deal with them, move on and make it to that amazing person you will be in the future.