In the Beginning

In order to understand the nature and flowing references throughout my blog, I recommend reading my initial post The End of the Beginning first.


The Pursuit of In-Bodyness

For many years I have been drawn to a variety of modalities that would allow and even elicit the sense of being fully inside my body. My first great love was yoga.

I remember my very first yoga class and how it produced a feeling of being simultaneously energized and relaxed, an unlikely combination. This class was at a YMCA which, in typical Western style, was geared more toward physical fitness than true mind-body-spirit connection and philosophy. Still, it unlocked something in me that was deeply craved; it met a need so strong and yet so veiled that I was taken aback at the sheer power of its effect on me. As I ventured to and then began a regular practice in an actual yoga studio, my fascination with this pathway to in-bodyness blossomed. Though I did not recognize it at the time, yoga enabled me to feel fully embodied for the first time since the onset of my dissociative tendencies.

An added benefit of yoga for ASCAs is shavasana, the end of yoga practice where the instructor uses guided meditation to induce a sort of wakeful sleep known as yoga nidra. These 5-7 minute exercises would produce a feeling of safety the likes of which I had not experienced since before being abused. In fact, it was the only time I felt safe and protected while in the very vulnerable position of lying down with eyes closed. It was nothing short of blissful.

I went on to become a certified yoga instructor and keep this treasured activity as part of my wellness practice, although somewhat estranged from it during the deepest valleys of my healing journey. I did not fully understand my pursuit of this amazing technique of in-bodyness until after my Breakthrough Crisis. I am fully aware now.

There is an insightful program from On Being on the usefulness of EMDR and yoga by the renowned PTSD expert Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. Kolk asserts that these alternate healing modalities may be the only way to access and relieve repressed pain and trauma. I highly, highly recommend listening to his interview with Krista Tippett entitled Restoring the Body.


My second love is running. There is something precious and priceless about having the body in full motion, full engagement, focusing only on this step and this breath. It is impossible to be anywhere else - including outside your body - when running. It requires absolute concentration and proprioception, the ability to move through time and space with mind-body functioning as one.

Running is magical for me. Aside from the numerous physical and psychological benefits, it allows me to move alongside my demons - healing from them while not consciously focusing on them. Puzzle pieces come together, connections are made, all the while I am virtually unaware of this occurrence. I affectionately refer to this phenomenon as 'background processing.'

There have been times when I have overused running and in fact abused my body in the process. (I will elaborate on this more in a later post called A Bouquet of Me where I will introduce you to my anorexic self.) One year I ran 3 consecutive marathons which resulted in a host of injuries that took more than a year from which to heal. During that year of recovery I had to sit still with my problems which, at that time, was infinitely harder than running with (or away from) them. I have had to learn in many (all?) aspects of my life that moderation is the key to balance.

Currently I am in a phase of establishing balance by not running. In an effort to listen to my body more (which requires also being inside of it more often!) I am honoring a deep-seated desire for stillness. Thus all of this blogging. As the sun grows dimmer and the seasons grow colder, I suspect running and I will find our way back to each other. I will post more about the partnership of running and trauma recovery as it has played an absolutely integral part in my healing journey.


The Black Oil

When I returned from Israel I had a host of revelations to share with my therapist, Dee. We had been working primarily on uncovering the cause of my Breakthrough Crisis. For many months we focused on the failed and dysfunctional relationship with my schizophrenic mother, largely centralized on issues of abandonment. We used EMDR to process specific memories I had about being abandoned, hovering on a trigger event I named The Driveway (see Growing Up With Schizophrenic Mother for details on this occurrence.)

We had made little progress focusing on The Driveway because, as it turns out, this was not the root cause of my dissociation. The most I could get to was that I, in fact, fully dissociated in that moment of abandonment and remained in that state for some number of months. It wasn't until Israel's Key that we could begin intelligent dialogue on the nature of my dissociation. After outlining the specific steps of my dissociation as witnessed by The Watcher, we now had the means to begin unlocking the vault of secrets that lurked far beneath the surface of my conscious cognition.

Dee asked me ideate on the most disturbing part of my dissociative pattern. Our new focus was the point of ascendence - the moment I leave my body. We began to intermingle this focal point with my then fixation on the feeling of being "trapped" - having no choice but to assume responsibility for my mother's well-being, safety and care from a very early age. Dee insisted that I did indeed have a choice in the matter and that I wasn't trapped but had made a decision (conscious or un-) to assume care for my mother. We argued about this point for a few sessions and it elicited a disproportionate amount of anger within me. I never had a choice, or so I thought. It was this revelation of choice, coupled with EMDR and a newly found language for my dissociation, that became a major turning point in my healing journey.

During a particularly intense EMDR set, a new awareness arose within me the likes of which I had never experienced. Anyone who has been through structured therapy or even engaged in thoughtful dialect with a close friend can relate to the fact that when people say things they think might be true for you one of two things happens. Either you contemplate the advice and decide that it is not relevant for your story, or you get that unmistakeable stabbing feeling in the pit of your being with full understanding of the deep and painful truth that was just presented to you. The latter is what happened to me on this occasion.

Dee is a gifted therapist with an uncanny ability of giving me back the same information I give her but with a genius spin, a way of seeing things that immediately and spontaneously unlocks the source of my neurosis. With her gentle yet poignant prompting, I was overcome with the horrific (and later liberating... much later) truth that I was not trapped in caring for my mother. I was not the trappee. Quite the contrary, I was the trapper. In my mind-body's wisdom and desperate need to pull this woman close to me, I had successfully trapped my mother. I constructed a circumstance by assuming fiduciary and legal responsibility for her that prevented her from being able to abandon me. Ever. Again. I was the Trapper Keeper (Trap-her Keep-her). The knowledge and deep truth of this nearly overwhelmed my psyche.

The result of this deep knowing was that Dee witnessed my dissociation right then and there in her office. The idea that I forced my mother into a relationship of need with me was sickening, repulsive, disgusting. How could I do such a thing? Furthermore, how could I have done it without realizing this was my motive? My journal entry from this experience reads:

This truth is like swallowing Black Oil and now it lives inside of me. At first I wanted to vomit, this idea is so repulsive and shameful - get it out of me! I felt myself leaving my body, first the muffled hearing, the heavy arms - so heavy like lead - and then the top of my head coming off. I'm slipping into unconsciousness. Escape. Going, going, gone.

Dee watched as I gagged, shook, cried, and then stopped breathing. I distinctly remember hovering "above" myself wondering, worrying if I might die from suffocation. This went on for what felt like an eternity; without prompting from Dee to breathe I very well may have suffocated. Thank God Dee was paying close attention; her careful observation and calm, soothing voice would become a great source of comfort for me. Finally, someone was watching out for me. But each time I tried to re-enter my body by breathing and feeling, the Black Oil pushed me back out.

The Black Oil is so heavy on my chest, thick in my lungs, that there is no room for air. That's it! There is no room for anything inside here because all the available space is taken up by this icky stuff. I'm not sure where it came from but I am full of it. I can feel tears streaming down my cheek, falling like constant raindrops from the clouds of my eyes. I feel my lip quivering. I can feel! This means I am back in my body. I try to look at the Black Oil, to connect with whatever this emotion is inside my chest, hiding from me and taking up all the space, weighing down my chest with heavy bricks. But I can't look at it. As soon as I get a glimpse, I am once again outside of my body and aware that I am not breathing.

This cycle repeated for some amount of time and several EMDR sets: tears, lip quiver, inside, try to look at the Black Oil, stop breathing, out again, the forced exit. I was exhausted by these sets; it felt like an epic battle for my conscious presence. Without the pulsing in my hands from the tappers and soothing comfort from Dee I would be completely lost. Numb. Dead.

Dee wanted to use our last set to help me find comfort and peace. I tried to enter my Safe Place. I had been there a thousand times in mindful meditation practice, but in this instant I could not find it.

I am searching down a country road and there is nothing. Now I see it far in the distance, my beloved forest of mossy trees. I move toward it, but as I look around I see that I am bringing the Black Oil with me. No!!! I don't want to taint this holy place with the Black Oil! It is bubbling all around me - behind, below, above, on both sides - and it is starting to move faster than I can. It's going to beat me to the Safe Place and then it will overtake and forever ruin it. I'll never be able to come here again if the Black Oil gets to it! This place is precious to me; I must save it. And so I open my eyes to regroup. Follow the light bar, pick something else - ANYTHING else - to distract the Black Oil. The opposite of black is white. Something white. I look down at my dress; it has birds. I love birds. White birds. Think of a happy place with white birds. Sanibel Island! 

I'm safe.
I can breathe again.


I have come to understand that the Black Oil is shame. Deep, deep shame. I have also come to understand that the veil of Black was, in fact, protecting me from things I was not yet ready to see or know. It is important for any survivor to understand that the mechanisms your mind-body, though incredibly frustrating and painful at times, are superbly functional. Trust the process, trust your mind-body, trust your own healing powers. True, deep wisdom and the ability to heal resides within us all.

Dee and I would eventually uncover the root of my Black Oil/Shame Demon but not for many weeks. In the meantime I did a lot of research on the nature of shame. The foremost expert in this arena by far is Brene Brown. Without her TED talks on Vulnerability and Shame and her wonderfully insightful and therapeutic book I Thought It Was Just Me, I honestly don't know where I would be. Another lock, another key. I happened upon these resources by chance. Except I don't believe in chance. I believe in the universe bringing exactly what you need at precisely the time you need it.

The student was ready.


Intro to EMDR

I had many failed attempts at therapy beginning in late college. It took quite some time to get my mind-body to cooperate with me in order to get there. My state university had a student health program including low/no cost visits with a campus mental health professional. I tried many times, even going as far to schedule appointments. Each time the appointment day came, I would mysteriously get a migraine that prevented my attendance. Ah, the student was not ready.

It wasn't until I began working full-time that I actually went to my first therapy session. Kris was a jolly, santa-looking man with full white beard and bowl-full-of-jelly mid section. My time with him was brief and relatively meaningless other than to get me comfortable with the therapy experience. I remember no significant breakthroughs during my time with him.

A few years later I worked up the courage and awareness to seek professional help again, this time through my company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Having grown partial to all things holistic, I searched for and found a therapist whose philoshopies aligned with mine; her name was Elle. I loved seeing Elle and did so for more than a year. She played fluty new age music in the waiting room which felt a lot like yoga nidra. I was safe in her office.

Elle introduced me to a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). She helped me understand that what I had witnessed and continued to experience in my adult life was a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The nightmares, anxieties, and flashbacks from my mother's first suicide attempt were the focus of our work together.

Simply put, PTSD causes trauma survivors to hold onto memories in the wrong place. There are specific areas in the brain designed for housing and categorizing memories of people, places, and events. But when trauma occurs including life-or-death situations and abuse, memories get trapped in alternate parts of the brain and in the nervous system. This is why a survivor will still feel and elicit panic and debilitating fear even when no actual stressor is present; when triggered, the nervous system remembers and recreates the trauma situation, sometimes over and over again. The goal of EMDR is to alleviate and eliminate these trauma-like experiences so that the survivor can live a panic free life.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Memories that are "stuck" can be processed and integrated so that the accompanying exacerbated emotional turbulence can also be alleviated. In some ways, EMDR is like wakeful dreaming. Dreams occur in the lightest stage of sleep known as REM - rapid eye movement. Likewise, EMDR uses repeated lateral eye movement to recall, enhance, associate, and develop new insights for painful memories. Thus the word REprocess. These things were not completed processed or correctly stored in the brain the first time around; EMDR helps to put memories in their proper order and place - namely, out of the nervouse system and into the functional parts of the adult brain.

EMDR work centers around a target scene. The work is done in "sets," usually 1-2 minutes in length, whereafter the client and therapist briefly discuss the memories and insights that arose during the set. A set involves using synchronized hand tappers, lightbars and/or headphones emitting beeping sounds alternating from left to right.

With this technique, Elle helped me process the vivid mages I had from the apartment and the hospital. There was one specifically horrific image from the hospital that my mind-body had molded its fear around: that of my mother lying on the gurney being wheeled away from me, hands outstretched, pale as a ghost, with a black mouth from the charcoal solution they made her drink to absorb toxins. She looked like a classic horror movie monster. That image had haunted me for over 15 years.

Interestingly, all kinds of other memories surfaced during my EMDR sets. Things happening in my life around the time of the incident. Feelings, people, events; longings, fears, disappointments; pleasantries, hope, healing. It really is an amazing process to help offset unpleasant memories but also to recapture the lost self which becomes fractured and hidden in the face of trauma. This technique was particularly easy for me to both relate and connect to, and it was the first great success and source of healing I experienced in therapy.

Another interesting thing about EMDR is that it elicits all kinds of "body stuff" - physical formations and remembrances of fear and panic trapped inside the body. In my sessions with Elle I always, always felt pain in my arms. In fact that is the barometer we would use to begin and end our sessions - by the weight and usefulness of my arms. During particularly difficult memories my arms would become heavy like lead to the point where sometimes I could not move them. That was my first experience in recognizing that I had bodily manifestations of fear. Elle and I never talked about the origin of this body communication. It would be years and therapists later before I began to comprehend. What I have learned since then is that everything has meaning. Everything. There is an explanation and origin for everything the mind-body uses to communicate its pain and past.

(Note: as I typed this last paragraph I am experiencing the arm heaviness, as I have in constructing most of these blog entries. Even after years of hard work and healing I still have this fear manifestation.)

Prior to my time with Elle, I could not and had not really ever talked about my mother or the traumatic events I experienced in relation to her. I am happy to report that today I can have an intelligent conversation about the matter. It is not robotic; I can feel and express the sadness and grief I have from going through this. I am simply able to express and process it as an adult, not frozen in a childlike state of terror. I do feel healed from the trauma portion of this part of my story.

The residual psychological and behavioral results are a different matter. It's much like peeling back layers; I had to get through the outer layer of trauma before I could even begin to delve into the deeper wounds. The horrific images and frozen memories prevented me from getting to or even seeing anything else. In some ways, and as absurd as it may sound, PTSD protects the survivor from accessing things for which the student is not ready. It takes time and a variety of healing modalities to get to and process all layers of the trauma onion. Fortunate for me, I was and still am determined to heal from my experiences no matter what or how long it takes.

On Joy and Sorrow

Some poetry speaks to my soul, but none greater than Kahlil Gibran's On Joy and Sorrow. I have referenced this poem innumerable times in my life - whilst grieving death, divorce, and unbearable pain but also in celebrating birth, rebirth, transformation, and utter exuberance. I think this poem exemplifies the human condition in its beautifully broken dichotomy.

I love this idea that the height of our most joyous moment is directly proportionate to the depth of our greatest sorrow. They are two sides of the same coin, inexplicably and inextricably tied to one another. In the words of Brene Brown, "our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted."

The reason we feel good is because we feel bad. This means that all the pain I feel and all the pain you are feeling - it's worth it.

On Joy and Sorrow
 Kahlil Gibran
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 

Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Growing up with Schizophrenic Mother

I pilfered this post title from this book I read last year. It was helpful and painfully overwhelming at the same time. I'm not sure why I waited so long to read something like this, as I had been on the path of healing from this part of my childhood experience for 15 years. When the student is ready the teacher appears, and you can't make yourself arbitrarily ready for something until you are. At the close of last year, I was finally ready.

I have always thought that my childhood was mostly normal up until age 11 when my mother's illness skyrocketed and the proverbial shit hit the fan. (I have since surfaced abuse memories - not related to my mother - beginning at age 5. What a mind fuck to realize that my previously thought normalcy was anything but.) In my child brain, it seemed to me that one day she was fine and then poof! she was sick. In reality, that is not at all how schizophrenia happens.

I now realize that there were traces of my mother's sickness in earlier years but these are nearly unrecognizable to a small child: acute obsessive behaviors, periods of being "checked out" or extremely withdrawn. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time alone growing up though this is somewhat comforting for an introvert. We lived on a farm and I reveled in the hours I logged in the barn, with our animals, or walking out in nature. Among the trees, flowers, and birds - that is where I feel most at home.

It wasn't until age 11 that there were clear and present signs of danger with my mother. She went from a high functioning corporate working woman to a mental and emotional wreck in a matter of months. Though schizophrenia is typically diagnosed in early 20's, there are cases considered late-onset where the prevalence of symptoms do not show up until around age 40. My mother was 37.

She left us, my dad and I. My older brother had just graduated from high school and moved away. This fact is an anchor in my memory timeline; the details of this period in my childhood are so hazy that I have to rely on things that I know when and where they happened, such as my brother's departure. Shortly thereafter she moved into an apartment not far away from our house. I had a bedroom there and could walk back and forth, still able to ride a bus to and from the same school. I was in 7th grade.

I distinctly remember my mother asking me to include her in the things I did with my friends, which as an early adolescent is about as pleasant as a root canal. Over the next few months these requests grew from "be my friend/partner" to "take care of me" and then landed squarely on "save me." This did incalculable damage to Little Me who needed my mother to do these very things as a part of my normal growth and development. In reading the aforementioned book on this subject, I discovered that this is typical and equally damaging for others who shared my circumstance.

This pattern of role reversal cemented itself and continues to this very day. From that point forward I did not have a normal or healthy childhood. A significant part of my healing journey has been to unravel this daughter-has-become-mother pattern and set healthy boundaries with her which has only been complicated by the experience of sexual abuse. It has not been easy to say the least, since ASCAs have virtually no sense of boundary. Having your personal and physical boundaries repeatedly violated makes it virtually impossible to understand where you begin and someone else ends.

Here is where the fog rolls in. At some point (weeks? months?) after living in her apartment my mother attempted suicide via overdose. I was there. I have some dreamlike memories of her pushing me out the door with jacket in hand (perhaps this means it was fall?) saying things like "never forget that I loved you." I did and did not understand what was happening. I walked to my father's house in a semi-lucid state and told him what was going on. We went to find her and took her to the hospital where they proceeded to pump her stomach and make her drink a charcoal solution to absorb remaining toxins. (We will revisit my horrific images of the apartment and the hospital in a subsequent post called Intro to EMDR.)

I have replayed this scene in my head a thousand times. I have carried immense guilt throughout my life because I did not stop her, did not protect her, could not save her from herself. There were more suicide attempts after this one, at least 2 of which I am aware but was either not directly involved or have repressed the memories. I have battled feeling equally responsible and guilty for all of these suicide attempts for more than two decades.

My mother lost her job and the apartment. She moved around taking up temporary residence with varying friends and family members. I have very little recollection of these times and places. I know I visited and even stayed with her but am unsure how I got there, if I lived there, how long I visited, or what we did, let alone anything else going on in my life at the time. School? I know I went. Friends? I'm sure I had them. Flash photograph memories, that's all I have.

After some period of time my mother went to live with her parents. I think this was after the scene of abandonment which went something like this: I was at school - I think I was 14 at the time - and leaving on the bus for an away-game as the baseball team's statistician. Mother pulled me out of the queue and forced me into her car; she had experienced some sort of 'premonition' and decided that travel on that bus was unsafe. This was not atypical as her behavior had become quite erratic. We got in the car and she drove me to dad's driveway. I thought I was just supposed to get out and go inside, now protected from whatever boogity she thought was going to get me on the bus. Instead, she proceeded to tell me that she had never loved me, that she had grown tired of being my mother, and that she wished to have no further contact with me. Ever.

I got out of the car and stood in the driveway for a long time in what I now realize was a fully dissociated state. I believe I remained that way for a great many months.

I went to live with my father permanently at this time. He had remarried and now I had a little brother. Indeed my mother made good on her promise to cut me out of her life until she showed up with no warning in my father's new place of residence nearly 2 years later (we had moved in the spring of 1990, another anchor in my memory timeline). I was 16. There is no word in the English language that can adequately describe the internal tsunami I experienced at that moment. Desperate to see and be loved by her, and equally desperate to stave her off. I have no memory of the actual interface; I only remember the emotional tumult at the time I was informed she had arrived.

More haze. I believe we established some amount of relationship and I visited her at the grandparents' house a number of occasions through high school and while I attended college. My memory begins to take more form during my senior year and I have what I would consider normal recollection during my college years. (I majored in Psychology, no great surprise there.) During this time, my mother existed in a near catatonic state. She exhibited both positive schizophrenic symptoms (episodes of marked psychoses such as hallucinations and delusions) and negative symptoms such as flat affect and asocial behavior.

A few stories that will give you a flavor for what is was like to be around her:

    • After watching television or movies with her, she would proceed to explain how each character was representative of someone or something in her life; in her mind it was as if her life was being played out on screen. This is known as delusions of reference.
    • She would save dollar bills, usually singles, by the droves. She spent hours upon hours dissecting what she thought were hidden codes in the serial numbers, messages being sent to her directly from God. These were delusions of grandeur in that she believed she had a direct line of communication with The Almighty.
    • She would sometimes watch the television when it was turned off, laughing or crying. She also reported, though not often and not publicly, that she heard voices. Both are forms of hallucination.
    • She often talked about how my grandparents were holding her prisoner and that they were in cahoots with her primary care physician to keep her sick. These were delusions of paranoia.

My mother refused psychiatric help. She would only relent to seeing her primary care physician, a man she had known and trusted for a great number of years. PCPs receive little specialized training in mental health; consequently he played psychopharmacological roulette with my mother for nearly 10 years before landing on the right medication. It was Zyprexa.

The radical transformation in my mother's demeanor upon the introduction of Zyprexa was nothing short of miraculous. Though I chide his gambling approach to my mother's mental health, I am eternally grateful to Dr. M for pursuing chemical treatment until he found the right combination. She was no longer asocial, could hold conversation with people she had just met, and would even laugh out loud - in appropriate settings! This change in persona revolutionized my life; I felt an enormous weight lifted from me. I had spent a significant portion of my waking hours worrying and agonizing over her state of being. I didn't have to do that anymore. However, I see now that the boundary-less care taking merely shape shifted into something equally unhealthy for me.

I became obsessed with giving my mother a "normal life." Having just recently finished graduate school, I now had stability and money for the first time. I spent a lot of it taking her on vacations, trying to give her experiences that would make her see how great life could be. Aka, I wanted her to want to live. It was very akin to having a child. Funny, I even took her to DisneyWorld. You would think I could've recognized the obvious parallel there, but it would take me years to understand what I was doing and the relative unhealth of it for me.

Throughout my adult years, I have felt enormous responsibility for keeping my mother alive and infusing life into her. I took financial and legal responsibility for my mother at age 26 when I purchased a house for her and moved her to the area where I lived. For a number of years I have called her daily, sometimes more than once per day. If I went too long without talking to her, I would sometimes reel into a panic that I might find her dead. I have never made a decision in my life where I did not first consider how it would affect her. I venture to say that even some of my decision to get married (because it wasn't what I wanted nor to whom I wanted) was an effort to provide her a "stable home" - again, just like one would do for a child.

The damage that I have done to myself, to my life on these accounts is immeasurable. I have lost many years, hopes, dreams, and aspects of self because I mistakenly thought that my mother's story was my story. (I elaborate on the irony and subconscious functionality of using the masking event of my sick mother to hide the true root cause of my trauma in a later post called Goodbye Panda.) Only in this past year during the unfolding of my actual story have I been able to separate the two. It has been incredibly liberating and inordinately painful. Like most things in life, the balance of these two extremes creates the totality of full catastrophe living. And what a catastrophe this past year has been.

Psychology 101

You've now heard a good bit about my struggle with dissociation. You've also been introduced to my schizophrenic mother. Pop culture often regards Schizophrenia synonymous with Multiple Personality Disorder (the official name for which is Dissociative Identity Disorder [DID]). There's that word again: dissociation. Semantics can make these 3 ailments seem similar, yet they are so very different. And so I thought it might be helpful to talk about all of these disorders in a concise, easy to distinguish way.

The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 4th edition) is what mental health professionals use to formulate official diagnoses. Mental health problems are not as tangible or measurable as physical ailments, so the manual is used to assess tendencies, frequencies, and duration in order to discern likelihood of the presence of a mental illness. It is not cut and dry, but there are very specific indicators for each disorder.  If interested, one can learn all about how the DSM-IV is laid out and referenced from The Virtual Psychology Classroom.

It is important to understand that disorders are divided into classes:

    • Anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and phobias
    • Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar
    • Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia
    • Eating disorders - anorexia and bulimia
    • Personality disorders such as antisocial and paranoid 
    • Tic disorders such as Tourette's syndrome
    • Dissociative disorders such as dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization, and DID

Note that Dissociative Identity Disorder and Schizophrenia are not even in the same classification. I am not sure how popular culture came to confuse these two mental health problems but they are not even remotely related. This has been a pet peeve of mine for many years, particularly when I talk about my mother and people ask me which personality is the "worst" one. Alternate identities has nothing to do with schizophrenia. The best distinction I have read is that "People with schizophrenia do not have split personalities. Rather, they are 'split off' from reality."

I elaborate further about my experience with this disorder in a post called Growing up with Schizophrenic Mother.


I would like to take this opportunity to segregate my dissociate tendencies from DID. I do not profess to have DID, nor have I ever considered this a possibility. I do not have alternate identities, hear voices, or have long bouts (e.g., years) of my life for which I cannot account; nor do I have any tendencies to disappear and take on a new identity (which also rules out dissociative fugue).  

I do, however, have some amount of dissociative amnesia. There is a heavy fog around my memory from ages 11-15 that has taken years of therapy to map out. During this time my mother's illness skyrocketed, she attempted suicide multiple times, my parents divorced, my dad remarried, I moved around to several residences with my mother, I was sexually abused, my mother abandoned me for several years, I went to live permanently with my father who swiftly moved us away, and I switched schools 3 times. Of these things I am sure and I'm relatively aware of the order, I just have little to no actual memories of these events. What I have is akin to flash-photograph type recollection of certain places, times, and occurrences but nothing I would call coherent. It's a lot like stringing pearls.

I will blog more about many of these pearls, but I thought it important to set the stage. Often times we only recognize what something is in the stark contrast of what it is not. In fact a good part of my journey has been to understand and appreciate what I am not, but to learn from and sometimes be inspired by these things in order to progress along my own path. 

I have been drawn to themes of dissociation and DID for many years, long before I recognized the personal relevance. I like to think this was Real Me's way of reaching out and crying for recognition and healing. My favorite book on the topic is When Rabbit Howls and I watched every episode of United States of Tara with baited breath.

Now that I have full knowing and language for the issues I face, I have been doing a great deal of pointed research on the topic. One of the most inspiring blogs for me has been by a creative and articulate DID named Grace. Though I do not suffer from DID, we use some of the same healing modalities. If you are curious about DID please visit her blog KnowDissociation.


Israel's Key

In November 2012 I traveled to Israel on a spiritual quest. My close friend Jet came to see me off from Newark. Jet and I had been on and off friends/lovers/friends/enemies - rinse and repeat - for a couple of years. Relationships are not easy with an ASCA, so I admit to being 50% of the problem. The same is true for my failed marriage and the wake of destructive relationships I left trailing behind me before that. The nature of this friendship with Jet is pertinent because the dissociative button is often easily pushed by someone approaching intimate closeness.

Jet and I got into an argument in the middle of EWR. A series of no-fault events had left us stranded for the night with no place to sleep and me with an international departure in the morning. Jet blamed me for the incident and proceeded to explain the nature and extent of his anger in this crowded public place. I was feeling very upset at being blamed for something that was not my fault. And then it happened. I began my typical dissociation tailspin with one exception this time. The Watcher remained conscious, nonjudgmental (because the rest of me is constantly judging myself all the time), and secretly documented everything that happened for later mental retrieval. This is how it goes:

  • First I lose my hearing. I can see people's mouths moving, but everything is muffled. I can't talk either. I usually don't have anything to say because my brain is short-circuiting, but even if I did it is like the muscles that surround my lips are frozen.
  • Next my arms feel heavy like lead. I distinctly remember sitting at the airport, laptop open, wanting to google hotels but I literally could not mobilize the muscles in my left arm up to the keyboard. It simply wouldn't move so I just sat there staring at it. Arms completely stuck at my sides, meanwhile The Watcher's running script documented the words 'like rigor mortis.'
  • Next the heaviness from my arms moves into my chest, and then my whole body goes numb. I feel myself exit through my head; it sort of feels like the top of my head coming off. This is not like the near-death experiences I've read where people talk about being able to see themselves from above. It is difficult to explain; it's more like being behind and slightly above myself, though not exaggeratedly so like hovering around the ceiling. I'm close to my body, I'm just not in it.
  • Then I stop breathing. I did not know I was a breath holder until The Watcher revealed this to me. This part is actually quite scary. While watching myself from above/behind I begin to fear that I will suffocate. My journal entry for this reads "I honestly don't know how oxygen is getting into my blood because there is no air passing in or out of my body. If indeed I am breathing I cannot feel it at all, no matter how hard I try." I remain in this breathless state for some unknown period of time until something zaps me back in. Then I either go through the round of ears-arms-numb-breathless state again or stay in and move on to the next tortuous state.

When I come back into my body, then the pain begins. I suppose this is why I dissociate for as long as possible because I fear the pain of being human (as opposed to the stone statue). The mental chatter is maddening, hyper self-critical, and the emotional pain that comes with it is nearly unmanageable. Whatever the situation is, I catastrophize it to death. "This is the worst thing ever." "I can't deal with this." "I'm not strong enough." "I have to get out of here." If dissociation is the mental/emotional flight response, then my last stage of dysfunction here is physical flight. I start to concoct all the ways I'm going to end the relationships, the circumstance, the problem, etc. so that I never have to face or feel this again.

It was fascinating to observe myself go through all of these stages with such a clear minded Watcher. I am a psychologist getting to study the human psyche from the inside. Jill Bolte Taylor speaks of her similarly fascinating experience of being a brain scientist studying the human brain from the inside while she had a stroke in her TED talk called Stroke of Insight. I can so relate. I was in there too.

Jet had no idea I was experiencing my dissociative cycle. To the outsider it looks like I am ignoring and punishing them with silence. They couldn't possibly know the whirlwind of turmoil and pain that is happening inside of me. How could they? These are normal situations; people get mad when things don't go well and there's nothing wrong with that. You fight, figure it out, make up, and go on with your day. At least that's what happens for normal people (I'm guessing). I bet this is one of the major reasons being in a relationship with an ASCA is so difficult. From the outside it looks like we make a big deal out of everything. The truth is, on the inside everything IS a big deal. Everything looks, smells, and feels like trauma. 

It gets worse. Not only are my responses to seemingly small events disproportionate in the moment, but then I can remain in a robot-like state for hours, days, or even weeks. This looks like more punishment to the outsider, but inside I am dying. I can't feel. I'm not Me. I criticize myself for how I reacted in the moment and am left wondering what the hell is wrong with me. On the outside it looks cool and dry, but that's only because I don't know who I am or how I feel. My theory here is that every time I dissociate, a part of me stays outside and does not come back in. I am left feeling less whole, less integrated. As the severity and frequency of these cycles increase, I end up feeling completely robotic and not like Me at all. My ex-husband used to call me Ice Princess. In his defense, I never shared any of this with him because I had no language for it, nor did I understand the origin of my dysfunction. I imagine that many ASCAs can relate to this experience in relationship, both the dysfunction within and the ultimate painful demise.

Jet is sweet and he apologized in the terminal. I came to. We found a hotel. When we got there I went into the bathroom to freshen up for a dinner and I experienced the dissociative cycle again, and all stages were documented by The Watcher. Then it happened for a third and final time in the bathroom. There was no trigger per se, except that I was pondering the fascination of it all. Perhaps The Watcher needed more detail for the script, the one I was writing internally for Dee so that we could use it in my EMDR sessions. 

Fortunate for me, the flight to Tel Aviv is 14 hours. I had plenty of time to journal about my newly understood dissociative cycle in great detail. I had a wonderful time in Israel, but much work was to be done upon my re-entry. The Watcher had found the key.

The Mindful Watcher

Mindfulness meditation is all about coming to a full knowing of one's true essence. It is understanding that you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions, you are simply the gap in between. It's about being in the present moment and ceasing to identify with the mental chatter (the ego) who tries to tell you who you are instead of letting you experience it. Once you separate Who You Really Are from what you think or how you feel in any given moment, your true essence becomes apparent. You simply are.

Mindfulness is not something you do, it is a way of being. The beauty in this way of being is that when life's tumultuous situations arise, you can remain centered in your essence. You are not numb to the pain that is life, but are instead able to separate yourself from being identified and defined by it. You become The Watcher - able to observe what is happening inside and around your Self without being absorbed into it.

I have practiced many forms of mindfulness for over a decade without truly internalizing its true meaning. I understood it academically, but left brain's logic is altogether different from right brain's knowing. After months of working diligently on this skill with Em, I actually experienced The Watcher while in a dissociative state. Only then did I fully comprehended the power of mindfulness. I truly believe that without this experience, I would not be as far forward on my healing journey today.

I've mentioned in previous posts that my dissociative tendencies have rendered me dysfunctional in a number of adult life situations. These circumstances are not trauma related, but for the ASCA dissociation makes no distinction. It's a handy-dandy little trick that my brain learned at an early age to cope with trauma, and now it uses dissociation whenever it feels like it to zero out whenever things get difficult. I never recognized, understood, or even had a name for what was happening to me. I simply felt overwhelmed, confused, numb, and crazy. Then I would often go hide in the nearest closet or bathroom, lose time, and endure all the body stuff until it was over. (The "body stuff" will appear in later posts - Israel's Key, The Theatre - and this hiding behavior will be explained in The Terrible Awful.) This went on for 25 years until The Watcher gave language to my dissociative experience.

This happened in the airport, of all places.


The Lady Amalthea

On the origin of my pseudonym...

When I was a kid I fell in love with the movie The Last Unicorn. There was something hauntingly appealing about it, and not simply because little girls love ponies. It was the complexity of this character Lady Amalthea.

In the movie she is a unicorn who, through a series of misfortunate events, is forced to take the form of a human girl. A woman-child of sorts. Being thrust out of her body, she spends a great deal of time in a hazy state of disillusionment. Unicorns are immortal and pure; becoming a human cost her these things and thus her innocence was stolen. She feels this new, flawed body dying all around her. As a result of this experience she develops what no supernatural creature was ever made to feel: regret. It is easy to see now why I identified so closely with this character.

Em, my mind-body skills expert, and I use a variety of healing modalities in my quest for wholeness. Dance, draw therapy, mindfulness meditation - basically anything that can help bring about holistic healing. We meditate on many things such as Safe Place (which I will blog about later) and finding Inner Wisdom.

Unstuck has a number of guided imagery exercises. Fortunate for me, I have an active imagination and so I find these visualization exercises particularly easy and pleasurable. I am most often times surprised and amazed what comes out of them. The resulting ideas are things that I am certainly not consciously thinking of or about, but make an immense amount of logical sense ex post facto and leave me feeling more integrated, more Me.

One night Em and I did guided imagery on finding my Inner Guide. As with any guided imagery there is a great deal of relaxation prework and mental picture painting (sounds, smells, etc.) but I will summarize for brevity's sake. (You can find the full exercise in Unstuck chapter 2.) When I walked into my Safe Place and waited for my Inner Guide to appear, it was Lady Amalthea in a white sparkly dress who came. I have visited her on a number of occasions when I am having a difficult time understanding or getting in touch with my feelings. (See previous post Word Art for more details on how and why I am so often out of touch with my feelings.) Sometimes she is on a white horse, sometime she is the white horse; they are one in the same.  I have found this exercise both useful and calming.

One of the tendencies of ASCAs is that we have a difficult time trusting ourselves, much less anyone else. People, loved ones, and even our own bodies betrayed us and so we are left with nowhere to turn. No reliability, no predictability, no safety net. Having this Inner Guide to rely on has been incredibly comforting to me. The answers are coming from Real Me hidden somewhere down beneath the Black Oil. But this way it is coming through and from someone I trust, someone I connect with and idealize. It brings me peace to know that I have a trustworthy source of information even in the darkest of times.

I've also used Amalthea as a sort of healing barometer. I find myself seeking her less often during periods when I feel integrated, but there's an even better incident which affirms this theory. So let's end this post on a great positive note, shall we?

Em and I decided to create a guided imagery for Integration. I went to my Safe Place to interact with all the younger versions of me who have over the years, one by one, split off through dissociation. I am sitting in a circle with all of these Little Me's, one for each of the major abuse memories that I have been able to isolate; we are playing games and laughing. Usually when I am in my Safe Place I have on a long, flowy pink sundress and flowers in my hair, barefoot. On this particular occasion I look down at my clothes, and I am wearing the white sparkly dress. When fully engaged with all of Me, when fully integrated, I am my own inner wisdom.

THAT is healing.

Unstuck in Tibet

After my Breakthrough Crisis, an unhelpful therapist - no slight on her, we simply did not connect - and miserable attempts at medication, I opted for the holistic route. This is true to my nature anyway, as I am not one for repeat foreign substances in the body. Occasional beer and wine, sure. Maybe even a cigarette or two when the mood (or the lucky) strikes.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe there are some people who have legitimate need for regular chemical rebalancing assistance. Case in point: my mother, the schizo-affective. The miracle drug of Zyprexa brought her out of a near 12 year catatonic fog which she affectionately refers to as her "period of unawareness." This was nothing short of a miracle, so rest assured that I do not doubt the usefulness and necessity of psychopharmacology in warranted cases. However, I had an inkling that my acute onset of emotional despair was of the let's-dig-in-and-deal-with-it variety, not with a numb-to-a-bearable-muted-existence solution.

I have been a turkepescatarian (I eat fish and turkey but no chicken, red meat, or pork) for nearly 10 years. I run marathons and teach yoga. I'm a hippie in corporate America's clothing; my brother calls my style of dress "business bohemian." I wanted a natural way out of this mess. Having worked my way out of a failed marriage and emotionally messy divorce (what divorce isn't emotionally messy?) through self-help books and soul-discovery exercises, I began searching for resources to help me unpack my emotional baggage. Understand that at the time I did not realize the size of my suitcase. I thought this was garden variety depression, perhaps with a little near mid-life crisis sprinkled on top. Everyone's healing journey is unique; the beginning of mine was overly optimistic and woefully misinformed.

I found an incredible book titled Unstuck by James Gordon, MD. He speaks about depression as a call for change. I had been feeling this call for many years and proceeded to outline them all in my journal. The call to process traumatic memories from my mother's multiple suicide attempts and resulting abandonment. The call out of my unhealthy, emotionally abusive marriage. The call away from my constant need for overachievement; I am off the charts in McClelland's nAch scale. The call to slow down from my overly taxing 70hr a week corporate lifestyle. I was finally ready to answer.

While Dr. Gordon's book had a lot of excellent information, and I do highly recommend it, it did not provide the total package of assistance that I required. But it was an excellent start. Most importantly, it led me to a mind-body skills expert in my area (the book mentions a website of providers who are trained in the Unstuck therapeutic methodology) who then ended up referring me to a talk therapist with whom I connected immediately. I continued to see them both separately once a week for the next 8 months. The combination of these two ladies, to whom I will refer as Em and Dee in subsequent posts, very well may have saved my life.

Em, my mind-body skills expert, gave me the most wonderful gift I could ever have imagined. Well, she gave me many but this one really takes the cake. I had recently purchased a new set of mala beads to help with my meditation practice. I chose the set pictured below because there are two colors of stone intermingled within each bead; I saw this as a representative balance of Em and Dee working together toward my healing.

The most special thing about these beads - Em's gift to me - is that they have been blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In person. He held them in his precious little hands and said a prayer just for Me. The pricelessness of this gift in the eyes of millions is not lost on me.

I am forever grateful for the miracles the universe will bring if you can simply open your eyes to see and hands to receive them. Never underestimate the power of connection. A quote from Unstuck: "Connection is loneliness's daimon. Accept who comes. Enjoy them. Do not burden with expectations. In experiencing one connection, you will realize that others are possible."

When the student is ready the teacher will come. When you are suffering, remain open to all possibilities that healing can and will come from a variety of sources. Though Unstuck did not heal me, it led me to many things, resources, ideas, and people who have helped me greatly along my journey. This is hopefully a theme you will pick up from my writings. There is an infinite supply of resources, relationships, help, and support if only you will look.

You are not alone. You are worthy. Healing is possible; all it takes is your openness to it.

Word Art

Much of the time I don't know how I feel. I know something is wrong, I don't feel quite right. I'm "upset" - that often seems to be the most specific word I can come up with to describe the turmoil inside. Because I spend most of the time outside my body, I simply cannot get in touch with what is going on inside. How could I? I'm not in there enough to understand the lay of the land. I'm a visitor at best.

For many years I have been using collage technique to get in touch with my feelings. I flip through magazines and clip out whatever words speak to me on a page. Not every page, just ones that resonate at first sight. I try not to think about it too much or for too long so as to get to my essence, the inner wisdom that lies somewhere down deep and wants to communicate with Real Me.

Here is one that I put together right in the middle of the Breakdown Crisis. Often times my collage will have 2 sides - the hopeless and the hopeful, both of which speak volumes. Looking back at this now it is easy to notice the theme of having a shameful secret, a dark horse lurking beneath the surface...

Don't Tell
The Secret Battle
Imagine less pain - that's my favorite in this set

Here's another I did a few months later. This time I was in a phase where music was speaking directly to my soul, so I incorporated a maze full of lyrics around my art. Again, the theme of secrecy is abundant...

Protect - that word alone appears 3 times in this set
It could happen to you

That fellow on the left is Thom Yorke, the lead singer of my favorite band Radiohead. We shall dive more deeply into my longstanding fascination with dissociative music in a later post called Playlist.

The Breakthrough Crisis

Hypervigiliance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. It is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause extreme exhaustion. Other symptoms include:
    • abnormally increased arousal
    • high responsiveness to stimuli
    • constant scan of the environment
    • high alert to be certain danger is not near
    • obsessive behavior patterns
    • difficulty with social interaction and relationships
    • losing connections with family and friends
    • difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
Hypervigiliance is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.


This is precisely what happened to me in August 2012 in response to a minor change in my life: my mother came to live with me. She had come to visit me on many previous occasions, so I had no reason to believe this would be a negative experience. In fact, I was looking forward to it. The arrangement was to be temporary (less than 3 months) while she transitioned from one home to another. However, it only lasted 4 weeks. In a state of utter despair and desperate for relief, I moved her to a residential hotel for the remainder of her transition.

At the time I was mistakenly blaming my suffering on her snoring and late-night meowing cat. There is also the part about her being schizophrenic, or more accurately having schizo-affective disorder (because her bouts of delusions and catatonia are sprinkled with a fair dose of severe depression including multiple suicide attempts), rendering her disabled and now under the financial and legal care of yours truly, but that is another post for another day. Even so, a part of me knew there was something more going on with my state of unrest. Much more.

This was my Breakthrough Crisis. The ASCA Survivor to Thriver Manual describes this experience as a time when "something happens to release a flood of old memories, feelings and even physical sensations of the abuse. Although this crisis does not necessarily destabilize all survivors, for many it can be the most harrowing time in recovery, and it often provides the impetus to finally face the past."

The Manual goes on to say this experience, albeit terrifying, is quite normal for survivors of abuse. It can leave you feeling liked a frightened child without any adult control over your life. Feelings of powerlessness, disorganization and agonizing fear hijack your mind-body. In fact you may very well think you are going crazy. I certainly did. 

I experienced prolonged periods of suicidal ideation. I was barely able to function at work especially while juggling a busy travel schedule. I immediately sought therapy and, for the first time in my life, made a few failed attempts to cycle on and off different anti-depressants. The side effects were debilitating for me, as I have a job which requires me to be en pointe in social settings. I opted to take the non-medical route, upon which I elaborate in a later post entitled Unstuck in Tibet.

You may be wondering, as did I, why a long visit with my mother brought about my breakthrough crisis. It would be many months later before I would discover that the major abusing episode(s) occurred during the last time I shared residence with my mother 25 years prior. While living with her again as an adult, I was simply re-experiencing the panicked state of hypervigilance I must have donned during my childhood. Always looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to attack me like a creature in the night. Because he did.

It's enough to say for now that I did survive both the original hypervigilance and its reliving. It felt like hell, but it was the beginning of a wonderful pathway to eventual freedom. During this time it is noteworthy that I found great comfort in this blogspot from Hyperbole and a Half. It was nearly the only thing that made me smile for nigh 2 months. Thank you Allie!!

An image from Hyperbole that epitomizes precisely how I felt during the Breakthrough:

The End of the Beginning

My story starts in the middle, as it is still being written. In fact I'm quite sure this will be a life long endeavor. As an ASCA (adult survivor of child abuse) there are many twists and turns along the healing journey required to evolve from victim to survivor, and then hopefully to thriver.

I've lived most of my life outside of my body, thus the chosen domain name for my site. The human mind-body (I will often refer to these as one entity because, contrary to Western thought, the two are inextricably intertwined) basically has three options when faced with trauma: fight, flight, or freeze. When a child experiences trauma, especially in the case of sexual abuse, the most common response is to freeze. There is no escape; there is only endurance. At the hands of a so-called trusted adult, the shock and agony of betrayal is too excruciating to bear in real-time and so the child creates a false escape from painful reality by leaving the body. This is called dissociation.

Dissociation is an altered state of consciousness wherein a person, in this case Little Me, detaches from physical and emotional experience. During the times when I was molested, my chosen path for dissociation was to pretend I was a stone statue. I distinctly remember thinking that if I could just remain perfectly still, not breathe, and not feel, then somehow it wasn't happening. This allowed me to withstand the unnatural, confusing, and shameful acts of violation that were being committed. Through blissful dissociation, those things were happening to my body, but not to me. The real Me was drifting somewhere outside of my body, waiting for it to be over so that I could return to myself.

Dissociation is a survival mechanism that served me well from ages 5-13, from the time the abuse started up to and including when I was locked in a basement and raped. I am convinced the only reason I survived those insidious attacks with any fortitude is because I was fully dissociated. The problem is, once the mind-body latches onto dissociation, this learned behavior becomes ingrained and automatic. And as an adult, it is quite dysfunctional in typical life settings. Many non-traumatic experiences would trigger my dissociation, at times rendering Big Me nearly incapable of handling normal life. This lasted for 25 years.

I had little to no memory of the experiences that produced my dissociative reaction. (A single memory remained intact which I write about in a later post called The Theatre.) Consequently, I have spent most of my life in a state of disillusioned pain, unable to deeply connect with others or have a trusting, intimate relationship. That is, until I cracked.

In August 2012 I experienced what I now understand was a Breakthrough Crisis. This was a tumultuous time - almost 3 months - of confusion, hypervigilance, and suicidal ideation the source of which I could not comprehend. It has taken me this long to make sense of what I was and am still going through, thanks to the help of some wonderful therapists, resources, and supportive friends and family.

I'm happy to say that even though this breakthrough-meltdown-breakdown-spiritual awakening process had been inordinately painful, I am grateful that it happened/is still happening. Without it, I would not have the hope of integration, the process of bringing all the pieces of my dissociated self back into my body and becoming fully Me. I'd like to say that I am there, but the truth is it may be many years before that happens. Thus the journey, thus the blog, thus the hope that my story and my healing journey can be a source of comfort and inspiration as others have been for me.

Winston Churchill's famous End of the Beginning speech was delivered soon after it appeared that the Battle of Britain in WWII was going to be won. He wanted to communicate hope, but also a realism where the country was on its journey toward winning the war. My intentions are much the same for my audience. I had to wait until I was ready and able to communicate coherently about my journey. It is far from over, but I have learned enough to share something of value. In this I find great healing and great hope. For there is always hope.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.