April 27, 2007

Survivors: Hypervigilance

Posted in recovery, therapy at 12:03 pm by nevavegan

Without further ado, this week’s writing assignment from the survivors’s forum.

Many people who have been abused or lived through an attack experience hypervigilance, a situation where we startle easily, we are always looking out for danger, and we find it hard to trust others. The forum asks us this week to consider ways in which hypervigilance might be a gift. Does it allow us to be more aware of the situations around us? Do we read other people’s intents and emotions? Does it help keep us out of future situations which might be dangerous.

This is a strange one for me to answer. I am hypervigilant in some situations and not so much in others. I got specific therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which was extremely helpful in limiting the hypervigilance as well as other issues like intrusive memories/flashbacks. So I don’t at present consider hypervigilance to be a huge issue for me.

I wonder though, if I asked my husband if I was hypervigilant what his answer would be. Would he bring up how nervous I get when strangers try to talk to me in public, or my tendency to startle pretty badly? Maybe I’m not so well off as I thought, just significantly better. Though to be fair to me, why are people (actually only men) always trying to talk to me when I’m going to the grocery store, walking my dogs, trying to get from the parking lot into my building at work, etc. And what do they expect except that I’m going to freak out if they try to touch me. Seriously people, it’s not ok to touch me, not on my hand, not on my arm, definitely not on my face. Keep a decent distance will you? Otherwise I will consider you a threat and act accordingly. You’ve all been warned.

Um, what was that topic again? Hypervigilance. Yeah, maybe there are some issues here.
To the moderator’s question if the hypervigilance allows me to read people’s emotions better, the answer is somewhat. I think I’m pretty good at telling when someone is happy or sad or angry, at least in person, at least with some people. The downside is that I often read stong emotions, such as anger or competitiveness as a potential threat to me. Not always a good thing, but sometimes it is protective.

There was this incident, several years ago, not related or connected to anything else in my life. I had moved to Maryland, moved in with my husband, and I liked to walk from our apartment to the grocery store, because I liked walking and I liked getting the exercise. And this man pulled his car up to me and started off with some line about needing directions and opened up his car door and was asking me to get in and I was getting a bad feeling and started backing away. And then he growled (and growl is the only word I can use to describe this because it was very aggressive but not shouting, intended for nobody else to hear “Just get in the car!” And he lunged at me. I started dashing away, but I also shouted “Get away from me you psycho!” People were starting to notice and stare so he jumped in the car and sped away. But the thing that always gets me is there was this moment where I looked at his face and while I could be wrong I don’t think I am, I saw nothing human there. I really think that had things gone differently he would have killed me without remorse or hestitation. If I picked up any emotion off of him it was incredible malice and strange joy. He was excited and happy, and then incredibly frustrated.

You would think that after such an incident the chances of me ever getting into a car with a stranger would be zero. But then I found myself and my dogs stranded in our current neighborhood but about a 10 minute walk from our house, in a sudden thunderstorm. Lightening struck a tree close to us and I could smell the sulfur. My dogs were cowering and I was wondering if I’d be able to drag them all the way home. Then a man pulled up in front of his house in a pick-up truck. The only emotion I could read in him was some concern but a little humor at the sight of a soaking wet me with two skulking soaking wet dogs. So I asked if he could give us a ride home. I got into the bed of the truck with the dogs, so if anything had gone wrong I could have jumped out. But I just knew it would be fine. He rushed us home and let us off safely. Of course for about a month after that my husband asked me every day “Did you get into any trucks with stranger men today?”

My adopted dog is also a case study in hypervigilance. Actually I adopted two dogs, but it’s really just the first dog I’m talking about here. Kyra is a dog who was mistreated before we adopted her and as a result she has fear aggression. When I watch how Kyra reacts to the world and how she reads emotions, I’m reminded so much of my own issues. And it makes me realize I need to do better.

Kyra’s strategy is to size up everyone and everything around her and try to decide split second if there’s some kind of threat to her. If she feels there’s a threat, her first response is to try to run away. But should she feel she can’t run away, or doesn’t feel she has enough time, she immediately tries to put on a show of being the scariest doggie on the whole planet. Her goal is to try to intimidate said threat into backing off.

When I’m the one holding the leash this can be difficult to deal with. Kyra has gotten really good about looking to my husband for guidance when they’re out together. It’s like she turns and looks at him as if to ask “Is this a bad person? Do I need to go nuts?” I try to use the same reassuring techniques he does, and it works some of the time, but sometimes I’ve left trying to hold a maniac dog so she doesn’t leap on someone.

Kyra’s method of threat assessment is pretty interesting, at least to me (everyone else could be bored to tears). People wearing hats are automatically suspect—I can only assume that whoever abused Kyra wore a hat. Men are more suspect than women, but not all men. And women don’t get a free pass either. People who make sudden moves toward us are always considered dangerous. I live in a neighborhood where a fair percentage of the male population seems to choose to walk around with a “tough” stance and a snarl on their faces. I’m used to this at this point. Someone can be walking toward me with the meanest look and I know they’re just going to walk right past. Kyra doesn’t realize this. If a guy is walking toward us with an aggressive stance, she starts lunging and growling.

Generally if someone tries to talk to me beyond just a wave and hello, Kyra doesn’t like that. They need a good growling out to let them know that’s not ok. It took me a long time to realize that in many of these situations Kyra was picking up on my emotions. I would tense up. “Why is this guy talking to me… If I need to run what’s the best direction.” So Kyra saw that these situations made me uncomfortable and it fueled her own fears.

But there was one occasion where I realized just how much Kyra picks up on intent, and may even disregard the signals from me if she thinks she has a good grasp on the situation. One day I was walking my dogs down the street and this older man practically fell out his front door, still clutching his empty 40, and shouted “what pretty dogs! I love dogs!” and stumbled over to us to pet the dogs. This wasn’t really a stress-free encounter to me, I never know what an intoxicated person might do. But Kyra was wagging her tail and letting this man pet her. She only picked up happiness and affection from him and that’s what she was responding to.

And that’s how I know that reading emotions is not always the best way to feel safe. That angry person might not be angry at me, that happy person could change in an instance. This could be one of the worst lasting side effects of being hurt by people we know and care about—we come to believe that anyone is capable of anything, that a quiet moment can turn into a storm with very little warning. I realize as an adult that this is not true of everyone, but the underlying fear remains. I do look for that change brewing in people, but then again I don’t really see it all that often anymore because I try not to be around people who are like that.

Finally the survivors forum asked how we can turn this around into a positive. If we are better at reading emotions, can we use that to help others? I think I use it more in animal work actually. I find that I’m good at picking up on the fear or hurt in animals and finding ways to reassure them and put them at ease. I notice quickly when they respond to something, so I’m able to keep doing what is working.

With people it’s a lot harder. I used to somehow collect a whole bunch of friends with many problems. Actually they say this is pretty common for abuse survivors: we wind up with caseloads not friendships. It got to the point that I thought everyone in the whole world was depressed. Then I figured out that I pick up quickly on it when I meet sad people, and then I try to be nice to them or help them feel better. But it ended up that I had a lot of people in my life who were bottomless wells of negativity. They didn’t want to feel better, or if they did want to feel better they didn’t want to take the necessary steps to get there. So in that respect my empathy was working against me. I certainly don’t want to be unfair to people who are depressed or in trouble. But I also had to realize that if every time I saw someone I was left feeling drained, exhausted, and worried, and this pattern held over a long period of time then that friendship was unhealthy for me.

Actually I see empathy and caretaking in Kyra too, though since she’s a dog this is less harmful to her. That’s one reason why her fear aggression is lessened when she’s out with my husband. She senses a vulnerability in me and thinks it means she needs to step up and defend both of us. She’s wonderful with rescued kittens, very gentle and careful with them. One evening I was walking her after dark in a cold rain and she leaned over and picked something up off of the side of the street. She’d found an injured bird which she gently lifted in her mouth. We took the bird to a wildlife rehabber who said “Are you sure your dog had this bird? His beak is bent from flying into a car, but there isn’t a single tooth mark on him.” Kyra likes to take care of the smaller and the injuried, but she wants to bite drug dealers. It could be worse.

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April 2, 2007

Do you need to fire your therapist?

Posted in emotional healing, recovery, survivors, therapy at 4:23 pm by nevavegan

I know, I’ve got other stuff to write and then a conversation with a friend brought this topic to mind and I’ve just got to write it all out.

I believe in therapy. I believe in feeling better. I don’t think that anyone should be miserable and unhappy every day. I believe if you or I or your cousin are in a really dark place and can’t find the way out, then the bravest, strongest thing to do is for us to ask for and find a way to get the help we need.

However, that doesn’t mean that we’re always going to find the help we need the first time at bat. It might be necessary to try a couple different therapists before we find one that works for us.

In my opinion it’s vital that therapists challenge us at times. They might have something to say, that needs to be said, that isn’t flattering or coddling to us. In the process of therapy we might uncover memories or issues that are extremely upsetting. We aren’t likely to leave every single session feeling happy. However, if we leave every single session feeling worse than when we went it, then the therapy, in my unprofessional opinion, isn’t doing what it was supposed to.

I mean, I’m not paying someone to drive me further into depression, I was doing that well enough all on my own.

When I first started thinking I needed some help, I was facing both depression and a pretty crippling case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the same time I was largely functional by many of the measures we’re taught to pay attention to, for example I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t sleep all day, etc. I thought I’d just call up a therapist, have a few chats and everything would be better. Sure, denial is a great place to live, too bad we can’t all stay there forever.

The first therapist I saw really didn’t get animal issues at a fundamental level. I hadn’t anticipated that being a problem, because I wanted to work through issues relating to a physical attack. However, that therapist kept somehow bringing everything back to his idea that my being vegan and rescuing cats and rabbits was an expression of my unresolved trauma. He felt that I had some pathological need to rescue rabbits in particular because I was identifying with the rabbits and expressing my feelings that I needed a rescue that never came. Um, sure. You know, I have no idea. I like to think one is not related to the other, but even if it is, I’m so not interested in being “fixed” to the point that I only care about myself. So I stopped going to that therapist. He might be helpful to dozens of other people, but he couldn’t deal with the animal issues, so I needed to find someone who did.

The next therapist was very sweet and totally got animal issues (she should have—after the first experience I asked some fellow rescuers for a referral of a therapist who loved animals). I did feel much better when I was seeing her, but she followed a pretty standard psychotherapy format, which was I talked and talked and talked without much input. It was beneficial in improving my mood, but we somehow never got to dealing with the trauma, and I continued to do what I’d done all along which was bury it until intrusive memories and flashbacks caused me to freak out, and then I’d bury it again.

Next therapist I asked my doctor for a referral of someone with more experience in handling sexual assault survivors. She recommended a very highly qualified female counselor, but ultimately this was not a good personality match for me. I really tried, and it took me a while to come to the conclusion that as wonderful as this therapist might be for others, she wasn’t really helping me. This was one of those situations where I’d leave therapy every time feeling far worse than when I went in. We rehashed traumatic events and yet I never found closure on them. This therapist also had this habit of raising an eyebrow at me and asking “Why would you do/say/think that?” I think the point was to challenge me to confront some poor thinking patterns that had put me in bad situations in the past and could continue to place me in danger. However, one of my main issues was that I really felt worse than I can describe in thinking over my own behavior, and tended to place labels of “stupid,” “naïve,” “crazy” or whatever to myself and my own culpability in what happened. Ultimately, her style of questioning and this internal tendency in myself was just pushing me further into despair.

So, I had to fire my therapist. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, or even a bad therapist. It just meant her particular style wasn’t helpful to me.

So in the end I found a therapist who was able to help me sort through all the stuff and start feeling better, though of course it’s always a process and there are worse days and better days. For me in particular I found it helpful to do a very structured specific type of therapy that is designed just for PTSD, although we also talked about other things. I also felt better about learning coping tools and techniques for getting through difficult situations, as opposed to just endless talk therapy. Another thing that this therapist was able to do for me was to put a more positive spin on some of my negative self-assessment. So where I’d be blaming myself and thinking “how could I be so overly trusting, so naïve, so stupid…” The therapist simply said to me “You have an incredible ability to love and care about people who are really not lovable, but the downside of that is that you might have to work harder to protect yourself than others have to.” Which really sounds a lot nicer, don’t you think?

But these might not be the solution for everyone. Nobody should feel that a type of therapy has to work for them just because it has worked for others. I believe in giving it a chance, opening up to the therapy and really trying, but ultimately if it doesn’t work, that’s no condemnation. It doesn’t mean you can’t be helped. It doesn’t mean no therapy will ever work. To me it’s more like you’ve been trying to use the Philips head screw driver and you really needed a standard screw driver. You set aside the tool that isn’t working and look for one that will.

January 17, 2007

Hearbreaking Work Means We Need Support

Posted in animal advocacy, recovery, therapy at 4:27 pm by nevavegan

Anyone who works long-term in helping animals gets more than his or her share of heartbreak.

Especially when we look at the bigger picture it’s very discouraging. Even as we rescue cats in our own neighborhoods, we read about the mass killings of cats elsewhere. We rescue individual fish only to see a scientific study that says the oceans will soon be empty of fish because of over-fishing, pollution, and other manmade factors.

There’s no doubt that we all need a safety net of social support, but many in animal work find it hard to reach out and even harder to actually get the support they need. How can we address this issue? How can we take care of ourselves while still taking care of animals?

The truth of it is that if we allow ourselves to really feel the complete awfulness of the situation, it’s overwhelming. So many of us pour our life’s blood and our complete hearts into our work, only to see years of progress undone by the selfish actions of a few unthinking people. My first tip is to pay attention to our own emotions and get back from things and take a break when we sense we’re going to a really dark place.

The animal rights/animal welfare/animal protection movement doesn’t really encourage this, but from my perspective it’s vital. So many times when I was first starting out I had someone in a position of authority say to me “So you need a break? The animals never get a break!” While this is factually true, I find it completely unhelpful. If it were a case where one animal were drowning and I had to wade in and save him, maybe in that case I shouldn’t stop and take a break. But the size of this problem of animal mistreatment is so huge; I could spend my whole life never taking a break and still not get very far. And back to the drowning metaphor again, how helpful can I be if I allow myself to get completely exhausted and then both of us wind up drowning?

Or I can refer back to my previous post: how many kittens can I rescue when I’m carrying a 90 pound weight on my back? I need to stop and put down that weight so I can be effective. I also need to reconsider and reflect on what I’m doing from time to time: are there better tools I could be using? Is this the best use of my abilities?

One little thought trick I find helpful is to think about a metaphor of a roller coaster. I didn’t pick the era into which I was born, I didn’t pick my culture, I’m just strapped in and along for the ride. I can do what’s in my power, and I can try to convince the ride operator to shut the ride down, but ultimately I don’t have the ability to change everything around me. I do what I can and I advocate, but I have to release the fear, obligation, and guilt that I feel about issues I can’t control. I can mourn it, but I can’t let it destroy me.

I’m not just whistling out my (unmentionable orifice) here either. I’ve been completely disabled by depression in the past. Unable to cope with the host of past events that haunted me and unable to cope with a tragic present, I was no good to anyone, not even myself. When depressed I always felt like I saw the world very clearly. In fact studies show that depressed people often do have a more realistic and informed view of the world than do non-depressed people. It’s easy when in that place to pat myself on the back for my keen mind, that I can see the injustice and cruelty all around me that others walk past. But the part I didn’t get was that others paid the price for this too. I don’t feel like I’m self deceptive now, but I do take more care to isolate myself from things I know I can’t handle. Because when I’m coping I can do something, however small. When I’m not coping then what good am I?

In talking to depressed friends I’ve encountered this same road block–they don’t want to be “stupid” and they don’t want to “lie to themselves.” I understand, but I also sometimes feel like if we need to lie to ourselves just a little to get through the day… Well, it’s better and less toxic than crack, I guess.

But sometimes it’s not about lying to ourselves, but about celebrating the small things. We can’t always save every stray rabbit out there, but if we saved one rabbit today, that’s a beautiful thing and we should honor it. Gratitude journaling is an incredible way to try to keep an even keel. I try to force myself to come up with a list of several good things that happen ever day. Seriously some days all I can muster is “I made soup and it was tasty, I cuddled with my cat, and my dog really loves me.” But it’s something still.

So far I’ve only spoken about ways we can support ourselves but as social creatures most of us need support from others too.

One complaint I hear over and over is that people need support, but don’t get the kind of support they need. A woman might say she needs her husband to listen, but he keeps offering advice. Someone else might feel that her friends are judging her when they mean to be supportive by saying things like “you need to stop being so angry.”

I honestly believe that the biggest gift we can give ourselves and our support system is to ask for what we need. We’re somehow conditioned against this. So many people are raised with the belief that if people care about us they’ll just guess what we need and provide it. I’ve really not found that to be true. Instead I’ve found that there are a lot of caring, sweet people in the world who are just waiting to help, if only they knew how. So, go ahead and say it “I need someone to just listen right now,” or “what I really want is to watch a silly movie with you and get my mind off of this.”

Without further commentary: Tips for getting the support you need

1. Ask for what you want/need in a direct way. Don’t expect people to always pick up on hints, especially not when you need some support right away. Let people know you need a shoulder to cry on/a sympathetic ear/whatever.

2. If someone gives a kind of support that isn’t helpful to you, try not to take it too personally. They might just be offering the kind of support they would want or they are having trouble understanding your situation. It’s fine to say something like “I just need someone to listen right now.” But if they keep saying things that make you feel worse, maybe they just aren’t the right support system for you.

3. Look for different ways to get support. You can have a reciprocal agreement with a friend to help each other through bad days. If you need support on a topic some people don’t understand, you can sign up for topic specific email list. You can also take the initiative and form a support group and invite others to join. Support groups are made up of people coming more or less from the same place, and can offer a kind of safety there you won’t find elsewhere.

4. Not everyone is a good support system. Some people are just too caught up in their own issues to offer support. Other people just aren’t naturally empathetic. Don’t obsess over why they can’t provide support, just move on. I’ve seen so many people go to someone they think “should” support them, over and over, only to leave hurting. When you’re already hurt, you’re vulnerable, so try not to set yourself up for further hurt.

5. It is very unwise for anyone to depend exclusively on one line of support. Your really bad day might be the very same day your best bud inexplicably decided to sign up for a bar crawl and so won’t be in speaking condition for 48 hours. Your mother might go away on vacation. It’s a very good idea to have a contingency plan.

6. If you feel your depression has crossed a line, is chronic, debilitating, or if you’re having suicidal thoughts, get professional help. No matter how well meaning your friends are, they don’t necessarily have the training to deal with this. Some people are ashamed of the idea of seeking professional help, but if you were having a heart attack you’d go to a doctor, right? So if your soul and very being are shutting down, isn’t that just as important?