I went into therapy Monday evening with an updated version of my depression map. I originally created it late last summer, to help E. understand what was going on with me. If we are just talking, I tend to minimize things and then feel hurt because she doesn’t notice how bad I’m feeling. In fact, when I first showed it to her, she was surprised.
At the start of the session, I pulled out the new version, then showed her a copy of the older version for comparison. I reminded her how to read it. “Remember, the things lower down on the map are things that come up when I’m doing worse. And see, I used two colors last spring to show improvement between the spring and the summer.”
“Now here is the new one. I used reddish diamonds for November/December, and blue circles for how I feel since I started back to work on January 4. And obviously I don’t feel these things all the time. But in January, I feel them part of the time most days. I can feel okay and be busy doing things, but then I drop for a while. And I don’t necessarily stay there for very long, maybe half an hour or a few hours. But sometimes it can be several times in a day.”
She read over the new one thoughtfully. “Thank you for bringing this in. It’s very helpful. So of these symptoms that are showing up again, which ones are bothering you?”
I paused. This is always hard for me to talk about, even with her. “I guess the urge to harm myself. I mean, I’m managing it. I mostly cope by postponing it, telling myself I can still do it later if I need to. Or I distract myself with a movie or a book. I haven’t actually done it.”
“Does it help,” she asked me, “if you think about it, not as something terrible you shouldn’t do but rather as an adaptive strategy?”
“That is how I think about it. I know it’s a coping mechanism.”
“What do you think you use it to cope with?”
“Feelings. I don’t know what they are. I just know they are intense. I’ll feel like I don’t have any skin, just raw nerves exposed, and it hurts. It’s agitation. It’s, I don’t know, I can never explain it. And I don’t necessarily know why I’m feeling it. I know it’s associated with stress but it’s not all the time when I am stressed. It’s confusing.”
We talked a bit about other coping mechanisms I had, many of which I use pretty regularly. But you know how it is when you talk about something in therapy that is familiar, you have talked about it before, and yet it doesn’t feel like the right thing? That was my reaction. I have had the conversation about alternative coping mechanism a hundred times.
“You know,” I told her. “All the coping mechanisms are about making the feelings go away. Distraction, burning, meditating, yoga, exercising. I use all of those to chase the feelings away. But maybe that’s not the right approach. Maybe I need to sit with them, just let myself feel them.”
“Hm, you may be right,” E. said. “Maybe you had to distract yourself or chase the feelings away for a long time, but now you are ready to feel them. You are strong enough now. Let’s think about what that might look like. Do you know when you feel the urge to harm yourself?”
This was hard to answer. I realized that I fixate on not wanting to feel that way, and so I am not very observant of myself. I had to think a while, and then I said (looking at the wall, not at her, as I do when talking about things that also embarrass me, “I’m not sure exactly. In terms of work, I think maybe it’s when things feel overwhelming with too many things moving at the same time, all over the place. Maybe it’s when a lot is being expected from me, right now, at this moment, and it’s not at my pace, and it’s not my choice. It all feels out of control, and I feel that here, in my chest. Maybe it constricts my breathing. And burning myself would pull all that dispersed energy that is all over the place and pull it down and ground it in the part of myself that I burn. So then it feels less out of control.”
Her response was, as usual, interested but not judgmental. “So what I heard that I think is very important there was ‘not my pace, not my choice.’ It would make sense to me that this is triggering for you, at a very primitive level. You had things happen to you very early on that were overwhelming and out of your control, and that provokes a lot of fear in the girl. If we go back to your commitment to believing the girl, you know what she experienced. And then as a young woman in your first marriage, you also felt things were out of your control…”
After that, I can’t remember exactly what she said. It was something about telling the girl, with no judgment, that you understand why she feels like that. At the same time, you can assure her she is safe now; it’s not the same situation anymore. You can take care of the situations in front of you now, and you will protect her.
This is all a little fuzzy in my head. I don’t exactly remember or understand what she said. What I do remember is that we agreed I would try this week to step back and observe when I have these feelings, where I feel them in my body, and anything else that would help us better understand what is really going on.
And over the last day or two, I have noticed that some of the “I’m so bad” thinking or the urges to hurt myself tend to come up when I feel my time and energy is all going to be diverted from what I want to work on to things I “have to do.” And they are especially powerful when I feel I am not going to be able to meet someone’s expectations.
This sort of surprises me, because I believed I had come to a point of accepting that it’s impossible to make everyone happy, and my real job is to set priorities according to what I most want to accomplish (of course, in line with the mission of our organization). I genuinely thought I had that down. But perhaps it’s another one of those lessons that is solid in my head but hasn’t yet been integrated in my heart.
Thank you for sharing those maps. What a great idea.
It’s not surprising, with all that has happened to you, that your power was taken from you very early in life. It makes sense that when you were not working, other peoples demands upon you lessened and you felt power over your life again and consequently your symptoms improved. Now that the demands of work have returned, it probably feels l like you are losing that power again, so your symptoms are returning.
We are all unique, but the need to have power over our own lives is universal. Since your power was taken so early in life, I imagine as an adult it’s very hard to know how to take that power back. I pray you will find safe little ways to start taking it back, day by day, and when you feel the way that feels, it will give you courage to take even more of it back. I pray that each day finds you stronger and stronger. -Tempest
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Thank you! Some days I do feel like I’m making big improvements, defending my boundaries, and moving toward the kind of life I want. Other days I think, “this is crazy out of control” (hence the Up and Down and Up and Down). Ultimately I know there’s progress but I still have a ways to go. I appreciate your comment–you are right about early experiences meaning I have more to learn.
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Wow, really like the charts. you are in tune with what is happening. Thanks for posting it! Whats interesting to me is that I have similar triggers of someone wanting something from me, but I don’t have the early childhood trauma. Makes me wonder if there is something innate there, but not sure what.
I like your charts– the visual really shows how you feel at different times. This is such a great idea.
I think it makes so much sense that the girl would be triggered when she feels things are out of control, or that she has to meet someone’s expectations that she doesn’t really want to meet. I think your therapist was saying that it makes sense, and the adult you can tell the girl it is okay, she is safe and the adult can handle this.
I think you may be on the right path of needing to feel the feelings rather than distract. Distraction is good, great even, but maybe at some point we need to have the resilience and coping skills to feel the feelings– even if only small bits at a time. I don’t know for sure, but what you said here makes so much sense to me. Xx
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Hi Alice, thanks for commenting. I keep thinking about distraction versus facing the feelings too. I agree that distraction is super useful and yet at some point it can become a way to eternally avoid the things that need attention. Xx back to you!
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I distract my self too! Thank you for the maps. Did you come up with that idea?it’s brilliant
I started to make the maps last year when I realized how bad I’d been feeling for so long, and I wanted a way to record it to see if some things got better. So I played around with several ways to depict it. Then I took it to my therapist, who was surprised. She didn’t realize I was feeling as bad as I was (I think I am good at hiding it.) So now I use sometimes as a tool both to see how I’ve improved but also to communicate things to her that I don’t always easily talk about, such as urges to hurt myself. I’m glad you like them. You can use the idea and make your own.
I understand that ‘agitation with feeling’ part you wrote about. Often I feel that I am just exposed nerve endings, especially when at school or work dealing with people and having pressure and responsibility. It is hard to sit with those feelings, and then bring compassion to the negative judgments that arise in response to those feelings. But well done with the noticing. You are obviously working really hard at the mindfulness.
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I get that same agitated feeling at times. Usually after a long day at work and I come home and everything is too loud too bright and too much
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