Man’s Search for Meaning

I picked up Victor Frankl’s fantastic book again the other night. He wrote about surviving Auschwitz, and said, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”

I like to remember that.

It’s true that PTSD symptoms, like flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, can undermine that freedom, but for the most part—I do have the freedom to choose.

I remember being involuntarily committed after an accidental overdose in my early 30’s. I was only in the hospital for eleven days, but, man, they were the longest eleven days of my life. It was terrifying to have my freedom taken away and my future held in the hands of strangers. I was in a state of fight-or-flight the entire time.

Despair led to the accidental overdose. My depression had gotten worse and worse the previous year, so eventually my therapist recommended I see a psychiatrist for additional meds. He gave me a prescription for something that knocked me out. (I can’t remember the name of the drug.)

Every time I woke up and remembered who I was, I sank further into despair and took more of the meds to knock myself out again. I wasn’t trying to overdose. I just inadvertently took a toxic amount over the course of five days, went into a blackout and the next thing I knew, I woke up in the ER, where, after they emptied my stomach, I was promptly committed.

When I got out of the hospital, I thought, I cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought. One lousy thought will lead to another and another and eventually I’ll feel so bad, I’ll somehow find drugs to kill the feeling and that could send me to the hospital or the grave. I don’t ever want to go to the hospital again and I’m not ready for the grave.

It was hard at first. I was used to living within a negative stream of consciousness.

I had no hopes or dreams for the future, so I didn’t spend time thinking about how to achieve goals or fantasizing about how great my life would be someday.

The past was a swamp, so I didn’t dare move in that direction.

I had no choice but to live in the present. But how was I going to do that?

It helped to get a job. (I wasn’t working.) That focused my mind for eight hours a day, but still left the hours before and after, not to mention lunch.

I didn’t know how else to fill my mind, except to narrate what I was experiencing in the moment.

For example, I’d think:

I’m now walking to the bathroom to take a shower.

The floor feels slightly slanted.

I’m shutting the bathroom door.

I’m turning on the water.

The warm water feels nice.

The sunlight is bright coming through the window.

I’m putting shampoo in my hair.

It smells good.

And so on.

It felt mentally weird and clumsy and took a lot of effort, but as the days and weeks passed by, I became better at it and ultimately it became effortless.

When a negative thought came through, I’d shout, “No!” in my head. And change the subject.

Over time, I discovered that blocking destructive negative thoughts and focusing on neutral or pleasant subjects gave me a tremendous sense of power and wellbeing. I no longer felt at the mercy of my regrets and resentments or fears of the future.

The year that followed ended up being the best year of my life.

I don’t know if it was coincidental or as a result of changing the way I thought, but I quit my crummy, low-paying job and broke up the dysfunctional relationship I was in. I moved into a cute little studio and got a great job that started my career. I became reacquainted with a couple old friends and we had a lot of fun doing all sorts of things. For the first time, I felt like I had a life—a normal, fun life like young people are supposed to have.

Unfortunately, my revolutionary way of thinking and being died a slow death as I found myself in another bad relationship (don’t date your boss!) and I slowly but surely got addicted to painkillers.

I picked up Victor Frankl’s book because I knew he wrote about the freedom to choose and I need to be reminded of that, especially when I’m tired and stressed. I’m still feeling the loss of my husband and though sadness and grief are natural, I have to be careful and remember it’s still my choice what I choose to dwell on and how I fill my days.

I had few options when I was little and in a bad situation. But I’m not little anymore and I have options now. To a great extent, I have the freedom to choose how I’ll live inside my head and in the world.

I’ve been waking up feeling pretty down lately, so today, for the first time, I got up early to explore my new neighborhood on foot. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning in the low 80’s. I plugged in my Dr. Dre Beats, hit a playlist with a fast beat and did my walk/run/sprints. The fresh air and music kicked in the endorphins as I focused on the gorgeous landscape and the tiny butterflies that weaved in and out as I ran down the road.

 

 

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A Safe Place

I was listening to the Esther Phillips album And I Love Him! the other morning. The intro to Moon Glow was Theme from Picnic, which – like Proust’s madeleine — hurtled me through time back to when I was little, home sick with strep throat and watching movies on the TV set up on a chair by my bed.

That was my safe place, my happiest hours as a child, the only time I could dream. I could relax because my parents were at work and no one was home. I’d lose myself in these movies, which often had Henri Mancini-type theme songs. The violins at the start of Theme from Picnic. The mournful harmonica of Moon River. I liked these sad or yearning sounds because they manifested my feelings in a beautiful way.

The great thing about those movies was the ending was usually happy. I’d vicariously experience the neat resolution and feel hope.

Sad or angry feelings weren’t allowed in our house, but that didn’t make them disappear. I could live those feelings safely within the confines of those wonderful movies. But if other people were home, I couldn’t focus and relax.

How I rejoiced every time I woke up with that pain in my throat!

When I was getting burned out in my 40’s, I remember thinking, If only I could get strep throat. I associated strep throat with peace, feeling safe and hope for the future.

Jack was my safe place when I officially burned out at 49. As I wrote in my memoir PTSD: Frozen in Time (the chapter entitled Startle at the end of the book), I started hallucinating (and/or was seeing spirits). I was in a state of terror. I couldn’t sleep. I used to see a giant eye on the ceiling over my bed when I’d lay down at night. When I met Jack and told him what was going on, he said, “I’m not going to leave you” and stayed by my side, asking nothing in return, for months. I stopped feeling afraid that first night he stayed over.

Now I am my safe place. It seems like magic to me that this is true, but it was a long, hard time in the making.

Can’t Connect

I know it’s probably a common feeling for people to feel they aren’t connecting with anyone when they basically don’t know anyone in a new town.

Without Jack here, it feels like no one “gets” me. It feels like no one hears me or understands what I’m really saying.

It’s a lonely, disorienting feeling.

That new-girl-in-town feeling is glommed on top of a couple years of the stress of taking care of Jack, then him dying in May and finally my uncle dying a few weeks ago.

I know I won’t always feel like this.

All things pass.

For the first time in over ten years, I wanted to just sleep and sleep today. I didn’t want to be me. I didn’t want to feel sad anymore.

When I ignore my sadness and refuse to cry (because I’m so darn sick of it), my body/mind will wake me at 3 in the morning.

So I woke at 3 in the morning.

I still wouldn’t cry.

I ate a buttered, toasted Bays English Muffin with a Coke, finished a book on John of God, and started a memoir by P.D. James. (The latter quite good.)

I went back to sleep at 7 a.m.

I didn’t want to get up at 11, but the room was drenched in sunlight.

I didn’t want to do trauma releasing exercises.

I didn’t want to listen to the usual songs that elicit tears, even though I knew it would make me feel better.

I sat on the couch and drank two bottles of water, plugged in my earbuds and checked what playlists Apple had for me today. (I signed up for the free 3-month trial.)

The 70’s playlist had a song I never heard of by an artist I never heard of. The singer/songwriter was Judee Sill.

She has the voice of an angel. The harmony in her music is out of this world, the lyrics and melodies incredible.

I checked out the original album. Eponymously titled, it was from 1971. How did I never hear of her? I was 14 and 15 years old that year. All I did was listen to music.

Her big influences were Bach, gospel and country.

She signed with David Geffen, was critically acclaimed, opened for legendary rock groups, but never became a big name herself–even though the legends she opened for recognized she was way ahead of everyone else in terms of her songwriting.

Her second album came out in 1972 and there wasn’t another.

She had a terrible childhood and eventually became addicted to drugs, having to resort to prostitution in the end to feed her habit. She died of an overdose in 1979. She’d been forgotten by then.

I couldn’t get enough of her today.

Music can make me feel connected to myself and then I feel grounded and somehow recognized. I need to remember that.

Check out the fabulous artist, Judee Sill.

 

Eventually I flipped through other playlists. Guess which was the song that did the trick, got me crying even though I didn’t want to?

Mel Torme’s “That’s All”.

Ach! I’m such a romantic.

Anyway, I sobbed and sobbed and felt better. I didn’t feel as tired. I took my shower and did some errands, made a couple phone calls and scheduled my first yoga class for tomorrow.

 

 

Ode to the Cotton Bug VI

 

Oh Cotton Bug, Oh Cotton Bug,

Hello.

What’s happening?

Remember when we watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians together?

Or I imagined us watching it together anyway,

you in your glass bubble

me on the couch in my human container.

Good times.

I think you’re the only one I’ve connected with out here,

besides my uncle.

That doesn’t mean I want you back.

You go your way and I’ll go mine.

That’s the way it’s got to be.

Still…I’ll never forget you, Cotton Bug.

So long.

 

PTSD Freeze

Even though I knew I was doing all I could to care for Jack’s congestive heart failure and kidney disease last year, unconsciously I felt increasingly powerless and ineffectual. I think tennis is so appealing to me right now because I succeed in my intention to hit the ball across the net over and over and over again. It’s cathartic and gives me a sense of competence. It also releases a lot of tension.

Speaking of releasing, I do my Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) every day.

One morning, I did TRE before tennis and, oh-my-gosh, I was on fire–or “in the zone”, as the tennis pro said. He asked what happened. I thought it was possible the TRE I did beforehand helped, although I didn’t tell him that.

In a trauma situation, the psoas muscle is activated first. It is in your deepest core and connects to your leg muscles so you can immediately fight or take flight. If you can’t fight or take flight, and the trauma goes on too long and you don’t get a chance to release that crazy life-or-death energy in a timely fashion, you freeze and can tighten up at your core and eventually get lots of physical symptoms like IBS (because you can’t digest in a fight or flight situation—only diarrhea and/or constipation), insomnia, all sorts of pain, inability to cry, and so on.

My childhood situation went on too long without a safe place or person to accommodate the release of my trauma energy. I was too young, small and dependent to fight or run, so I froze at various levels (emotionally numb, physically numb, etc.).

Every once in a while I physically freeze in situations that evoke some level of fear or apprehension.

About eight years ago, I stood with Jack on a Chicago street. Suddenly, a potentially dangerous scenario between the police and a man who appeared deranged and violent was playing out a few feet away from us. I remember wanting to back away from the situation. At the same time, I saw Jack moving closer. I tried to move towards Jack to pull him back and found myself frozen from the waist down. It was crazy. I couldn’t move. It dissipated, but ugh. Don’t like to feel like a little kid again, but the survival brain transcends the thinking brain so what can you do…

The following is kind of absurd. The tennis pro was trying to teach me something new last week—to punch the ball at the net, not swing–because there’s no time. I felt apprehensive, unsure of what to do. He started hitting balls at me fast and furious. Guess what happened.

For a few seconds, I locked up from the waist down! I could move at the waist and lean into the ball, but I briefly couldn’t move my legs. I was like, Give me a break, Survival Brain. We’re not exactly anticipating the threat of annihilation here.

It’s like my body learned this paradigm to survive when I was a kid and every once in a while, when I get a sense of apprehension, it won’t allow me to move until it assesses the situation.

I love my survival brain. Sometimes it’s like Shane with Alan Ladd (saw that last night). Sometimes it’s Don Quixote. Either way, it’s protected me for such a long time.

The best thing for me—and my tennis game—is to stay loose with Trauma Releasing Exercises.

 

***

Why do 90% of sports socks have compression arches now? They didn’t have them for decades. I do not believe the sock manufacturers of the world got together and said, What can we do that will unnecessarily increase our budget, but will potentially benefit the feet of our consumers? Let’s do something altruistic because love and compassion are what we’re all about.

I think it must be somehow cheaper for them to manufacture these socks by double knitting that area over the arch. Forgive my cynicism, but it just doesn’t make sense to me they would voluntarily do anything that doesn’t increase their bottom line.

I do not like these socks. By nightfall, my feet are super sore under the “protected” area–and I never had an issue with my arches.

I don’t like it when something is presented as if it’s to my advantage, but  it’s really to the advantage of the other party.

***

It’s going to take time to meet new friends here in AZ. I’m trying new things like a boxing lesson next week.

 ***

 

Ode to the Cotton Bug V

 

Oh Cotton Bug, Oh Cotton Bug

Where have you gone?

Is the season over

and you’ve gone on to more accommodating climes?

Was I your Palm Beach?

Was I your Breakers?

Or maybe I was West Palm Beach

and one of those little old, dank motels across the street from the big ones on the water.

Was I caviar?

Or chopped liver?

I finished watching all 300+ episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

I thought maybe I could take a selfie of us in my closet

before I flushed you down the commode.

But you’re gone.

“When the rain beats against my window pane

I’ll think of summer days again

and dream of you.”

Goodbye Cotton Bug.

Goodbye.

  

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