I told my therapist this morning that ‘I don’t know how to say nice things’. ‘What nice things?’, you may be asking. You know…how at times, you are asked to write a character reference for someone who is applying for university or a new job or a grant and you try to write nice things…good and positive attributes of that person? This is the ‘nice things’ that I am talking about. The past three months I agonised over my personal statement that I needed to write in order to convince the university selection committee that I am worthy of one spot out of the twelve allocated for postgraduate studies. Applicants are allowed to ask a family member (or members) to write a character reference. My wife wrote one that for me. It was beautiful. She definitely sees me in a very different light from how I see myself most of the time. Reading what she wrote and looking at the language and words that she used, I realised that I don’t know how to say nice things. If the tables were turned and my wife asked me to write a character reference, I wouldn’t know how to write one. This is sad isn’t it? Knowing that you can’t articulate in words to say how wonderful someone is, especially when that said person is someone really important in your life, has only recently come to my awareness. I don’t have a template on how to do this at all. What I am very good at is saying stinging words of criticism that I have had a lot of practice. I was at the receiving end of a lot of these type of scathing remarks from my teachers and most of all from my mother. They were my mentors in this regard.
Would I ever un-learn this way of communicating? Would I ever find the words needed to say nice things? It’s strange how my experience as an english teacher has not taught me the vocabulary that is needed for a lot of what’s going on with me. The years of abuse has stripped me of any modicum of self respect and all that is left js self-loathing. How can I love and appreciate someone else when I don’t even remotely feel much love for myself? I don’t know… It is so easy to be aware or have insight about what needs to be done to heal from complex trauma. It is putting it into the work that needs to be done through therapy, self-reflection, journaling, meditation is very, very, very difficult.
It’s strange when something you used to find comforting has become distressing. Picking up my fountain pen and writing down my thoughts used to be helpful. Somehow, I have found writing has become extremely difficult the past couple of months. This is why I haven’t written anything for weeks now, despite having the time to do since I have taken time off work.
My partner was subtly trying to tell me that I should start writing again, even if it is just jotting down short sentences or words. Even this, I have found difficult. As I write this post, my mind struggles to find the words to describe the mess of my thoughts and feelings, or should I say, lack of feelings. Sometimes, feeling extreme sadness is better than feeling nothing. Even my thoughts are quiet but messy. Not sure if any of you out there know what I mean by ‘quiet but messy’, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
Since quitting work, it feels that I have also quit on everything else in my life. The only things I am able to do is read and run. If it weren’t for Alfie, my 12 week old black Labrador, that would be all that I would do. I still meet my running buddy for our weekly weekend runs, only missing them when she’s away or the weather is bad. With Alfie, I am able to force myself to head out of the house to do something social. Running with someone else, does not equate to much socialising if you’re huffing and puffing. He’s very adorable and mischievous and can be handful at times, but, Alfie keeps me grounded in a sense that he is totally dependent on me. I focus on taking care of him when I am unable to take care of myself.
With no needing to manage my anxieties around work and work relationships the past 3 months, it leaves me with a lot of time for self-reflection and for working through all the bad things that has happened to me. This has left me feeling empty and overwhelmed all at once, thus, the title of this post is ‘Flooding Emptiness’. To be honest, I am writing this post now in an attempt to quiet my mind by giving words that would describe everything that has happened, how it is making me feel and what my thoughts are as I work through all this baggage during therapy and after. I don’t think I can find the words just yet. It is too painful and unmanageable if I try harder to find the words. At least I have finally made myself post something after such a long time of quietness.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything here. My last entry was April 21st, which was my farewell drinks with colleagues from work as I quit my job as a Mental Health Nurse the day before. There was no obligation of fulfilling my one month’s notice & I was given the choice to have my last day at work at any time from when I tendered my resignation. I have never knew such a thing was remotely possible. In my birth country (Malaysia), this would be unheard of and utterly impossible.
I titled this post with “To Have Space for Myself” because, I’ve never had space for myself. The truth is, I have only recently realised that I’ve lived my life, not knowing that I was living it based on expectations set by my late mother (my father was never really present, he was indifferent and let my mother call the shots for most of everything) and based on what I thought are pragmatic choices. There is nothing wrong with making choices that are pragmatic. It only becomes problematic when EVERY DECISION you make is a pragmatic one, slowly eroding your sense of self and the eventual erasure of who you could have been if you were given a chance to have some ‘space’ to blossom.
I’ll be turning 43 this November and since quitting my job, I have been given the ‘space’ to blossom to be the person I could have become, but, I am truly lost as I have finally realised that I have no self. I don’t know who I am, what I want, or what I need. I have been so conditioned to not want to want anything for fear of crushing disappointment as well as the core belief that I am not worth anything.
What I am trying to say is that, I am so blessed to have this opportunity to have ‘space’ to figure myself out, to grieve what I have lost and to make sense of all the abuse inflicted on me growing up. This whole notion of finally accepting that the abuse was really bad, is still a notion that I struggle to embrace because I have truly believed that what happened to me was not at all that bad and I must have been such a bad sister/daughter that I deserved it all.
This post is dedicated to my spouse for always being there for me. I can very surely say that you are the only person that has shown love and kindness that I never thought I deserve.
A trauma brain is a brain that is reactive and vigilant all of the time, affecting the way we regulate our emotions, heightening our sense of anxiety and making it hard to trust anyone. Scientific data shows that traumatic stress can reduce the functioning of the prefrontal cortex that is responsible to assist us to analyse and think logically, regulate and interpret emotions, control impulses and solve complex problems.
I’ve been unable to write anything the past 4 to 5 months because my mental health has been deteriorating. There has been so much going on at work, mostly interpersonal relationships with my colleagues, that has been very challenging because I find it very difficult to set boundaries and be assertive, thus, to avoid conflict, I bend over backwards to avoid it at all cost, making me a people pleaser. My therapy sessions the past months have all been about interpersonal struggles at work, feelings of utter helplessness in my inability to set boundaries and be assertive.
I started this blog entry with an ambition that I was going to write a long one this time around since my long hiatus, but, I don’t think I can manage it, so, I am going to cut to the chase. What I really want to say is that I now have insight that all my interpersonal struggles the past couple of months, validating as it is, was exacerbated by my trauma brain. Everything gets amplified, and thrown out of proportion. I know now because today is my farewell with my colleagues as I have made a very difficult decision of resigning from my work as a mental health nurse to focus on myself… to pause and focus on my recovery. It still feels like I have given up at this point, but I am certain that I’ve made the necessary decision because I am in a really, really bad place. My colleagues gave me a bouquet of flowers and a hand made card, which was painted in watercolour by my associate charge nurse! (the profile picture of this post is the handmade card) and lots of hugs and encouragement. One of my colleague reminded me this: “You are walking the talk as how we always tell our clients. You’re not giving up because you know, that you will never say this to your client. I am so glad you have made this decision to focus on yourself to heal.”
What I’ve realised from this is, “I need to let people in… I need to learn to trust again… it’s time to stop keeping people at bay.”
I came across a new app developed in locally in New Zealand called Groov. It’s an extension from their parent app, Mentemia. It’s been helpful to keep me grounded. I’m going to see if I can try these activities that they recommended.
This entry is a short one. I have been in a depressive episode for the past 7 weeks or so now. At times like this, my mind automatically generates unhelpful thoughts and feelings, that despite knowing that there is validity in them, these thoughts and feelings are unhelpful in my work towards my own recovery. The skill that you’ll read about shortly is one skill that I am still working on, putting it into practice when my mind isn’t too bogged down by the cloud of depression. It is a skill that I show and do with my patients to continue using as it can be a way to get us out of the incessant loop of negative thoughts and feelings that gnaw on us until it feels that there is nothing left of us to salvage.
I hope you find this helpful as it has been helpful for me.
“You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to sift” – Jon Kabat-Zann
According to Russ Harris in ACT Made Simple (2009), cognitive diffusion is:
– Looking at thoughts rather than from thoughts/emotions.
– Noticing thoughts/emotions rather than becoming caught up in those thoughts/feelings.
– Letting thoughts/feelings come and go rather than holding onto them.
For example, the thought, “I’m useless” is a common thought that most of us can relate to. In cognitive defusion, instead of being caught up in that thought, we notice it instead and say, “I have the thought that I am useless.” The act of noticing and saying that thought/feeling to ourselves aloud or in our head, creates a sense of distance and allows us to be in the here and now (being present) in order to live the life we want to live.
The last post I wrote about how I am coping with work was on January 17, 2021. I know that it has not been too long ago for an update about how I am coping at work, so, I thought I share some thoughts on what’s going on.
The past 2 to 3 months, work has been exhausting. I find myself dragging myself out of bed when the alarm goes off and forcing my brain to stop the anxiety thought loop that would start the moment I open my eyes. The level of stress I feel on each work day is all consuming and difficult to describe in words. Recovery is long and difficult and the days when I feel that things might finally start to look up, these days never seem to last long enough for me to sustain some respite from the constant struggle day-in-day-out. At work, it seems that my eyes and mind are focused on the task at hand but my soul was somewhere far away, like a distant observer watching me carry out work tasks, one after the other.
Since the start of last week, I have taken some time off work. I have 4 more days remaining for some respite before I need to go back to work at the start of next week. I am not looking forward to it as I know what it entails. But, life goes on, and I need to continue pushing forwards, even when I feel I’m dragging myself through mud. My relationship with my colleagues have been difficult because I still don’t have the language I need to create boundaries and to be assertive. My opinions and ideas doesn’t get heard or it just gets disregarded during meetings. Decisions have been made on my behalf while I am away from work, assuming that whatever this decision might be, would be ok with me. I don’t have a voice yet. Maybe, one day, this would change. I need to start learning to find the words to create boundaries and to be assertive.