Letting People In…

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.”

5 fun things to do

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.

sharing.mentemia.com/shared/linkid-5-fun-things-to-do-by-yourself

How Work is Like Currently

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.

When Your Teeth Tells a Story

Last week I had my visit to the dentist in 2 years. Yes, I know it is waaaay too long to not see a dental hygienist or a dentist. I know that now. Growing up, I remember the first time I learnt how to brush my teeth in school. In Malaysia in the mid-80s, 7 year olds, will sit crossed legged on the concrete ground, one hand brandishing a new toothbrush, while the other a tube of Colgate toothpaste. We were each given a plastic cup, either a blue one of red one. No one had the option of choosing the colour of preferences. Our cups were filled with water. As you remember, I did mention that we sat crossed legged on the concrete floor. So, no bathroom sinks or a mirror on the wall. The whole cohort of 7 year olds, eyes glued to a nurse that showed us how to brush our teeth properly. Whether or not I knew what I was doing was beyond the point. I was just excited to sit with all the other 7 year olds, imitating the movements of the nurse, as my mouth is flooded with tooth paste foam and the taste of mint on my tongue.

You must wonder why I am telling you this story… I am telling this story to immortalise this somewhat mundane occurrence, because I realised something in therapy today. This exact moment was when I learned how to brush my teeth for the first time.

My therapist made me realised that I never had the experience of learning something this mundane from my parents. My mother did not show me how, neither did my father. Somehow, I can understand why my father never took the initiative to teach me, as he only brushes his dentures once a day… in the morning. My father has been wearing dentures for most of his adult life. As for my mother, I have no idea why she never took the time. She would shout from the kitchen or from whichever room she was in around bed time to remind me to brush my teeth. I was never interested in brushing my teeth when I was 4, 5, or 6. There were many nights that I would fall asleep without brushing my teeth.

After that morning in school when I was 7, I remembered that I actually felt ‘excited’ in the mornings and before bedtime, when I needed to brush my teeth. Like a lot of things, it was novel, new, exciting! It takes so little for a child to find the wonder in things. As adults, this magic only happens when we take note of the little things around us.

So… back at the dental clinic… I opted for no anaesthetic before the procedure. I knew it was going to be uncomfortable and of course, it would hurt. But, I just wanted to feel the pain, the physical pain… so, it would numb out the emotional pain. As the dentist drilled and chipped away the decay in my molar, I winced and clenched my fists. This went on for an hour. There was a lot that needed to be done.

The dentist sat me down, in front of large computer screen, with multiple snapshots of my teeth, as well as frames of x-rays…I am not a dentist, but what I saw on the screen, tells me that my teeth is not doing very well. The dentist looked at me, her surgical mask on, that split moment before she spoke, I could see in her eyes that… ‘this does not look good’. She was kind, professional and there was not a single tone of judgement, while she explained what the pictures on the screen are showing. Still, despite her her kindness, I was embarrassed…. I can’t put all the blame to my parents for never showing me how to care of my teeth as a child, but, I know there is truth in what my therapist told me this morning, that my the damage to my teeth, is a bigger reflection of the kind of neglect that I have endured as a child.

A Small Win

For the past two weeks, I wanted to buy something, anything… a new tech… that’s my go to whenever I my mood drops. I’ve written about this in my earlier blog post. I was restless, numb and indifferent. The ‘need’ to buy something expensive was very strong. My impulsive brain was going on overdrive.

Well, I didn’t cave this time around to this impulse. Went out with my partner yesterday afternoon, stopped by a tech shop that I usually get my tech gadgets from, and I was able to resist that gnawing impulse to buy something.

It wasn’t that bad afterall.

Can’t Believe it’s Been A Year

WordPress sent me a notification that my first post was exactly a year ago. My first reaction was, “Has it already been a year?!”

A simple notification such as this can jolt and remind us that time is so fleeting. It is so easy to just live my days, moving through the motion that ‘I am walking through the path of my mental health recovery’. I do realise that my mental health is no longer as bad as how it was exactly a year ago, but this realisation does not discount the fact that the daily struggle is utterly exhausting.

New Zealand is currently in lockdown due to community cases of the Delta variant of COVID 19. Even though I am concerned about COVID, I can’t help but also feel a sense of deep relief that I can stop struggling so hard every day, just so that I can function at work, and be my best for the clients I work with.

I just have to keep reminding myself that “things will get better.”

Exhausted

Everything I am doing is towards mt recovery. Every decision I make on a daily basis is rooted on ‘doing the work’. The constant juggling of emotions, thoughts, exercise, work, studies and self care is exhausting. My therapist reminded me that I have come a long way from where I was at 13 months ago. My rational brain knows that what he said holds true in my recovery journey, but, I haven’t reached a point where I feel totally comfortable in acknowledging that just yet.

Our Dog Boyd

Boyd came to live with us a day before New Zealand went into a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Our previous dog, Marlow, has just passed a week prior, and I was devastated. I knew that I needed to adopt another dog to fill the void. I was in a bad place at the time, still recovering from a concussion and my mood started to slide into a depressive episode. I found Boyd on the Dog Rescue Dunedin (DRD) website and instantly felt a connection to him when I read his profile. It was probably due to the fact that Boyd has had a difficult life prior to being put up for adoption. He has lived with 3 other foster homes, and things has not panned out well for him. I emailed the DRD coordinator (whom will be referred to as Donna) to enquire about Boyd, and she rang me on a Saturday evening. From the start, Donna was apprehensive and tried to describe how Boyd is like behaviourally; how he is anxious with other dogs, how he requires someone to slowly build a bond with; she told me about him being at 3 other foster homes. She describes that he will whine and howl loudly during walks if there was another dog in sight. Somehow, I knew Boyd would be the perfect dog for someone like me. He was unloved and traumatised in his youth. It was almost like I wanted to protect him so that in some way, I could recover from my own traumatic experiences.

Marlow and Hugo

Within a couple of days, I met Boyd and brought him out for walks, to get acquainted with him. Boyd came to visit my home and was slowly introduced to our four cats, just to see if he would tolerate them: which he did, almost perfectly. The whole adoption process happened very quickly, and Boyd came to live with us on the 24 March 2020. I spent a lot of time with him at home, working with him to get him settled. He was very anxious. I had about 8 months with him at home because I was recovering from a concussion and then in June 2020, I took time off work for almost 4 months before going back to full time work in December 2020. Boyd brought some calm in my life at that difficult time, and I knew that he too, found solace being with me. Throughout this period from the 24 March to November 2020, Boyd has bit into the aluminium window lock and jumped out the window, twice. Once was within the first 2 weeks of him moving with us. It was a windy night and our house rule about dogs is that, the bedroom is off limits. He settled quite well the first 6 days, sleeping in the living room on his own, until that windy night. That was the first time he bit and broke the window lock and jumped out. I woke up the next morning to a broken window and a missing Boyd. Luckily, he didn’t go far. He decided to take shelter at a bus stop just two doors down. He has been sleeping with us since that night.

This pattern of escape continued from the beginning. Just when my partner and I thought that he has finally settled and feel comfortable that we will always come home after work. When I went back to work in December of 2020, I constantly worry that Boyd would hurt himself, escape our back yard (which he has numerous times)… mending the broken fence each time has not deterred him. We couldn’t keep in alone in the house because he would break the window and jump out. Our garage is under the house, it’s quite a height and we didn’t want him to hurt himself. We’ve had neighbours put in complaints of him whining and howling to the city council while we are away at work.

Boyd is very attached to us now, especially me. I’ve noticed that his anxiety has gotten worse to the point that he cannot bear being on his own in the living room, even for 10 minutes if I move to the bedroom. There was an incident where I caught him just in time from jumping out the window again, when I was in the bedroom with my partner, putting fresh bed sheets on. We were away for only 10 mins.

Boyd is suffering. I know how that feels. He wants to be with us, love us, but the more he bonds with us, the more petrified he is of losing us because that is probably all he has known his entire life. He is 10 years old now, and I can’t bear to see him so stressed and anxious all the time. It’s cruel. It’s true what dog behaviourists say about dogs like Boyd: there are two categories: those that can be rehabilitated and those that are just broken.

I have to let him go. He will be in a better place very soon. We love you Boyd.

Me and Boyd

For more photos of our cats, Marlow and Boyd, visit our instagram page at: https://www.instagram.com/scorpioneolee/

Going back to Therapy

I have just re-engaged with therapy last week on Friday after taking a break from it to focus on psychological work with a clinical psychology for the past 11 weeks. I am still on a temporary schedule for the next three sessions while waiting for a more permanent slot when it comes up.

When I requested for a session with the therapist, I wasn’t in a good space. I could feel the depression descending and as it always does, it filled me with dread and hopelessness, that this is what the rest of my life is going to be like. I went to bed restless, with my mind, having a field trip of tormenting me. I did eventually fall asleep, albeit a restless one. Somehow, I managed through the next four days at work, with only moments of despair and dread. Only during therapy did I realise that I have fallen back into the habit of coping through numbing and busyness. I wouldn’t have realised this if I did not have a therapy session. Therapy was a good reminder that I need to be mindful to move towards switching to helpful coping styles when I am falling back to old habits of numbing, ambivalence and busyness.

On a good note though, I am starting to enjoy work much more. Anticipatory anxiety every night before bed time is still in the fore, making sleep quite restless. There is a lot of psychological preparation that I need to make to calm myself down and not go into a panic every time I need to facilitate a group. I am not sure when this is going to be less prominent, but, I am hopeful that with time, and lots of practice with grounding skills, it will get easier.

Unrelenting Sadness

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt sadness. This feeling of sadness is like a fog that transcends and envelops me, like a thin veil, always there, always looming, waiting to swallow me whole. Growing up, I was a tenacious kid, curious, playful, always longing for my mother’s attention and love, but never quite getting enough of it. Play with my neighbourhood friends and books, were my way of escaping the sexual abuse that was disguised as play time by my brother, and the emotional and physical abuse that I endured from my mother, every time I pushed the limits of my curfew, so that I could stay out playing with my friends, just a little bit longer. Despite knowing that I would be punished for staying out too late and breaking my curfew, I continued to stay out late because the joy and freedom I felt, for being a child, savouring each play time as though it would be my last. It was bliss before the storm – the pain endured after was worth this playful freedom.

In my teens, play time naturally ceased as my mother’s academic expectations of me skyrocketed. There was no time for play. My mother was relentless in keeping me on a strict study schedule around the house chores that was expected of me. Also, sexuality was confusing for me as a teen. Sex was to me, a form of brotherly sisterly love, and this was all I knew. I felt his love being stripped away when my brother suddenly stopped ‘playing’ with me. As my girl friends in school talked about boys with such fervour, I on the other hand, did not shared those proclivities, and because of this, I was quite the outlier that way. Books then were still my best escape from this sadness that I don’t quite understand and when I read, I felt free to explore the worlds that are so eloquently described. I devoured any book that I can get my hands on, be it in the school or public libraries or books that I rented out with food money that I saved. I hardly bought books fresh from the shelves as I never had enough money to do so. Nourishing my mind and soul with words were more important than feeding hunger. Sadness became more pronounced as I tried to numb myself from the gnawing loneliness that I felt and frequent masturbation became a substitute for the lost of brotherly ‘love’, to fill the void inside me.

When I turned 17, I flung myself into my first romantic relationship with a boy that showed me interest because I wanted to drown away the sexual attraction I had for my best friend in school, who is a girl. I wanted to cure my ‘homosexual tendencies’, per say and this boy was my get away ticket. I clung to his love like my dear life depended on it. The relationship lasted 7 years and finally, he could no longer love me, as I have put all my hopes and desires to be loved onto him and did not notice that I was suffocating him with my neediness and my need to squeeze every drop of love from him to substitute the lack of love that I never got from my parents. When our relationship ended, a part of me died with it as I was convinced that I was and never will be loveable and the sadness became all consuming.

In my twenties, I cling to any affection that I can get from anyone that showed me any flicker of romantic interest. I was open to dating any guy that wanted to date me and I would be sexual with them, if that is what it takes to feel wanted and loved. Ironically, it only left me empty and when it is all over, feeling of shame and guilt would wash over me. Paradoxically, I continued to plunge myself into these relationships, knowing fully that it would only end up hurting me even more. It was like an itch that needed scratching.

Being in my early forties now, I am just in the beginning of my journey to lick the wounds of the past. I am only just beginning to put the pieces together and make sense of my life that has passed me in a blur. It is hard not to grief the lost of time and what could have been. This sadness that resides deep inside me will always be my most loyal companion. This sadness pops it ugly head with each day that I take, totally out of my control. Because of this, I let myself ride its wave. Somehow, there is a morbid sense of relief that I know, the option of suicide is possible, it is something within my control, that I can bear to continue living in this sadness, just knowing that I have that option.