Complex trauma and depression: fighting back - and when not to stay with my emotions

Since my last blog post on sexual abuse and emotions I have been on an emotional rollercoaster. At the same time I notice a change: I have made a decision to fight back! In fact, I made this decision the day before I wrote my last blog post. On this day I made several decisions:

  • I am not going to drug myself with psychopharmaceuticals, as I already wrote a fortnight ago,
  • I am going to fight back! I can't go on like this, often on the verge of feeling suicidal, and I need to do my part: fighting back. I need to fight to get out of this shit!
  • I'm going to find myself and apply other tools that can help me. I've started with a very simple meditation (breathing) before going to bed, and I've looked into self-calming and self-soothing techniques for when my emotions overwhelm me.

Up to this point, I think, I had let myself be carried away by my emotions. I did things to protect myself from a possible suicide, I found myself a new psychologist with the necessary training and experience to accompany me in my complex trauma, but I did little else. It was enough to survive, to avoid suicide, but little more. And January was a very difficult month for me and for many of my friends, who were frightened by my state of mind and my thoughts of suicide. Understandable.

All this - and the anger of a friend - eventually led me to take decisions. But, I think, the most important thing has been the change of attitude that came with these decisions. I don't want to let myself crash! I don't want to let my emotions get the better of me!

It has not been easy. In fact, just the day (or, night) after my last blog post, i.e. the night of 1 February, I crashed brutally. This night was possibly the worst night so far. A super fatal night. I wrote to some friends the next morning:

"I couldn't sleep. Every time I lay on my stomach and covered myself, I had to cry, and I can't tell you why I was crying. I was exhausted, maybe even scared. I thought about getting out of bed to go to the bathroom and get a new hot water bottle for my back, and part of me thought about the knives in the kitchen, and another part of me said 'Don't get down!' I didn't go down.

Then I thought about going out, sitting on a bench in the Alameda to cry, and I thought the police are going to come, and oddly enough the thought of swearing at them and shouting at them - letting out all my anger - calmed me down. I don't know when I finally found sleep.

I'm awake now, but I'm going to try to get some more sleep, although I doubt I'm going to get it. But at least these two hours have been enough for me not to feel suicidal".

"I even thought about going to the A&E. But, what can they do? Check me into the psychiatric ward, the men's ward? Drug me? (Mis)treat me as a man, and be "attended" mainly by cis men? It would enhance any suicidality, and, moreover, it would be highly re-traumatising."

Although it was the worst night, and it also scared me, it also strengthened my determination to fight back. The decision had been made two days earlier, and that night I still lacked the tools to cope with and manage my emotions. That same afternoon I went back to the book Hell Yeah Self Care by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi, and read the chapter on emotions, and found the following:

We all try to get away from negative  emotions from time to time and, sometimes, this is even necessary. For example, if we struggle with suicidality, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other conditions that lead us to spiral into negative emotions, we might need to move away from those, and we'll talk about this a little bit more later.

Hell Yeah Self Care, page 97

"Actually, from a trauma-informed perspective, it's sometimes unwise to go towards feelings - or stay with them - when we're overwhelmed or reactive, or when the feelings are very intense. Certainly, it's not a great idea when we're in the midst of an intense trauma response. The reason for this is that it's easy to re-traumatise ourselves, or further overwhelm ourselves - for example, if we push ourselves into remembering extremely painful things before we are ready, or push ourselves to remain in a state of panic or deep grief in order to "feel the feeling".
So, when is it a good idea to stay with feelings and when not? Our friend Sophia Graham, who writes the Love Uncommon blog, came up with this simple suggestion. She says:

I find the simple 1-10 scale of emotional activation really helpful. I notice my overall emotional activation, irrespective of which emotions I'm feeling, and rate that on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being lowest intensity and 10 being completely overwhelmed. That means just checking in with my body about my current level of emotional activation.

You might have a go at this for how you're feeling right now. What about the last time you felt a big feeling?
Sophia suggests that if our feelings are in the 4-7 range, then we might be in a really good place for practicing staying with feelings. If we're in 1-3, then we might benefit from tuning into what feelings might be there. If we're in 8-10, then it's much more about self-care and self-soothing: bringing ourselves back to a safer, less intense place. Please note that these numbers are subjective and you might want to figure out your own tolerable range. You might want to keep a list of the soothing practices that work for you under those circumstances. (...) A really important part of trauma work is noticing when we're activated and feel unsafe, and being able to take ourselves out of the situation and prioritise taking care of ourselves, rather than forcing ourselves to stay.

Hell Yeah Self Care, page 108-109

It was a revelation! It was very obvious to me that I was often at full emotional activation - a 10 on the scale - and trying to stay with the emotions was not a good idea. And I realised that actually what I was doing a lot of the time was cutting off my emotions in these moments. But, this doesn't work - they always quickly came back even more intense. And, as I already wrote a fortnight ago, I was also unable to stay with the emotion and "complete it", "close it".

After reading this I looked at their suggestions regarding self-soothing. They have two very simple techniques: self-hugging is one of these, and another is to name 5 colours, 4 shapes, 3 textures, 2 sounds and 1 smell or taste in your environment that you can see, touch, hear, taste... I decided to look for more, and found a lot of self-soothing techniques.

With my new determination to fight I started to practice meditation and apply some of the self-soothing techniques when I needed them, with more or less success at times, but I didn't crash so far that I felt on the verge of being suicidal. Although the weeks have been a roller coaster, I have succeeded in managing my emotions in a way that has allowed me not to crash. Often there was little energy left for other things, but I felt more stable overall.

I doubt very much that the techniques alone would have been enough. I think the change in my attitude, my determination to fight back, has been at least as important, if not more so.

Yesterday, after a first attempt at an EMDR session on Monday, I was again terrible, with many difficult emotions, with frustration, fear, anger at myself, shame (more in another post on this blog soon). I don't think I've come this close to feeling suicidal since this fateful night on 1 February. But I didn't crash to this point. It was a hard fight, but I managed not to crash, and, I think, the most important thing this day was my determination to fight.

I will continue to fight back. I will not let myself crash any more.