The night episodes started when I was 7 years old. I would wake up from nightmares in a full-blown panic attack. I would be so hysterical that I would end up running to the bathroom to puke. Sometimes I didn’t make it and I would vomit in my bed. This was also when the binge eating started. While my mother worked and my grandmother stayed in the downstairs part of the house, I would get a stepping stool so I could reach the stove and cook pasta for myself in the upstairs kitchen. I would always make a lot so I could fill myself up with it. I remember being full from the food made me feel so much better. I also remember being incredibly angry.
While the nightmares and panic attacks during sleep continued throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, the depression worsened during my high school years, specifically 9th grade. I would stay home from school and sleep all day. My friends would stop by after school and hang out with me on my bed. Here is an example of one of the recurring nightmares I had. As you can see it almost mirrors the abuse I experienced in the hands of my biological father. Link:
I’m being held captive by a man. He keeps me in a small room. I know he is planning to torture me. He lets me go out in public. I try to plan my escape. I begin trying to talk to others so they can help me. Instead they help him and help him keep me captured. I try to talk to him and get him to open up so he won’t hurt me. He begins to open up to me. I feel sorry for him.
I put myself in therapy at age 18. I remember I had been depressed about a social situation and couldn’t deal with the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness anymore. I began seeing a therapist in my town. I remember being frustrated because the therapist kept making me address my childhood. I didn’t want to talk about my childhood. I was not coping well with my current life situations and I was desperate for the emotional pain to stop. She encouraged me to read the book, “Adult Children of Alcoholics”. I insisted that the way I cope with situations had nothing to do with my upbringing, so I discontinued going. I was finally out of the house and in college. I was extremely angry and unwilling to revisit the experiences. And while I was certainly depressed, I had developed a lack of affect as well. I didn’t cry. Ever. I was numb. I also didn’t remember huge chunks of my childhood anyway and I felt that was for a reason. It was just better to look forward (so I thought).
While it was apparent that I had been in and out of depressions for many years, the anxiety was something that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was 21 years old and fresh out of college with a degree in psychology. And let me just say, thank God I was working in the field of mental health when the onset occurred because my colleagues were able to pinpoint what was going on with me. For some reason I just thought it was another episode of depression and I never thought straight during those. The anxiety made all of my senses hypersensitive, especially my hearing and sight. I would binge eat in attempt to fill that horrific void in my stomach and chest, and I was easily brought to tears with the sheer feeling of panic over irrational thoughts and worrying. I constantly felt like I couldn’t feel my breath in my lungs and would take deep breaths in attempt to compensate. The worst part was that I completely stopped sleeping. I was a zombie.
A good friend and colleague sent me to her general practitioner who was in our insurance network. When I arrived to the appointment, I was an utter mess. I sobbed as I told the doctor what I had been going through. In that 20-minute appointment (and I’m being generous here with the time), I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, comorbid depression and psychophysiological insomnia, and prescribed medications: Lexapro (a serotonin reuptake inhibitor – SSRI), Xanax (an extremely addictive antianxiety medication/benzodiazepine) and Ambien (a really dangerous sleep medication). I would grow to become dependent on the Xanax and abuse the ambien. I will discuss my dependence on these drugs in a different article. To say the least, western medicine only prolonged my healing process, as I spent years suppressing the symptoms of my suffering – instead of facing and healing them.
I began seeing a new psychotherapist once a week to learn coping strategies for the anxiety as well as address the underlying causes of my mental and emotional state. I was still incredibly angry, but this time willing to discuss my past. Getting a psych degree and working in the mental health field really helped me understand the unconscious mind and that I needed to address my PTSD if I wanted to improve my quality of life. I was also having relationship issues with my boyfriend and sabotaging friendships with women. I was exhibiting black and white thinking, frequent flight/fight responses and doing the whole, “I’ll leave you before you can leave me” thing with pretty much everyone in my life. My lack self-worth and abandonment issues were spilling out all over the place, and it wasn’t pretty.
I continued in psychotherapy for 7 years with the same therapist. She was great. She didn’t let me get away with my shit, she held me accountable, and she was warm and caring when I needed. Through psychotherapy, I was really able to understand the “whys.” I still like to understand why people do the things they do and are the way they are, but I don’t make it the sole point of focus. I also learned some coping techniques for my anxiety such as breathing exercises, visualization and tense-release methods. I was able to identify my self-sabotaging patterns and realized that I was not feeling worthy of love in my life, from men or from friends. This awareness of my tendencies was a huge step in my journey. It also gave me someone to vent to, which I didn’t realize is therapeutic in itself. Talking things out with a professional who can lead you to self-realization is profound. Even though I focus more on spiritual interventions at this point in my life, if that therapist was in my neighborhood today I would still be in her office once a week. While psychotherapy with a stellar therapist helped me tremendously, I really believe that there is somewhere in the journey where spirituality takes over – for me anyway.
I’m going to fast-forward here because I want to focus more on the effects of abuse here rather than intervention, as I will speak more about that in other articles. I continued to work on myself to peel off the many, MANY layers of anger I had. Through tumultuous relationships with men and dysfunctional friendships with women, self-hatred and self-destruction, dependence on benzos for 9 years (and withdrawal from them as well), weight fluctuation from overeating and then starving from anxiety, horrific insomnia and more, I must stay that, for the first time my life, I feel like I’m in control. I’ve learned not to act on every thought and emotion that comes up (and A LOT of them come up). I’m able to observe myself when I get triggered. While the physical symptoms of anxiety come up, I’m learning more and more to breathe and remain present. When I’m under stress I will still wake up in the night, sometimes from nightmares, but now I know how to de-escalate from that and actually fall back asleep with focused breathing and meditation. I’ve found a happy place with exercise, appropriate diet/hydration and supplements. I’m off of all psychotropic medications. I’m connected to my spirituality and take measures to remain there every day. I’ve learned that my thoughts are not me and I can observe them instead of identify with them. I work on myself every day. I take accountability for my experience – all of my experience. I do not victimize myself anymore. I’m kind to other people and animals. I smile even if I’m dying on the inside. At times I allow myself to go back into the darkness, but I don’t unpack there. I don’t give up.
While I’ve made a lot of progress, I am by no means in any position to say that my work is complete. I want to be very honest here, I don’t think I will ever be one of those genuinely happy people inside. I think people learn to be like that during their childhood, and I didn’t have a childhood. I still struggle with my self-esteem, especially with body issues. I battle with feeling worthy in relationships, more so with men than with woman. I force myself to take compliments because it’s socially acceptable. I still struggle with the association of love with guilt. Growing up, I felt guilty for having hateful thoughts towards my abusers and wanting to hurt them. I also felt guilty for feeling love towards them when I believed I should feel hate. I felt guilty for being angry. I felt guilty when someone loved me because I felt undeserving. I still experience guilt when I experience love. It’s something I have to identify as it comes up and remind myself that I am deserving and worthy of it. My amazing hypnotherapist invited me to read the book, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” by Dr. Karyl McBride. There were many, many things that I related to in the book, however, one part in particular really resonated with me. The author discusses this phenomenon that occurs with adult daughters of narcissistic mothers where the daughter feels like an imposter. The daughter is conditioned to internalize negative messages and therefore doesn’t feel deserving of even significant accomplishments. I have felt this way my whole life, on both large and small scales. It’s like I have the world convinced I’m a good person but inside I’m a piece of shit. To this day I have difficulty acknowledging my achievements.
For me the main component of making progress is being committed to it on a daily basis and having compassion for myself while I make what I perceive to be mistakes and/or setbacks. I push myself out of my comfort zone. I succeed. I fail. I get up. I try again. I understand that triggers are going to come up and I can observe the feelings and thoughts I have without reacting. I am still, and will probably always be, a work in progress.