July 10, 2010
*** trigger warning for dissociative trauma survivors ***
The collage and the material discussed in this blog is emotionally intense and could be triggering. Please be sure that you are in a safe place before reading further.
Trauma survivors with dissociative identity disorder often have to live a double life. There is the public face, full of pretty smiles and general surface chatter that says “I’m fine”, “I’m doing great!”, “I had a good time”, “Nothing is wrong”, etc.
Recognize any of those kinds of cover-up phrases?
Unfortunately, all too often, looking the other side of these statements proves a very opposite reality. The person is feeling anything but “great”.
Every DID survivor I have ever met has a whole repertoire of phrases and quick answers that indicate they are doing well, that everything is ok, even when they actually are not ok. DID survivors know how to cover and hide their pain. Besides dissociating away the evidence, feelings, and awareness of the abuse from themselves, they have also developed a variety of social skills to cover and hide the depth of their confusion, upset, emotions from others.
On the other side of “I’m fine”, there are very different feelings – depression, fear, anxiety, sadness, overwhelm, emotional pain, grief, shame, anger, just to name a few. Sometimes there are flashbacks, body memories, nightmares, self-injuries, addiction issues, etc. There are often feelings related to self-injury, self-destruction, and self-hatred. Sometimes there are incidents of trauma in the current day, or domestic violence, or sexual assault, or date rape. Life can feel pretty dark.
But still, all too often, the survivor will say, “I’m fine.”
The following collage says it well.
In case they are a little hard to read, the words on the collage are as follows:
This can’t be happening
It’s not real
It’s not real
It’s really happening.
What will I say? What do I say?
I can’t breath I can’t breath
I need air.
Gravel in my hair hurts.
What will I say tomorrow?
What if I get grass stains on my dress?
I can’t breathe.
Please God help me. Please.
Please save me.
Someone help me
There’s no on
And he’s on top
And I can’t breathe
And this is hopeless
And I think
I can’t escape
God please —
I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine
I can never tell anyone about this
What would everyone say? They’ll all be bragging
About what a good time they had tonight
I can’t say
This is the night
God abandoned me
That my soul was killed
That the world left me behind.
I had a great time, thanks. Thanks for asking.
In this collage, notice the initial dissociative statements. “This can’t be real” indicates the need to dissociate and separate from what is happening. Even when the artist recognizes that it is really happening to her, she separates herself with the tiny “to me”.
The middle section describes a sexual assault. Some of the pain and discomfort of the abuse is included – for the most part, the details of the rape are not mentioned. However, the fears and pleas for help are included, showing the desperation felt by the woman being assaulted.
Finally, at least for a short while, the abuse has stopped.
It appears, that after the assault happens, this survivor is expected to make a social appearance at a party or a dance. The social event is supposed to be great fun, but how can a social event be fun right after having experienced a sexual trauma?
But still, the survivor says she’s fine.
- What keeps her from talking about what she just experienced?
- Do you understand why she covers and hides the abuse instead of telling others about it?
- Does this survivor remember that she was just assaulted?
- Did she build an amnesiac wall around the abuse?
- Did one insider deal with the trauma, and another insider go to the party?
- Is this survivor denying the abuse?
Part of the healing process is connecting the reality of the situation with the truth of emotion. Chances are, this survivor does not actually feel fine at all.
What could she do now?
Kathy Broady LCSW
Copyright © 2008-2010 Kathy Broady LCSW and Discussing Dissociation
May 9, 2010
It’s Mother’s Day 2010.
Mother’s Day – it’s a hard day for a lot of dissociative trauma survivors. It’s a day full of mixed emotions, painful longings, unhealed heartbreak. This day hurts the people who were hurt so much by their mothers.
Mothers are a complicated subject, to say the least, and the impact a mother can have on her children can and does change their lives. Abusive or neglectful mothers can teach some very damaging life lessons. Their children will carry those scars for decades of time.
I’ve seen this over and over with the DID survivors I work with. Years later, the ways their mother treated them affects so much of their life – maybe even more than they realize. People who were deeply wounded by their mothers often cannot view other maternal figures (Including other female authority figures) without getting confused in that relationship because of who their mother was. The crimes of the original mother spill over onto the relationship any children they might have, making it harder to be a good mother in their own life.
That original mother relationship affects how DID survivors see the world, how they experience people, what they believe about themselves, what they believe about the world around them, and how they interpret others. It is very central to the very core of their being.
Working with mother-transference issues is one of the hardest parts of being a DID therapist. It is the area where the therapeutic relationship is at its most tender. It is the most vulnerable place. It is the spot where issues and feelings can get messed with by people who wish harm upon that therapeutic relationship.
To explain this, let me start from further back.
For example, I was blessed to have a very good mother and she taught me a lot of valuable life lessons. She wasn’t perfect, but she was and is about as close to perfect as one could ever hope for in a mother. She is kind, loving, compassionate, caring, generous with her time, good with children, full of wisdom, patient, gentle, and self-less in so many incredible ways. She has been an example to me for how to interact with people, especially with children. My mother is non-judgmental, and she is willing to dig in and help anyone that she meets. She is a beautiful soul, and she leaves a positive impact wherever she goes.
Yes, my mother has taught me a lot. And almost all of what she has taught me has been good. I do much of what I do because I had an incredible mother who taught me to be kind to others.
Those that spend time with me will see this in my work with them. They will see that kindness, acceptance, gentleness, and generosity in what I do. They will reap the benefits of what my mother gave to me as I pass that on to those that I work with.
So what makes that so hard?
If I am pulling from a good place, what makes mother issues so complicated and difficult to work with?
It’s because not everyone can interpret today’s kindness as genuine kindness. The past wrinkles in and rolls up into the present, and the present becomes twisted into the past in an emotional kind of way.
Sometimes the damage done to trauma survivors confuses kindness with abuse. Sometimes the damage done by an abusive or neglectful mother is so pervasive that it colors all acts done by other females, and the perspective becomes so tainted that nothing is seen clearly. Female therapists are seen through the perspectives of “mother figures will abuse me”, “mother figures will hate me”, “mother figures will think I’m bad”, “mother figures will abandon me”, “mother figures are to be hated”, etc.
When trauma survivors truly believe, in their deepest selves, that women are there to abuse them, it is not an easy job to overcome that belief. The fear is too huge. The expectation of horrible doesn’t end. The fearful expectation of abuse can often overtake everything else.
Frequently the pain-anger-guilt-shame at not having a good mother can get thrown at the female therapist, and displaced and projected onto her as a safe place to express such deep heart-wrenching emotions. Therapeutically, this is expected to happen, and the goal is to work through that in a healing way. Most therapists and clients understand that, and will work through it as a team. It can be done, and when it is, very deep healing can occur.
However, sometimes trauma survivors get a little messed up along their journey. They truly get confused in this area, and understandably so. It’s an emotionally complex point, and trauma survivors are extremely vulnerable in this place. And because of those vulnerabilities, they can be easily misguided. They can get easily confused over who is the “good mother transference figure” and who is not. They listen to poor advice, or bad rumors, or are too unwilling to let go of their fears in order to heal. They stay convinced that women are out to get them, and they quickly join in with thinking that female therapists are abusive.
This breaks my heart.
I found it horrifically sad that some trauma survivors are willing to hold onto such beliefs that they would bring harm to themselves and to others. This only continues the cycle of abuse. It is not about healing. It is destructive.
(Yes, there are a few female therapists who are harmful to their clients, but those are few are far between, and those are not the people I am writing about in this particular article. That’s a completely different topic, to be discussed another day.)
This article is about genuinely good therapists who are mistaken as the “bad mother”. This article is about finding ways to heal from your abuse. It is about finding a woman of kindness, and not confusing her with your not-so-kind mother. It is about recognizing the differences, and not being pulled into old fears, old beliefs, and old ways, just because they are more familiar to you.
It is about learning to recognize someone that can be positive, helpful, and kind to you, and to your inner children. It is allowing that healing to occur. It is keeping clear on what happens in the present, and not distorting it or twisting it into something negative from your past.
It does not help your healing to project your “bad mother issues” onto a good therapist and then stay stuck in that spot. It only confuses you, and it prevents your healing. It brings harm to you and your system to stay stuck there.
Your female therapist can and will teach you something very different from what your mother taught you. Don’t assume the two women will be the same, because they will not be. Don’t project so much of your abusive past onto your current day therapist that you cannot see who she really is. Work hard at recognizing true kindness and gentleness for what it is.
Let yourself and your inner child parts have those corrective emotional experiences with a kind therapist and don’t let anyone mess with that. If you let someone distort those experiences – if you let someone convince you that something was abusive when it wasn’t — then you have brought emotional pain to your inner world that didn’t need to happen. If you weren’t abused, don’t let yourself believe that you were just because that is more familiar. Separate the past from the present.
Haven’t you been hurt enough? Why add to that?
It is important to try to believe that women are not out to get you. Female therapists are not here to harm you. What your mother taught you can apply to her, but it really and truly does not have to apply to everyone else. Your mother may have been cruel, cold, uncaring and abusive towards you. But not everyone will be. Not everyone wants to be.
Don’t assume the worst, and please don’t treat other women as if they did what your mother did.
It is very hard for trauma survivors to come to terms with these truths. But the sooner you do, the sooner you will find that place of genuine healing.
Don’t let the harmful lessons that your abusive or neglectful mother taught you ruin or destroy any more of your life. You truly can heal from the hurt and the trauma that you went through – I promise!
There are lots of good, helpful, kind, compassionate, caring women out here in the world. I encourage you to be one of them.
Kathy Broady LCSW
Copyright © 2008-2010 Kathy Broady LCSW and Discussing Dissociation
April 26, 2009
Every now and then, Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) from HBO’s series, “In Treatment” comes out with a good line, full of depth, and accurate to the therapy process.
In one of the episodes I saw this week, Dr. Weston says, “Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?” His client was throwing all kinds of angry jabs at him when clearly she was angry, upset, and miserable about her own life.
Even though it was said on television, that line has a lot of truth in it.
Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?
I realize that most of you reading this blog are not connected enough with me — Kathy — to make me a likely target for your anger. Frankly, I appreciate that. Believe me, I’m not “volunteering” to be the target.
But, have a think about the people that are closer to you — the people that are more visible in your life.
Is it easier to be angry with your therapist than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your spouse than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your friend than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your boss than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with a stranger than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with yourself than to look at your own pain?
So many people want to deflect their pain by pointing at other people, blaming other people, and being angry with other people. It’s often too hard to sit with your own pain without doing that.
What makes anger easier to express than pain?
How many times have you argued with or fussed at your therapist when you were in deep pain?
What makes your therapist a safe enough person to be the target of your anger?
For people with DID (dissociative identity disorder), it is even more complicated because there are often insiders with memories of pain that they want to talk about, and the host / front alter part may not want to hear about it. Host parts can get angry and upset with their therapists for listening to the inside ones. Why is this so often the case?
Are you getting angry at your therapist instead of looking at your own pain?
Listening to all that a person says is an important part of therapy. Would you rather your therapist not listen to your inner parts? Isn’t that the same as asking your therapist to not listen to you as a whole person? Why should your therapist talk to some of you, but not all of you, especially if those others want to talk about the pain that they are feeling? Why should they be ignored, neglected, shunned?
What if your therapist listened and talked to them, but not to you? It probably wouldn’t go over so well if the shoe were on the other foot.
See, even though you are switching, and you feel very much like different people, your therapist will still see you as the same basic person. While there may be some parts of your system that are more involved with the current day / outside world than others, everyone in your system is still important, and everyone can have their say.
Of course, part of the difficulty here is that some of the insiders speak about things that the host is very very uncomfortable with. Sometimes the insiders speak of trauma memories that the host doesn’t want to hear about. Sometimes the insiders speak of ongoing abuse, or abuse by a loved one. Sometimes the very speaking about abuse at all is more than the host wants to hear.
Another common reason that dissociative trauma survivors express anger at their therapist is because expressing anger at their perpetrators is too complicated. Displacing and projecting anger at your therapists instead of your perpetrators may help to find some version of release of anger, but it isn’t really going to get to the root of the problem, so it’s not going to get the kind of resolution that you might be looking for.
Expressing anger at the people that hurt you — while one might think that should be easy — is actually very difficult for survivors with dissociative disorders. There are a number of different reasons for this:
- The violent, sadistic abuser is still alive and still poses a threat. If you are overwhelmed by your fear of this person, it is harder to feel safe enough to be angry with them.
- You may have been threatened with great harm and more violence if you expressed anger or irritation with your perpetrators. This “rule” is hard to overcome.
- You may be too dissociated from your trauma memories to really know who your perpetrators are. When this is the case, you are at risk of expressing your anger at the wrong people.
- Due to the complications of your family dynamics and trauma memories, you might feel too trapped by your own guilt, or shame, or humiliation to feel able to be angry at anyone else.
Emotions can be very complex and finding a way to safely and honestly express your pain and your anger may take a lot of work and practice.
The next time you are angry at your therapist, think about what Dr. Weston words, “Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?”
Kathy Broady LCSW
March 15, 2009
It is no secret that trauma survivors get depressed, and depression is the most commonly known and experienced mental health disorder.
Typical depression symptoms include:
- Suicidal thoughts, recurring death thoughts, death wishes
- Suicidal behavior and suicide attempts
- Self destructive behavior, self injury, self harm
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, self hatred, or not deserving to live
- Loss of energy, fatigue, excessive sleeping
- Little or no interest or pleasure in anything or anybody
- Inability to think, or to concentrate, or to make decisions
- Significant but unintentional changes in weight loss or weight gain
- Significant but unintentional changes in appetite
- For children, not making normal and expected weight gains and physical growth
For trauma survivors, depression can have layered meanings beyond the typical medical symptoms.
Repeated patterned depressions can be very much related to a specific or recurring trauma, or to a significant loss. For dissociative survivors with DID/MPD, the information detailing the specific loss or trauma may be hidden away or blocked off by dissociative walls. Someone in your system might know why you are feeling depressed, and they might know what the loss is, but the host / front personalities might not have a clue.
Do you have a pattern of depression occurring at the same time of year each year?
Think back through all the years. Do you have any hints that tell you how far back this pattern goes? Do you repeatedly feel the need for hospitalization at the same time each year? Do you find yourself struggling more than usual at the same time each year? Do you find yourself having thoughts of suicide or self-injury more often at a specific time of year? Do you know how long this pattern of depression been happening?
If you have Dissociative Identity Disorder, be sure to check inside and to ask your various inside parts what they have noticed as well. Some of your insiders might have a different awareness of patterns and events than you do.
For repeated patterned depressions, it is important to find the original starting point of this depression pattern. Once you do, you will get more clues as to what it is about.
My general approach to repeated depressions that follow a pattern is to “assume” that there is a trauma-based reason for it. Unless you have a better explanation, in terms of a bipolar type depression pattern, or a seasonal depression pattern, then quite possibly it is a trauma-based pattern.
Look around inside, ask around inside, to see if there is anyone that knows the depressed time of year to be a particularly bad time for them. While you are talking with your system, be sure to pay attention to the following ideas:
- Who inside feels the depression the most?
- Do you see anyone inside who is showing the depression in the way that they are sitting, standing, laying, not communicating, not being “their usual self”, etc?
- When you look at your internal system, who is showing / feeling the biggest list of depression symptoms?
- If you can’t automatically see an internal someone who is depressed, take a broader look at your internal world. When you walk around your internal landscape, can you find-feel-sense the center of it?
- Is there a place inside where the depression feels the most intense vs. the generalized depression of everyone (similar to finding the eye of a hurricane).
Other trauma-related questions you can ask your insiders include:
- Were there any significant losses that happened at this time of year?
- Who in your system has experienced these losses? (Do not assume that everyone in your system is aware of the same losses!)
- Did you or anyone inside lose a child /children, or a close friend, or a loved one at this time of year?
- Are your feelings of grief and loss repeatedly surfacing as a type of depression?
- Was anyone inside specifically traumatized or abused at this point in time each year?
- What happened? What do you know about that trauma?
For dissociative trauma survivors, a significant period of depression can be a very important clue that there is an unresolved trauma waiting to be addressed. If you have the room in your life to explore its foundations, and to address how the trauma issues are related to that recurring depression, you will be able to interrupt and resolve the depression itself.
Kathy Broady LCSW
February 22, 2009
Many trauma survivors with DID, especially those relatively new in the treatment process, often have difficulty accepting that there are “other people inside your head.”
The ideas of losing time (including big chunks of time), losing control of yourself and your mind or your body, having a limited awareness of what has happened in your life, sharing your life with a bunch of others of all different ages, and understanding that all this was caused by severe trauma, can all be difficult realities to grasp.
Inside parts. Dissociative alter personalities. Splits of you, from you, but very different from you.
The willingness to share your life with others can be difficult, especially if you haven’t realized that those others inside have been taking turns already. If this has been happening for years without your awareness, why do you need to know now?
So… if you don’t want them to be there, why are they there? And why is it so hard to accept that they are there?
When someone is experiencing severe trauma that is either physically painful and/or emotionally difficult to tolerate, the need to dissociate increases. If the person cannot escape with their feet, they can escape with their mind. If they cannot physically leave the situation, they can mentally leave the situation by floating away, floating up, or totally blacking out their awareness of such traumatic events.
The more frequently a person has to use their dissociative abilities to leave traumatic situations, the more rigid and firm those dissociative walls can become.
Pretty soon, those dissociative walls become impermeable – sturdy and solid — preventing any information or emotion from crossing through. Young children that need to be ok in the morning for school, and to look happy and cheerful in front of their parents, friends, and teachers, will not be able to do that if they are stressing about how badly they were hurt and injured during the night. The dissociative walls allow them to escape the pain of the trauma while it’s happening, but also to escape the memory and stress of it in the hours and days afterward.
When all too much trauma happens over and over again, young children learn to create other selves to be there instead of them. As these other selves are needed for more and more life events, their life experiences and subsequent personalities develop more and more.
The one child becomes two. Then three. Then four. And every time a particular traumatic situation occurs, the other child created in that kind of situation learns to show up for it. Once child one knows how to split like this, it becomes easier to do it again and again. The child parts themselves can learn how to create parts of their own if needed. For example, if the child doesn’t want to carry the anger about being abused (maybe they know they will get in very big trouble if they show anger), then they can give that emotion to a different part to carry and contain for them.
The dissociative walls between the different parts allow the “containers” to be totally separate from each other, and to not allow seepage, spillage, leakage of information from one person to another.
So as years go by, the child gets older, and becomes an adult… or, for some people, the original child self has stayed hidden and away from the world, and remains so tucked in that even the main adult parts are splits off from the “original child”. Through the years, numerous other splits have happened and there are many others inside.
How does the main adult part manage that? There are too many splits to know them all. There have been too many traumatic events to make sense of it all. There is too much pain, and horror, and distress, and shame, and guilt tucked away in all the different parts.
To accept each of those parts means to accept that they were specifically split off and created for a reason. It means, they have feelings or historical information that could be difficult to digest and hard to live with. It means that there is a whole lot more to the story. Any part that was given the job to “be the happy one” or “act like nothing is bothering you” or “function like you have no problems” will have a hard time connecting to all the parts that have been exposed to the trauma information and intense feelings.
Even as adults safe from ongoing trauma, those dissociative walls that were once created for protection and to maintain a great distance between the person and the “too much for me” piles will still be in place, even if they are not as necessary as they were in the middle of current trauma. However, it is also true, that as time passes and the amount of ongoing trauma decreases, those dissociative walls can begin to crumble and weaken and chip apart. It is not “natural” to have to be dissociative, so if there is no trauma forcing the dissociation to stay in place, those dissociative walls will begin to shrink. PTSD, emerging trauma memories and an increasing awareness of the others inside will begin to be more obvious.
However, that puts the dissociative person into an uncomfortable in-between place. They are not totally dissociating away the awareness of everything, but they do not yet have sufficient information to make a clear picture of what they are figuring out. It’s like having a 1000 piece puzzle, and while 250 of the pieces might be in place, it is very hard to figure out where to put the 251st piece. The picture is not clear. The individual pieces do not make sense. It is not obvious what anything is. It’s a very frustrating place, and at this point, it feels like too much of the news is bad news.
The dissociation that has been there for years already makes it hard to think differently. The dissociative walls kept tons of specific information away from the person’s awareness, and as long as the person remains partially dissociative, the new information will have that “not real” feeling to it. The traumatic information that is still too far on the other side of that dissociative wall will not yet feel “real”. The dissociative wall that helped you separate the trauma from yourself is still keeping the reality of that information separated from yourself.
The partial dissociation makes it not feel real.
The parts of you that are not dissociated from that information will not have any doubt about how “real” it is. They may not like it, but they have no doubts about knowing what happened.
But if there is a dissociative wall standing between you and the others inside, you could have trouble accepting their reality as yours.
The dissociation keeps it separated from you.
That just means you are in the middle of the process. If your dissociative wall is 100 bricks tall, and you have only knocked down 17 of them, the trauma and those other insiders are not going to feel totally real or connected to you. It will be considerably different once you have knocked down 53 bricks, and even more different when you have knocked down 79 bricks. When you have knocked down all 100 bricks, you’ll be totally connected with the experiences of the others inside. Their reality will be the same as yours, and vice versa. You will all know the whole story of what happened on the time line of your life.
Give yourself the time that it takes to address all that is on the other side of those dissociative walls. I can promise you, you won’t want to be flooded with ALL of that information at once. BUT, do know in your head, that it takes a lot of work to be emotionally and mentally connected with everything that you had to block off.
While you are partially dissociative, some things really won’t feel real. While you’ve done a portion of the work, you won’t know where everything fits in the whole picture.
The more you get to meet and to really know your inside people, the less you will be affected by the dissociative walls. The more real your relationships are with your insiders, the more real and connected you will be to all the pieces of your life.
As long as you put in effort to stay distant and separated from the others inside, you are working to maintain those dissociative walls.
Do you genuinely want to know what has happened in your life? That’s a much harder question to answer than you might think.
And yes, too much of the information dissociated away will be difficult, painful, or bad news. Who wants to purposefully block off or escape from good news? It’s just not necessary. But escaping from bad news can be necessary for survival, for sanity, for safety.
But keeping the dissociative walls means keeping the pain contained within yourself.
Lowering the dissociative walls means you can release the pain for everyone inside you, and give healing experiences to all that are there. Everyone will have a chance to experience the good stuff in life, and to be free from the captivity of severe trauma.
It’s not natural to have to dissociate to get through life. When you don’t have to dissociate anymore, then you have truly accepted your own reality, no matter what it is.
Kathy Broady LCSW