Thursday, August 11, 2016

Demon Puppies in the Dark

I've spent the vast majority of my life avoiding my demons; most of the time by running from them like an adrenaline-fueled Olympic track star. I've tried to shut them up with food, alcohol and a slew of other unhelpful means. I shoved them into the deepest closet I could find within myself, turned off the light and bolted the door shut. I go about my daily life, pretending they are not there. All the while they are clawing at the closet door, screaming, crying and trying to get free. I continue to do my best to ignore them and go about my life, pretending they are not there. Every so often, one will get loose. I've got to chase it down, sedate it and cage it back up. Then I go about my daily life, pretending it isn't there.

The process is exhausting and I've spent an unbelievable amount of my energy trying to keep those assholes under wraps. Trying to stop them from getting out of control and running the show can feel like a full time job some days. They sound so wild and unhinged in there. I can hear them gnawing at the door jam, scratching the walls and screaming words I can't make sense of. It's terrifying to listen to and it is no wonder I have always steered very clear of that closet.

One day, after a particularly epic flare up of my demons, I decided enough was enough. I could hear them wailing and going absolutely bonkers in there. I knew that what ever was going on in that closet, it needed to stop and I was ready for a fight if necessary. I flung open that closet door, flipped on the light, marched in and took a good look around. What I found in there shocked me to my very core. What I saw in that closet were not crazed, evil demons at all. Instead, I found a litter of neglected, scared and hungry puppies. They were not breathing fire and plotting my demise in there. In fact, I found them barely able to comprehend themselves let alone conceive of harming me. The conditions I had been keeping them in were an embarrassment. The tiny space, no bigger than a coat closet, housed several of these little puppies. They were crammed so tightly in there; crawling and fumbling all over each other. The walls and door were deeply etched with frantic, panicked claw marks. Their poor little bodies were bruised and emaciated. And finally, I heard their voices perfectly clear for the first time. What I had thought were menacing, feral screams were actually whimpers of longing to be seen and heard. They were cries for help and desperate attempts to draw attention to the intense, life-long suffering and neglect they have endured.

I stood there and watched as those poor little puppies ran around completely distraught. I so badly wanted to help them, to comfort them and make them feel better but I didn't even know where to begin. So, I decided to simply observe them; paying careful attention to how each one moves, vocalizes and interacts with the others. Once they realized they had my attention and that I wasn't going anywhere, they started to calm down a bit. This provided me the opportunity to start to learn a little bit about each one of them. It wasn't easy at first. In fact, it could be down right overwhelming and terrifying. There were times when they would all start yelping at once and I couldn't figure out what they needed. Sometimes, one of them would retreat fearfully to a corner of the closet and I would have to spend hours trying to coax it out. Other times they would all start crying hysterically for no apparent reason. I would get so frustrated trying to figure out why or what to do for them.

Regardless, I know that I alone am the only hope for these puppies and if I didn't help them, no body would. They are MY demon puppies after all - MY responsibility to care for. To this point, I had been doing a horseshit job and I wanted that to change. I made the commitment to do better and started by listening. When they cried, I immediately responded - even if I wasn't sure exactly what to do. I asked questions, challenged them and tried to give them comfort. It was a rocky process of trial and error, but getting to understand their inner workings was absolutely critical for being able to help them. I gave each one a name and spent time trying to understand who they are and what they individually need from me. Surprisingly, as time passed, I found that I had actually begun to develop a relationship with my puppies. Slowly, they have started to trust that I will respond to their needs and understand that they don't have to resort to screaming, clawing and crying. They are beginning to realizing that I am there for them and not only do I know how to help, I actually love them and really WANT to help.

Every once in a while, something happens and one of my pups starts really freaking out. I will admit, it kinda freaks me out too when that happens. I hear that old, familiar screeching and my initial reaction is to run the other way. However, I have to remind myself that I have nothing to fear and that I have the ability to manage it. There is a beautiful quote that I love from a song by Hozier, called The Arsonist's Lullaby. It says, "Don't you ever tame your demons but always keep them on a leash." I think it is important to remember that those wild little beings will always have wildness in them. It is part of who they are. I understand this because I understand them. My demon puppies will always have a wild streak that I won't ever be able to fully tame. However, there is no reason I can't teach them how to walk on a leash with me. They have important things to remind and teach me. They are teaching me how to love and care for myself in a deeper, more meaningful and healthy way. They remind me of where I've been in my life, just how far I've come and how much I've overcome. This wild bunch of puppies may have never been something I wanted or asked for. They were dropped off on my doorstep in the middle of the night, left to me by people from my past and were born out of traumatic experiences I've been through. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where they came from. They live within me and therefore will always be mine to care for. They are mine; mine to walk through the crazy dog park of life with.

Initially, I hesitated to publicly name and introduce my pups. They are a very personal part of me that I don't always want to acknowledge let alone share with other people. But I decided I was going to anyways. It is a good challenge for me to be more open about my personal struggles and if airing them in this way is helpful to someone else, then it is completely worth it to me. So, without further ado, allow me introduce my own, personal litter of demon-puppies:

Tilly: Uncertain, unsure and has difficulty making decisions. Doesn't trust herself. Takes on too much and doesn't ask for help. Easily confused, overwhelmed and quickly shuts down emotionally.

Things she says: "I don't know what to do!" "You are not capable of this." "You don't even know what you are doing, just stop." "This is too much for you to handle." "Give up now before things get worse."

What she needs: Reassurance and support. She needs to be reminded that I am there to help and that she doesn't have to do everything by herself. She needs frequent reminders of how much she is actually accomplishing and to give herself credit for it. 

Leela: Child-like, fearful, anxious and mistrusting of others. Shy and withdrawn. Craves connection but keeps others away. Lonely, lonely, lonely. Can become despondent and desperate at times. experiences being frozen and paralyzed.

Things she says: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry for even being alive." "Just leave me alone." "I'm completely alone and always will be." "No one understands you and they don't really want to." "It is safer to just be alone. No one can hurt you that way."

What she needs: Mothering and nurturing. Needs encouragement to engage in self-care and to do things that are fulfilling. She needs encouragement to reach out for support from others and to allow others to provide support to her.

Gash: Impatient, harsh and demanding of perfection. Angry and rage-full at times. Self-loathing, self-critical and easily frustrated. High, unrealistic self-expectations. Self punishing and self degrading. Lashes out at or responds to others without thinking first.

Things she says: "What the fuck is wrong with you?" "You are such a lazy piece of shit." "If you can't things right (perfectly) don't even bother." "You don't deserve love or people to care about you." "You really need to get your shit together." 

What she needs: Patience and understanding. She usually acts up when feeling out of control, uncertain or fearful about something important. Most often, she really just needs to be comforted and reassured that everything will be alright. It helps her to be reminded of her personal power and strength.

Fluffy: Feels it is best to be unseen, invisible and unnoticed. Feels vulnerable and exposed and wants to hide. Full of shame. Keeps self safe by remaining less successful, under the radar and fat. Self-sabotages to prevent being successful or becoming too good at something. 

Things she says: "Are you sure you want to do/say that?" "Keep your mouth shut." "Nobody wants your opinion because it's bullshit anyway." "Just stay home. The world doesn't really need you anyway." "You are fat and ugly, cover yourself up." "Who do you think you are?"

What she needs: Validation and recognition. She needs to be reminded to focus on the things that make her special and unique. It helps to point out specific characteristics, talents, gifts and abilities that she offers the world. It helps her to reflect on times she has helped others or been successful in achieving something she has worked hard for.

Morta: Hopeless and depressed. Sees only darkness and despair. Feels undeserving, worthless and like no matter what she does, it will never be enough.

Things she says: "What is the point of even trying? No matter what you do, it will never be enough." "Nobody really cares about you or how you feel." "Fuck it all. Just give up already." "It would best if you were not here. You have nothing of value to offer anyway. Maybe you should just die." 

What she needs: Perspective. She needs to be reminded to find and focus on points of gratitude and love in the world around her. She often acts up when she is overly tired, stressed or hurt. When this is the case, she needs space and time to herself. She needs to sleep and do things that are self-nurturing.

Just as a final note, I want to say that I hope I have not given the impression that facing, figuring out and healing your personal demons is simple. I've only just scratched the surface and shared a fraction of how deeply my puppies' wounds go. My intention was to offer a different perspective on something we all experience with hope of making an absolutely terrifying experience, a little less scary. Love to you and your puppies always.

Friday, February 12, 2016

I Did Another Thing I Said I'd "Never." MN Regional Pole Competition 2016

Ever since learning there was such a thing as pole dance competitions, I said it was something I would never do. Competition with others is never something I've really ever been into. Of course, I like winning at stuff - who doesn't? But there is something that happens to me when I get into a competitive mindset. It starts a cascade of negativity in my brain that inevitably leads to self defeat. I am prone to perfectionism which has been a very destructive force in my life. Competition sparks loads of harsh self-judgement, criticism and doubt within me. It gives a megaphone to my feelings of unworthiness and all I can hear is that voice telling me about all the ways I am not good enough. On top of that, I really don't have the desire to be "the best" at anything. I want to be MY best but not at the expense of outdoing others. That just has never really been my thing.

When I heard that Minnesota was hosting its very first regional pole competition, I had mixed feelings. There was part of me that was intrigued by what the experience of it might offer me. There was also the appeal of being apart of our very first pole competition, which is a landmark event for the pole community. Then, there were also the parts of me scurried away and hid in fear at the very idea of competing. It was those scared parts of me that I found particularly interesting. In a way, I wanted to help those parts of me see that it might not be so bad; that just maybe I could do this competition in a way that didn't prompt a my brain to erupt with self defeat. In essence, I saw an opportunity for self growth which is what ultimately lead me to plop down my registration fee and officially sign up.

One important thing to realize about pole competitions is that the judging is very subjective. There is a judging rubric and outline for the different technical aspects they look at. However, there is so much room for subjectivity.

One of my judging sheets

It was really cool that each judge provided specific feedback for each competitor. I found mind incredibly constructive and very helpful! I completely agreed with the suggestions given to me.

I am in no way suggesting that the judges pick favorite competitors and give higher scores them on purpose. I am talking about the uncontrollability of being human. Maybe the song choice of a competitor happens to be particularly moving to one judge. Naturally, they are going to have an overall different response to the piece and it will certainly affect the way they judge it. It's a totally normal, human occurrence that can't be predicted or controlled. This is only one of many examples of things that influence judging: mental distractions which cause a judge to zone out or miss parts of a routine. Physical distractions; they have to pee really bad and are having a hard time focusing. You get the point. This is something I thought a lot about when making the decision to compete. I realized that truly, there was no sense in getting perfectionistic over a routine that might simply rub a judge the wrong way. I felt very conscious of the fact that I was entering a competition with a very human judging element and it wasn't worth making myself crazy over something I have no control over. That actually really helped me let go of my incessant need to do it the "right way" in order to best please the judging panel.

I made the choice to revamp and old routine I'd previously done at a showcase. I felt good about having a solid place to start from and choreographing my competition routine was relatively easy. I chose to stick with tricks, spins and dance moves I felt completely comfortable with so that I could do them well under pressure. I felt good about the time I spent solidifying my choreography and six weeks before the competition, I had a well constructed and memorized routine.

Unfortunately, life decided to happen and I had a really difficult time dealing with it. My grandma passed away almost exactly one year to the day of my father's death. Same family, same cemetery, too many similarities. I felt so much grief, it was overwhelming. Toss in the emotion of all that during the holidays and it was difficult enough to shower and leave the house let alone train my ass off for a competition. In any case, the result was a beautifully choreographed and memorized my head.

I had barely practiced more than 4 times over the six weeks leading to the competition. I was physically out of shape and could especially feel it in the cardiovascular area most. I am not super proud of that at all. What I am proud of is the fact that I did that competition anyway. About four days before the competition date, I had very serious thoughts about dropping out all together. When I shared this with my husband, he asked me, "Bottom line - Do you want to do this competition? Would you regret it if you didn't do it?" My responses were "yes and yes." Then, very matter-of-factly, he said "Then there is no reason you can't do it. You have every ability to do this if you really want to." He believed in me and that's what I needed most at that moment; a reminder of my personal power. It helped me believe in myself and ultimately practice a few times in preparation for the big day.

I decided to purchase the professional video recording of my competition routine as a momento of my experience. I have watched it several times and given the circumstances, I really do feel good about it. I see places where I could have held poses longer, where transitions could have been smoother and where I can tell that I want to just plain collapse from being out of breath. It was kinda hard to believe that I came in just about 4 points shy of 3rd place. Parts of me wishes I could do it over again and compete with a routine I feel like a rock star about. Maybe someday. While I don't have any immediate plans to compete again in the future, I have certainly learned by now to never say "never."

Backstage, anxiously awaiting my turn!

Here is the video of my reworked Game of Thrones competition routine that I'd love to share with you. Thank you for reading about my journey along the way to it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Jello Pit of Shit and Building a Bridge

It can be a super weird thing to understand how something you love so much can cause you to feel intensely negative feelings - literally sending you spinning into behavior that is completely counterproductive to what you truly want in life.

I've felt this in so many areas of my life but never experienced it more intensely since discovering the incredible world of pole dance. When I am dancing, I feel more alive and than any other time. I experience my body in the most positive way. Dance has connected me with a community of amazing people who are kind, supportive and unbelievably inspirational.

Amazing, right? Absolutely! But why then, would I find ways to interrupt that experience? Why would I shut down physically and feel as if my body is moving through jello when it's time to practice or go to class? Why would I chose not to attend community events where I ALWAYS leave feeling inspired and connected? At times, it has been absolutely maddening to try to untangle and understand. I've gotten so angry and frustrated with myself at times that I've considered just quitting dance all together. Luckily, something inside just won't let me. But I am still left with the unanswered question of: "Why?"

The answers I came up with seemed pretty obvious to me: I am a lazy person who lacks ambition. I am a flake who can't live up to the commitments she makes. When I took these keen observations to my therapist, she said, "Why in the world are you being so hard on yourself!?" Uhhhhh, because it's clearly true.

Then she used the phrase, "trauma response" with me. As a psych nurse, I am very familiar with this term and see it in action at work all the time. I care for people who have been through some of the most horrific experiences you can imagine and I see the way they act when something triggers or tugs at their traumatic experiences. However, I have never looked at my own behavior in the context of trauma response. As a child, I was never locked in the attic and denied food for weeks. I was never hit or sexually abused. I wasn't exploited for money and didn't started using drugs or alcohol at age 13. I was never homeless or lacked basic physical needs.

When I pointed this out to Kate, she gently reminded me that "trauma" doesn't always refer to the physical experience of abuse. It can be very emotional in nature; insidious and subtle. I knew this intellectually, but was completely unaware the ways in which this was very true for me. We talked about this over the course of a few sessions as I wrestled with believing my experiences could actually be qualified as "traumatizing."

As I was mulling over this idea, an image came to my mind. I felt compelled to draw it out so that I could try to process it visually. It's no Picasso but this is what was in my brain:

I tried to make what I was feeling a tangible concept, to make sense of what happens almost every time I want to do something dance related or self-nourishing. I feel myself on one side of a wide cavern filled with all the horrible feelings I have. I can see all the good stuff that I want in my life on the other side and I want to get there so badly. The problem is, every time I want to get to the good stuff, I have jump into that pit and try to swim through the ick. If I'm lucky, I make it. Most of the time, I wind up so exhausted from trying to get through the murk that I give up and sink to the bottom of it. 

The bottom of the pit sucks. I am saturated, soaking wet with all the bad feelings that its hard to know where I stop and the icky wetness begins. It's almost impossible to know what is truly me and not the feelings I'm stuck in at the moment. 

As I looked at this visual concept, it slowly started to make more sense to me. My experiences growing up taught me that I did not deserve the good stuff unless I was perfect. Perfection being completely unrealistic, I felt myself helpless and trapped: I could stay on the side where I am all alone and disconnected or I jump into the pit and start swimming. Either way, I wasn't even getting close to the good stuff I so badly desire and feeling terrible in the meantime. 

So, how does a person get there? There has got to be a way. I know that because I've been to the good stuff before. I just seem to lose my way there. I got to thinking more about this when the image of a bridge came to mind. Yes, a bridge! That's what I need! But how the hell do I build it? What does it need to be made of? I began to jot down ideas on the picture as a bridge:

I really connect with this concept and it has helped me understand myself so much better. Since I've stopped denying my painful experiences as "not that bad" and accepted the fact that they were indeed, traumatic, I've had a much better time coping with the pit feelings. Everything has not been magically fixed, but I now have a practice to turn to when I notice I'm starting to slip into the pit. I know that by reaching up and grabbing hold of the bridge, I can try to pull myself out of it. If I can engage in one of the positive parts of that bridge, it helps lift me out and puts me on the path to the good stuff.

More than anything, I want to stop denying myself access to what makes me feel good and gives my life meaning. I know the more I practice this, the more easily I will be able to get there. I need to keep reminding myself that just because I am not able to construct a perfectly happy public mask, doesn't mean people don't want me around. Just because I'm not "Super-Happy-Go-Lucky-Stef" 100% of the time, doesn't mean I should just stay home because no one wants to see me like that. My experiences may have taught me that I am unworthy: that I simply don't deserve success, happiness and fulfillment. However, the more I challenge this, the more untrue I see that it is. I am not the product of my traumatic responses. What I thought were serious character flaws of being lazy and flaky, are actually not even really there. When I am in that response, I literally freeze and shut down physically and emotionally which makes it impossible to show up for my life the way I want to.

The clarity I've gained with this has been life-changing. I guess you could call it an epiphany of sorts. I have so much hope as I begin this new year and it feels magnificent. I want forge a new path to the good stuff and truly believe I deserve to be there.