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.


  1. Stef, this is amazing! You should seriously make prints of this and hang them on all of the units. So many people would find it deeply meaningful. Patients and staff alike!