Balance, limits, listening, pacing, speeding, braking and other confessions

About a month ago I wrote about learning to express my feelings, and then start working on expressing my needs. It makes a lot of sense, but I also pointed out to my therapist that before expressing my needs I needed to learn how to recognize them. Truth be told, I never paid myself much attention. I only tend to my needs when my body becomes unbearably uncomfortable. My therapist illustrated this to me with my relationship with food. Sometimes I only remember to eat when my stomach is hurting and low blood sugar is starting to make me freak out. She says I must remember to take care of myself before it ever gets to that point. I must listen to the signs my body sends me before I become sick. She acknowledged that I’m only acting out what I unconsciously learned during my early years, and that is that people will only tend to my needs after I get sick. But she also reminded me that I’m not a baby anymore, that I can tend to my own needs and I’m responsible for my well-being.

But old habits die hard. Having low self-esteem doesn’t help. Based on what I know happened during my childhood I probably “learned” that being invisible would be better for everyone. I had a dance teacher once telling me, “Sónia, you must stop apologizing for being.” Most of the time I go on pretending I don’t exist to myself. I don’t like looking in the mirror. I don’t take enough breaks at work, which is terrible for my neck, my back and for my brain fog. i just ignore myself. Life makes sense to me if I pay attention to other people’s needs first and let myself fall behind.

I don’t know if the fact that I feel like I’m a weird puzzle is a cause or a consequence of this. I’m almost 32 and I can say I never figured myself out. I’m spending these last days of my summer vacations with a friend and the other day I told her, “I don’t really know who I am.” I can be a lot of different people, put on such different masks depending on the context that sometimes I even surprise myself, like I’m an actress or like I’m watching myself from the outside. I have great strengths and great weaknesses and they all mean something different depending on what I’m going through at the moment. It’s… puzzling.

il_570xN.202356785Usually when I’m in a good mood I say just for fun that having been born in October I’m the most unbalanced Libra you’ll ever meet. As a child I could be very quiet playing by myself for hours, and I could also be very hyperactive, yelling and running around and making everyone around me really tired. This latter state I think was – and still is – fueled by a lot of anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance as well.

Growing up, I kept feeling for most of the time completely restless. Part of that restlessness was what it’s now called in social media FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), as I had the feeling the world was turning and I wasn’t keeping up with it. The other part of it was the need to plan everything ever so carefully for fear of losing control. Even in my early 20’s when fatigue settled in, I kept on pushing myself, and pushing myself a little further, ‘cause if anything ran out of my control I would become terribly anxious and nervous – and if everyone else was living while I was merely surviving I would fall into depression and I didn’t want that.

Pedestrian_LED_Traffic_Light_NYCBeing diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 29 became a double-edged sword. On the one hand, for the first time in my life, people convinced me – and I realized – that it was ok to rest. I finally started on a journey meant to teach me how to monitor myself. I’m still far from reaching the destination, but I definitely started listening to myself more, paying attention to my limits and to what my body was telling me in each different situation. I found out it was not only ok to rest, it was also ok to take breaks, to hit the brakes, to say no, to do nothing, to not be productive, to not prove myself to anyone, to just be. And I found myself enjoying it, my self-indulgence-I-have-the-right-to-be-healthy time.

pedestrianOn the other hand, I became even more restless, more hungry for new experiences. Whenever a challenge presents itself to me, even if a little dangerous, I think to myself, “I don’t know for how long I’m going to be able to do this, so here I go.” Or, “I don’t know for how long my legs are going to keep on working so let’s just do it, right?” 

On Monday, my friend and I decided to go see the caves that are nearby the place where we’re staying. Our guide was a former Boy Scout who grew up in the region. He was fairly at ease, going into the woods, climbing up the rocks and hills, going down the caves, showing us around, “This is where a Neaderthal’s tooth was found,” and all that. My friend also seemed pretty comfortable. Me? Let me just say that I don’t trust my balance that much. Even though for the last 10 years I was taught yoga, Pilates, several contemporary dance techniques and kept being told my balance was great, I’m really insecure about it. I was dreading I would fall down at any time and make a fool out of me. But I kept following them, panting as if I was an inveterate smoker. I must say at this point that not even my friend knows about my MS, and I didn’t think it was appropriate to stop them on their tracks and yell, “Wait, I have multiple sclerosis, please bear with me ‘cause I have balance issues and I also get really tired!” When we reached the entrance of one of the caves and I saw our guide take a rope out of his backpack because it was “easier to go down there holding on to a rope” my knees started shaking. No, they weren’t shaking because I have MS, they were shaking because I don’t trust myself. I’m glad I decided to go because the inside of the cave was pretty wondrous, but when I left I was kind of angry because I didn’t take any pictures. Well, I needed both hands free to hold on to the rope, which meant leaving everything I had with me outside, but does that count to my perfectionist self? No.

So on Tuesday, I left my friend reading and napping on the garden, I took the keys, my cell phone and my camera, and went back to the caves. I enjoy doing things by myself because people either speed me up and I get really tired, or slow me down and I get impatient. Going by myself means I get to keep my pace. Now, I’m not completely crazy and I didn’t go back to the most dangerous ones, especially because I had no equipment whatsoever with me. But I wandered. And I wondered if I’m ever going to find that middle ground between wearing myself out completely and letting life pass me by. And wondered what I keep trying to prove myself. But whatever it is, I will be taking pictures of it.

"You wanna see the caves? Sure, that way. Then all you have to do is climb and get a little lost."
“You wanna see the caves? Sure, that way. Then all you have to do is climb and get a little lost.”
"Like this. Keep going."
“Like this. Keep going.”
"Oh, come on, don't look back, you haven't climbed *that* high, keep going."
“Oh, come on, don’t look back, you haven’t climbed *that* high, keep going.”
"There you go."
“There you go.”
"See how the light looks splendid after you get out of a cave?"
“See how the light looks splendid after you get out of a cave?”

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Naming things

Yesterday I met my new therapist. My old one is moving to another country, so she trusted my files with someone whose work she’s known for a long time.

We started talking, and for the first time I heard the story of my life being given specific and scary names. She said I had a lot of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and that a lot of events in my life could be considered traumatic. I always thought post-traumatic stress was something only people who had survived war, natural disasters, physical or sexual abuse would experience. Turns out the definition of trauma is anything that threatens one’s survival, and that can include for instance the loss of a close relative in the early years of a young child, especially if the child doesn’t have a secure attachment to the parents and doesn’t have the emotional language to cope with it. That being said, my life has a series of minor traumas and at least three events that, if not considered major, are at least traumas written in bold. The fact that I’m a hypervigilant and have had trouble sleeping since my teenage years is nothing but a consequence.

Then I learned that I had at least two dissociative episodes in my life. One when I was 5 and had to be hospitalized because my legs went numb and I couldn’t feel them or move them, and the other after I turned 20 and suffered an episode of transient global amnesia and failed to remember stressful events in my then recent past. Even my recent state of daydreaming (see previous post) is a form, though mild, of dissociation. To me, “dissociation” and “dissociative” are scary words, so I felt apprehensive when I heard her saying that.

I also felt that returning to therapy after a little hiatus brought back all the resentment, anger, and fear I carry with me and that have been anesthetized through daydreaming and being on a break from therapy.

Overall, I feel like a car when you step on the accelerator with the hand brake pulled up. The engine roars and the rotations in the rev counter go up — and that’s my survival instinct, all ready to go and fight and scream… But the car isn’t really going anywhere, is it?