Freeze & Free

I normally avoid reading anything that might trigger a symptomatic C-PTSD response. Nothing violent, especially incidents involving guns. However, I felt compelled to read an article I found re-posted in my ACEs Connection community, titled:

The tender, terrifying truth about what happened inside the Trader Joe’s hostage siege

This article, published in the Los Angeles Times, recounts the recent Trader Joe’s murder scene from the eyes of those held hostage inside the store. I am sharing my “gut reaction” response to that article, as shared on the ACEs Connection post:

Wow. Tears streaming. I just had a conversation last night with friends over dinner about fight/flight/freeze responses in moments of terror. It came up as a topic as our dogs were recently attacked by another dog while hiking in a nature preserve and our friends chiming in about their dog being attacked while walking in our neighborhood. We all responded differently: I froze in terror, unable to move. Meanwhile, my partner sprung immediately into action and lifted our little dog above her head, using her body to shield and block our labradoodle, while screaming at the owner of the attacking animal to grab his. Of the other couple, the wife dove on her dog, trying to protect it. Her husband used violence to try to stop the attack. 

I have survived two armed bank robberies, both resulting in bloodshed, both perpetrated by the same gunmen (they were not caught after the first robbery of our branch office and returned three months later to rob our main office – I had just transferred from the branch to the main office). In both instances I came face-to-face with the assailants. Robbery one – held hostage with a gun to my left temple while watching my coworker bleed profusely from three stab wounds to his back. The second robbery – as a coworker was shot and murdered (by the same gunman and gun that had been held to my head only three months prior), I was hiding after fleeing the bank and heard approaching footsteps, running hard and fast, when I looked to my right, only to be staring down the barrel of a semi-automatic Luger. Fortunately, a K-9 unit was in hot pursuit, the Luger misfired, and my life was spared. Yet again.

Reading this story, something I normally do not do as I avoid anything that may trigger my C-PTSD symptoms, I was moved to tears. Not tears of fear or sadness. I sat staring at my computer screen, as those tears cascaded, and said out lout, “That was beautiful.” 

The compassion shown by a hostage toward the gunman was truly magnificent. As I have come to a place of forgiveness for my transgressors (including both bank robbers/murderers), I realized I had no idea what had transpired in their lives. Had they been abused, neglected, terrorized in some way as children? Where had they turned away from innocence and started down a dark road of hopelessness? In a way, I connected with Moss, this calm and gentle soul, who grounded the gunman, connecting with him on a heart level. I have done that with my own gun-toting ghosts, in forgiving them. 

I froze in terror during those bank robberies/murder scenes. 

This woman, a hero in my eyes, did not fight or flee or freeze. She felt. She connected. She empathized. She calmed. She empowered. And in doing so, she saved lives. Including the life of a lost-soul gun-wielding perpetrator. 

Beautiful.

Codependency & Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs

My priest suggested I read “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie as part of my continued healing journey with my severely alcoholic mother. That was in 2016. I read the first thirty pages then set it aside . . . with good intentions of picking it back up “when I have the time”. Never mind the other twenty books I’ve read in between then and now. Insert eye roll.

Today I picked it back up. As I read through the checklist of characteristics many codependents possess (check, check, checking them off), I laughed aloud. I had made grandiose promises to myself to no longer “save the day” when it came to my mom. Yet I slowly found myself back in my roles of peace-keeper, savior and good daughter, helping her clean up the splattered messes left behind. Literally and figuratively.

Yesterday threw a big ol’ muthafugga of a wrench at my head.

I had taken Mom to see her primary care physician on Monday. I nodded in agreement as the PCP alluded to alcohol-induced dementia, possible stroke, or brain injury from her multiple falls (into her fridge resulting in a broken ice-maker, onto the toilet, backwards onto the kitchen floor, out of her bed, and others she cannot remember but evidenced by bruises).

On Tuesday, I escorted her to the imaging center for an MRI. Then tucked her safely into her bed in her independent-living-retirement-community apartment afterward. Leaving instructions for the angels and saints to keep her from falling out of bed again.

Wednesday, I joined her for an assessment by a Council on Aging representative. Mom was a hot mess. She answered a phone that wasn’t ringing. Insisted my deceased father come out from the other room. Told me my nephew cut his right hand off and asked me if I was going to cut my own throat. Then later asked my sister if “Teri’s post office would accept my beans”. But, between those moments, she was lucid and funny and engaging. Her normal goofy, yet lovable, self. I was advised she qualifies for quite a few assistance benefits. Yay for that! However, she (meaning I) would need to complete another application, wait two months, and pray for the best in the meantime. Ah, the red tape of bureaucracy. Not that I’m not grateful for the help!

Later that day, I received the wrench-to-the-head call. Her PCP phoned me herself to discuss Mom’s lab and MRI results. The MRI results showed “moderate atrophy and shrinkage of the brain, indicating dementia” and lab work indicated “dehydrated and not eating” a.k.a. vodka-for-breakfast. No brain bleed, no stroke. Exactly as anticipated. And my internal reaction was: “Well, shit.” My good-daughter backpack just got heavier.

I am truly sorry my mom is struggling. Watching her spiral downward . . . quickly . . . is breaking my heart. But, there’s this other part of me that wants to have a little kid temper tantrum, stomping my feet and yelling, “You did this to yourself, Mom! Why am I supposed to make it better? I didn’t ask for this! I have my own freakin’ life to live. I was supposed to finish my book this week while Maddie was at Grammy’s in North Carolina. I have MY life to live.”

Just being real.

As her doctor stated on Monday, “The damage is done.” This is no longer about her making a conscious choice to poison herself with booze. Her liver is screaming, NOPE. Her brain is shriveling up. And her coo-coo for cocoa puffs is showing. I mean, Dad, my sister and I used to see that side of her, but now it’s a little more evident to the rest of the world.

So, how does one reconcile this conundrum?

My heart and soul is urging me to help her. This will leave me cocooned in my codependent relationship with my alcoholic mother. My hope is, when all is said and done, she will know she was loved and cared for, regardless of the pain she inflicted through her selfishly choosing alcohol over her kids (she literally said this to a counselor when we were teenagers . . . “If you are asking me to choose between alcohol and my family, I choose vodka”). And one day, I will wriggle my way free of the confinement, spread my beautiful butterfly wings and soar.

I might occasionally have a little whine-fest (different from wine-fest!) about it as I wrestle with her demons. But, then I’ll step outside, thank God for the gifts of nature as I mindfully enjoy the moment, take a few cleansing breaths, consciously release the tension, smile at the bright red cardinal singing to me from the treetop, promising him, “I know, Dad. I’ll take care of her.”

 

Confessions & Coffee

My eighty-two year old mother has told me five times in the past three months, “I have secrets I am going to take to the grave.” When I’ve prodded her for more info, she’s informed me she will keep the secrets into death and that was the end of the discussion.

After recording an amazing podcast interview yesterday for The Healing Place Podcast with Cissy White of ACES Connection and Heal Write Now, where we discussed the healing power of releasing our stories, our truths, I realized perhaps my mom needed an opportunity to shed herself of the burdens she’s been shouldering.

This morning, I headed off to visit this sweet little old lady I call Mom, promising myself I would do all I could to help ease the pain of these secrets. She was super excited by the new mini boombox I bought her for $29.90 on Amazon. We popped in a Patsy Cline CD and tears welled in her eyes as a memory swam up from the depths of her soul. She mumbled, “I love Patsy Cline,” and I allowed her a moment in the past.

I gathered her garbage and recycling. Paid some bills and shredded stacks of envelopes asking her for charity donations. Then I sat in a chair and said, “Mom, I want to talk to you about something important for just a minute.” She put the newspaper down and gave me her full attention. Unusual for her.

I proceeded to talk to her about the podcast I had recorded and the studies surfacing on the healing powers of releasing our truths. I told her I believed she kept mentioning her “taking certain secrets to the grave” because on some level she wanted to set those secrets free. I asked about her childhood and she opened up about a long-carried traumatic incident and I thanked her for sharing after acknowledging her pain.

Then I pushed a little more. It was as if someone was tapping me on the shoulder, whispering in my ear. I started to ask questions which opened us up to a conversation filled with brutal honesty, tears, compassion, understanding, love, support, and forgiveness. It turns out, I already “knew” her deep, dark secret. It had surfaced in one of my EMDR therapy sessions as a memory for me from a very young age. I was there when it all transpired. We were able to connect over something she had let haunt her for almost fifty years.

My mom had released her secrets. And I released tears and understanding.

As I left my mom’s today, after giving her a kiss and an “I love you”, she told me, “Your dad was here this morning. I couldn’t hear what he was saying though.”

Today would have been my dad’s 81st birthday. Now I know who was whispering in my ear. We’ll keep working together to help mom heal as much as possible in this life before she comes to join you, Dad. Katie and I hear you. We’ve got your back.

 

She called after me as I was headed out the door, “TT! I need more coffee!” So, off to Kroger I ran for her favorite Gevalia K-cups.  We’ve got her back, too.

The Angry Saint

I recently received a coupon for a free 8X8 Shutterfly photo book. Coolio! I was going to make a memory book of kid pics for my son who moved to Denver earlier this year. Then I realized I had made him one this past Christmas. (Darn menopause brain!) I looked up to see a black and white photo of my dad hanging on the cork board next to my computer. Perfect. I decided, I’ll make Mom a memory book of Dad’s life.

I started by adding photos of him from his childhood, years in the Jesuit seminary, and wedding photos. Then I filled the remaining pages with pics of his daughters and grandchildren. Easy-peasy.

One of the pages, however, prompted me to write memories of my father. I started to type out my happy memories, but they were interrupted by flashes of his outbursts. I sat there staring at the computer screen, contemplating how I am currently in the process of finishing up a book about my adverse childhood experiences, including a violent history with my dad during the first ten years of my life. How hypocritical of me to write a happy paragraph about my Dad for a photo book, right?

So, I did what I always do and called my sister to talk it out. She gets it. She lived it. Right alongside me. Kind of. I was usually cowering behind a locked bathroom door while she was being hit with the belt, but the terror was still the same.

She brought up some valid points. It’s okay to focus on the happy times, the heart and soul moments. Dad and I had reached a place of forgiveness and had made our peace before his passing. Reliving his violence in the book is a tool for teaching. I am painting a picture of repeated trauma exposure in order to enlighten others on overcoming and conquering past demons. Yet, I can choose to highlight his many positive parenting traits alone in this  photo album . . . soccer dad, best cinnamon toast maker ever, our good-night story teller, defender against a fifth grade bullying nun, teacher of raisin-counting math skills, piggyback riding muscle man, and more.

My dad was a man of deep faith, praying his rosary almost daily, wearing his scapular, engaged in reflection and prayer in a little nook in the back bedroom of Mom and Dad’s apartment. He grew up witnessing moments of violence, married a severe alcoholic who demanded he silence the children whenever she was too tired to deal with us, and used his belt and frustration to obey her commands.

So, Dad, in honor of you, here is the brief summation of happy memories I wrote in the photo book I am gifting to mom: “Saturday mornings, after soccer, Dad would take us to ‘Burger Chef and Jeff‘ for a treasured Fun Meal. I loved it that he tucked us into bed at night, telling us fanciful stories about German Shepherds, aliens or flying cars. His imagination always at play, he would scare us by tying a glove to the end of the vacuum hose, having it appear around a corner as he’d throw his voice, or have us look for the “river sharks” as we’d pass over the humming bridge, or turn off all the lights during a slumber party and grab our ankles, dragging us screaming and laughing from our fort. He taught me to count with raisins, always picked me up from a friend’s even at 3 a.m. if needed, engaged in deep philosophical conversations, and gave the best hugs ever! Thanks most of all, Dad, for believing in me.”

I miss you.

I love you.

I forgive you.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Can I Find Some Skin-Thickening Cream?

I was sitting here in my writing space, contemplating ideas for today’s blog post, when a friend commented on an article I shared in my Unicorn Shadows Book Launch Group on Facebook. The article I shared was You Can’t Be Trauma-Informed If You Can’t See the Trauma – a fantastic reminder to keep in mind that we have not traveled another person’s journey, therefore, wearing a trauma-informed lens will help us to see beyond the after-math of trauma and, at the same time, avoid our own triggering. This beautiful friend shared:

“It’s so hard!! From my trauma I tend to take everything personally!! Yikes!! I need some skin thickening cream!! If you have anything helpful for that, let me know!! Thanks!!”

That was my blog post inspiration: a how-to on “thickening one’s skin” to being triggered in our own trauma history. I used to find myself responding to other’s without understanding the underlying currents flowing beneath my gut reactions. One of the first memories that comes to mind relates to my interactions with the director of a preschool where I taught many years ago.

I had been doing the stay-at-home-mom thing for years, but was asked if I would be willing to teach part-time at the preschool where my then two-year-old daughter was attending. I adore kids and their amazing logic, sponge-brains always absorbing, and their knack for teaching us grown-ups about unconditional love. So I climbed on board the preschool wagon. A year in, this new director was brought on board . . . the one I allowed to push my buttons.

The day I walked into my classroom to find it completely rearranged, with new labels in place on some of my stations (i.e. sensory table, science area, reading corner), my head went kaboom! I stomped into her office and stated my case, accusing her of disrespecting my role as a teacher and violating my space and all I had accomplished in setting it up exactly as I had envisioned. There was an apology (of sorts) and we ended up coming to an agreement of terms on how we would handle any future changes she deemed necessary in the classroom. Fair enough.

In hindsight, I look back and realize how my response had little to do with the changes she made – they actually made sense and were beneficial for the children – and everything to do with the remnants of the trauma history of my youth. Walking into that classroom left me feeling as if I had no control, no voice, a loss of power within the confines of my space, and fearing retaliation if I would speak up.

What can we do if we find ourselves easily triggered by the actions or words of others?

  1.  Pause. Stop. Take a breath. Step back. 

All of those little tidbits of advice we hear often when we find ourselves stressing out. They work. If we stop for just a moment to notice the reaction we are experiencing, we can allow ourselves the opportunity to “be gentle” with ourselves and “just notice”. When I stand in front of audiences and share my Story of Hope,  I emphasize these two points.

Learning to be gentle with myself was a huge catalyst for healing. I learned to simply allow the feelings to be, without judging them, without trying to correct or guide them. I just let whatever was surfacing to flow through me. Then I would allow it to dissipate. Again, without judgment. The concept of “just noticing” is a part of this process. I allow myself the opportunity to experience whatever is rising to the surface within me by merely noticing it, observing it.

2. Remind ourselves we have not traveled another’s journey.

When I learned the concept of forgiveness on a soul level, it allowed me the opportunity to look at my transgressor’s lives from outside my own wounds. I reminded myself that I had not traveled their road. While I was not justifying their actions in any way, I was gifting myself freedom by releasing their negative impact on my current life. I allowed them their journey and, in so doing, continued along my own without them tagging along.

Perhaps my transgressors had been abused, neglected, hurt in profound ways, or traumatized. Their actions toward me or my indirect involvement in their actions really had little to do with me.

3. Send positivity toward others.

Once we have paused, then reminded ourselves we do not know another’s driving force for their negative behaviors, we can turn around our normally automated defensive reaction and instead send some positive energy toward that person/situation. That can be a quick prayer, a wish for the individual to find a moment of peace,  a sincere smile followed by silence, a purposeful sending of love from our heart toward the offender’s, whatever way feels as if you are sending positive energy.

By allowing this affirmative energy to flow from us, from a heart and soul place in lieu of an ego perspective, we empower ourselves in the process while providing much-needed goodness toward others.

4. Journal about the moment. 

When all is said and done, record it in some way. Journal, make a video blog, voice record it, again, document it in whatever way you find helpful. The point is to allow yourself to release your encounter without judgment. Set it free, perhaps noticing what triggers arose in you initially.

Remember to be gentle with yourself and merely notice what is surfacing as you record it. I also recommend writing without editing. A free-flow release can sometimes bring to light a long-sought-after answer.

Keep me posted on your progress! I love hearing stories of positivity, inspiration, and motivation. You are worthy of peace and joy. This is one way to empower yourself with those gifts.