Spring in my garden is a riot of color. I caught the above pic of my poppies just past their peak after deciding to replace them and wanting to document the process. Because uprooting a cheery, bright colored perennial that makes me happy in order to take the chance that something else might do an even better job can feel, as a dear friend of mine once quipped, “fraught with peril.”
And that’s what it can feel like when we are in the process of healing. When, instead of believing that this is the best I can feel, or that this is as far as I can go in healing my chronic illness, I reach a little deeper to see if following another hunch will help.
Following our intuition is often not easy. Especially at the beginning when you look at your life, or your symptoms, or your garden and things seem pretty good at a glance. Or at least they seem normal. Like maybe your life is better than it once was. Or that, at least, it’s not worse.
It’s not easy when you aren’t even sure if your new plan is a good one. When all you have to go on is an inner sense that better health MIGHT be possible. Yet it’s hard when there is no assurance that your intuitive idea will work or that it’s right.
And the old patterns look and feel and seem so normal. And real. And true. They may also feel comfortable in some way , or comforting, or safe. Not relaxing too deeply can be a way we think we avoid surprises or being disappointed, for example. Not feeling successful may be how I keep myself busy or keep going. Taking care of others at the expense of ourselves can seem like the “good” think to do even if it is taxing, frustrating or keeping us sick.
In my garden, I love a pappy’s big, bright, cheery face. They open so quickly that on sunny day I’ve pulled up a chair with said friend above. We sat and watched and waited until a big green seed pod came off and the petals started to unfold.
With a tiny yard, however, or a symptomatic body, every inch of real estate is precious. Every old pattern that our nervous systems are still running can have an impact that influences our health. And our lives.
In my current yard, my poppies sprawl and crowd out their neighbours because they don’t have quite enough sun. And when I first bought them in their 3 little pots labeled “Beauty of Livermere,” I had expected their namesake, which is a deep red color that is stunning.
These 3 little plants instead came in as the still pleasing, but more common orange color. I accepted them and appreciated them. I didn’t want to start over and wait 2 years for replacements to get nice and bushy.
Mostly, though, my impulse for change was that poppies only bloom for a couple weeks. And wouldn’t it be great if I could have color in that spot all summer instead?
So my decision was to replace them. Cut them down and plant something else.
And that is the ongoing imperative – and dare I say adventure – of this chronic illness journey. The value in recognizing the difference between old beliefs that seem to be so accurate and true – and making way for seeing what is actually true, here, today. Such as that we are no longer in a family system that is a threat , or where we are starving for emotional connection, or terrified because we feel so alone.
Helping our nervous systems get the message that it’s over and done is the ongoing opportunity that understanding trauma and its effects can provide.
Healing comes with the ongoing opportunity to follow your intuition even if no one around you supports you. Even if your doctor doesn’t get it. Even if your family tells you that you should be happy with what you have or with where you have gotten in your life. Or that you are making things up about how difficult your childhood was and it’s time to move on and stop being so sensitive.
Your intuition, however, is one of our most important guide posts. Something no one else can negate – because it’s yours. And it’s about YOUR truth. Your lived experience.
This process of deciding to uproot something that seems to have served me well goes against the grain. It means listening to my inner whisper that something better might very well be possible.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t accept my situation as it is. I keep surrendering to the fact that I AM more tired, and that this is an intelligent response by a system like mine that is still caught in a state of relative freeze. But acceptance and surrender don’t mean that you stop exploring new ways to climb out of your chronic illness grand canyon.
Or to replace your bright orange poppies.
The theme of my biggest insight of the summer has to do with the difference between healing trauma from single events like surgery or an accident, which can sometimes happen with a small number of trauma therapy sessions. And healing complex PTSD and developmental trauma that we experienced over years or decades (which I also refer to as adverse childhood relationship experiences or ACREs).
Healing complex PTSD is probably part of a lifelong process for most of us with chronic illness. Its effects are less likely to resolve in a single session or in a short number of sessions.
Healing complex PTSD needs time. Space. Nonjudgement. And weeding out false, old beliefs that no longer serve.
Healing complex PTSD invites us to practice and build new pathways on a regular basis. Often daily. Sometimes hourly. This is one way we weaken the threat pathways that were repeatedly fortified by difficult experiences when we were children.
I did another series of therapy sessions over the summer because I’ve been more tired since the beginning of the pandemic and because I got more tired still after getting my vaccines.
I saw this fatigue response as probably reflecting an increase in my body’s sensitivity to threat, which increases my freeze response. The fatigue seemed linked to the intensity of the stress and trauma of the pandemic and the other crises happening in the world, and then also as a response to a vaccine asking for my body to develop a threat response.
Many of you have likely had similar experiences of an increase in your symptoms during this intense period we are going through.
Having this understanding – about trauma, that symptoms are intelligent, that our bodies are doing the best they can, that things are stressful for many of us right now – offers context. I find it to be one of the most helpful tools in my toolkit. It keeps reminding me that it’s not my fault. It also reminds me that healing the trauma really may continue to make a difference – even when I’m tired of doing therapy, resistant to doing more, and wishing I could just stop working on it already.
Despite my experience as a somatic trauma therapist in which I have known that healing complex PTSD takes time and involves working with beliefs, and despite gaining something from every session, I discovered that I was still hoping for the holy grail.
I was still hoping that maybe just one more therapy session would help my system shift.
That just one more integration of a specific fight or freeze response would lighten the burden of the hard work it takes to heal.
But I realized in the course of these sessions, as I uncovered deeply held beliefs I hadn’t realized I was holding during these sessions, that I would need to keep “working it.” And to work it even harder than I’ve been doing.
My goal was to replace my short blooming poppies with an ever-blooming rose. A rose that blooms ALL SUMMER.
In my new approach I would need to work with my nervous system more often, more concretely, and with more conscious awareness. Like my new rose, I needed to practice day in and day out and not just here and there for a few weeks in the spring.
I could work it during all the other hours I wasn’t in therapy. During those hours, I had the opportunity, for FREE, to keep honing new pathways with my mindfulness practice.
The practice is to keep catching my sneaky, life-depleting, soul-sucking beliefs that are busy strengthening my threat responses. Even as I’m doing all kinds of other things to weaken these survival pathways (daily walks, some (albeit less) care with eating, listening to my body and intuition, reminding myself to be grateful, trauma therapy and other tools.
It involved catching my beliefs by actively RECOGNIZING that they were old. Then consciously checking to see whether or not they were still true rather than letting my unconscious assume they were still true and running my life from those old perspectives. They may have saved my life back then, but they weren’t necessarily serving me now.
These included a belief that I am failing in my life because I’m still sick. I realized I believed this even at a soul level. I felt as though I was failing in this life because maybe I’d set myself up with more than I could handle or overcome. Or because I wasn’t doing things right. Or wasn’t working hard enough at it (some of you guys may be cracking a smile here, given just how much I work at it, and how much I’ve already improved, and how much all I’ve done has really been helping, and from what you’ve been reading here on my blog for years lol).
I also had to work with the belief that I’m not good enough. Which I couldn’t believe was still there and still so deeply entrenched. It’s even more potent and pervasive than I realized. And it partly links to feeling I have to do everything correctly or perfectly. Which is immobilizing in the long run.
Like so much of this work, and the process of making change, it can feel messy and overwhelming to take on something different.
The new insight arose during my day at the beach last month. A day where I followed my gut and dragged myself to the local reservoir when I really just wanted to stay in the quiet, air-conditioned, people-free zone of my home.
I let myself feel the discouragement and frustration and despair while also, at the same time, taking in the calm, mirror-like surface. The mother playing in the shallow end with her little girl. The three teens swimming boisterously out to the raft. The carefree sand-play of a little boy hauling and upending his bucket of water. I took those in while noticing that I was safe and okay, not in any danger or at any risk. That I had choice. That I could leave or move at any time…. All while ignoring, or not focusing on, to the best of my ability, the jet skis and motor boats and other things that give others joy but that were agitating for my system and the stress I was feeling.
The process did not bring peace or cheer as it often has in the past. But that’s not actually the goal of a mindfulness practice like this one. The goal is that, while some part of you is aware of your feelings or symptoms (which are effects of old trauma and survival patterns), you simultaneously have another part of you in the present moment.
This means that you have one foot in the old pattern, or the effects of those old patterns (symptoms), AND enough awareness to know that it’s a survival PATTERN. A threat response. This awareness enables you to have the other foot in the present moment.
The part of you in the present moment, which is focusing on the actual present without judgement or fear, is paying attention to sensations, smells, sounds, and other experiences with curiosity. This sends different signals to your nervous system. If you feel safe and you can take in even a tiny percentage of that awareness of safety or okayness or curiosity of this moment rather than the old false perception that is making you feel stressed or in a flare up or super-sensitive to noise etc – it signals something neutral and non-threatening to your nervous system. (And if you are NOT safe in this moment, then it is a different process to gain or create or reach for safety).
A signal of safety is not about survival.
That’s how we chip away at survival patterns that are driving our symptoms.
That’s how we go from the old patterns, to new ones.
This is how we weaken our stress responses.
Below is the view from my porch with the poppies and a wee plant in the white pot that I grew from seed.
Below are the new blooms. Including golden yellow rudbekias that bloom for 6 weeks or more and that keep my rose in good company.
At the beach, I realized that I’d gone too too far in trying to feel my emotions. I’ve been disconnected from them to varying degrees for a long time. Freeze tries to protect us from emotions that are too overwhelming. Part of thawing my state of freeze is growing my capacity to feel distressing emotions and move through them rather than getting stuck in them or going back into freeze as has happened in the past
But I’d gone too far and the world had intensified its stress and these feelings were too big for me. They were pulling me down.
I needed to stop feeling every doubt, every moment of distress. I needed to start actively balancing this with the reality of my present moment.
Reality? This is the present moment.
If, in THIS present moment, I am okay, then that is information for my system. This is antidote to my threat response. It is a way of weakening my fight, flight, freeze and the feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair that come with them.
As seems to be the general rule in this in healing complex PTSD and developmental trauma, the process is more of an ongoing practice than a sudden shift.
While I’ve known about this process and used mindfulness for a long time, as many of you do too, my insight was that I needed to be much more active with it.
I needed to catch my beliefs. And then overtly speak to myself in a louder or more persistent voice than the beliefs themselves. I needed to tell myself the truth.
I found that I needed to tell myself, overtly, clearly and explicity, “This (insert old belief) is no longer true.” I had to tell this to myself, repeating this short little phrase over and over, for a full 45 minutes before the sense of fear and failure didn’t fill in the very moment I paused.
That’s how loud the old beliefs had gotten. They were burning and wilting my (inner) rose.
I then had to practice it repeatedly for the next 24 hours, every hour, sometimes for long periods again.
And within a few days I had my first moments of contentment that I’d had in months.
Fleeting moments, but moments nonetheless.
Contentment while picking out the carrots at my grocery store.
A moment of spontaneous gratitude … it might have been for having David in my life or for having a good book to read…
It might have been for feeling of okayness in doing nothing, as I sat on my porch and enjoyed my rose. Which has actually bloomed all summer even though it only gets 3 hours of sun.
Big things. Little Things.
I added other phrases that I actively stated to myself. Phrases like, “The overwhelm is not all mine,” because a lot of it belonged to other family members when I was a child (insight from a craniosacral therapy session).
I also sometimes say “That was then, this is now,” which cam from Myrna Martin, who I did my pre and perinatal training with.
My new practice has been to identify the old beliefs. Or to recognize the painful feelings engendered by negative beliefs. I then keep bringing myself back into the truth of the present moment. Which is that, for me, in this moment, I am safe. I have support. I am loved. I am in a relationship that is deeply connecting.
This was my insight for healing complex PTSD. It’s not actually new. Nor is it earth shattering for a trauma therapist. Many of you will know this and be actively working it already.
But it was another level of understanding for me.
And perhaps a next step in my journey as my body grows the ability to feel and differentiate then from now.
And if this is new to you too, it’s another tool. It’s one of those things that seem too small to really invest your time in, but that packs a big punch. It’s also something we gain capacity to do. As we heal, we find and can use more tool. They add up. It’s a good thing. And it gets easier. You start to recognize the feelings, the beliefs or their effects more quickly. And you don’t have to spend as much time with it either.
Part of our journeys are that we each have insights along the way about how to keep healing.
Each insight provides another opportunity for practice or healing.
Just like planting new seeds. Or yanking out the old and replacing it with a more abundant new one.
See Related Posts on How I Work with Symptoms
Events, Course, A Podcast, an App and More
Online Symposium on ABEs and ACES for CEUs (9 am EST September 30th)
I’ll be presenting at the Healthy Babies, Healthy Children, Healthy Life Symposium on Thursday September 30th, which is for health professionals in tge field of pre and perinatal health and early childhood. My talk is at 10:15 – 12:15 EST on ABEs (Adverse Babyhood Experiences): 6 Opportunities to Prevent, Heal and Treat Effects of ABEs. The first presentation is on Transgenerational Trauma, ACEs, and Epigenetics and the 3rd is on ACEs. CEUs are available for the state of Florida and may be transferrable to other states depending on your board. There is a fee for the symposium and I believe the recordings will be available for 30 days afterwards.
Elly App – “Daily Motivation and Support for People with Chronic Conditions”
I’ve created 4 recordings so far for the Elly app. I start with my journey of onset of ME/CFS and how I started to learn how to work with it.
You can download the app “Elly” and use the code CITS100. I’d love to know what you think. I have more planned if this ends up feeling helpful!
Raelan has a terrific podcast of CFS Recovery stories hosted on youtube, where she also shares her own story and all that she’s learned. She interviewed me early this summer (even though I’m not fully recovered). I loved talking with her and her calm curiosity, open-mindedness and how she responded to the theme of trauma. Take a listen. Leave us a comment!
Invitation to share Your Chrillog (Your Chronic Illness Story)
Your stories making sense of your chronic illness from trauma and nervous system perspectives, and tools that are helping, are really helpful for others to hear. This perspective isn’t out out there very much yet so every one of us who can describe how it works for us makes it a little easier for others to find their way. I’d love to share your story – here’s an intro to Chrillogs and a link there to email me.
My Talk at the APPPAH Conference November 19-21, 2021 with CEUs and CMEs (early bird discount until October 31st)
I’ll be giving a 2 hour talk at the Association for Prenatal, Perinatal, Psychology and Health on November 20th (similar to the one I’m offering at the Symposium next week on 6 Tools to Prevent, Heal and Treat effects of ABEs, but with more of an orientation towards effects on risk for chronic illness in adults). Purchasing access for the online course will give you access to all 30 talks and more. Register here. Includes keynotes by Bruce Lipton, Heather Clarke, and neonatologist Raylene Philips (current president). I find that pre and perinatal events contribute in deep and often unrecognized ways in risk for chronic illness so these talks could bring powerful insights.
6 Week Online Course: Twin Dynamics & The Baby’s Experience, starts October 5th, 12 pm EST
Kate White, who runs courses with a particular interest in the effects of adversity from prenatal and perinatal events, is facilitating a 6 week course starting Tuesday October 5th. I’ll be a panelist in the 6th week on November 9th, speaking about my own experiences of twin loss in the womb, which I only learned about while healing pre and perinatal adversity as an adult with a chronic illness. This is a paid course open to all, from students and professionals to anyone with a chronic illness and more. Includes William Emerson, who is one of the founders and the most experienced practitioners in the field and others sharing their stories and what they’ve learned.
Potential Journal Article on Trauma and Type 1 Diabetes
I spent the summer writing an article on the role of trauma in the evolution of type 1 diabetes. I want to plant these important seeds for medical care. It is needed information yet still challenging to find journals interested in integrating psychology and medicine. I am waiting to hear back from my 4th letter asking a diabetes-focused medical journal whether they are interested in looking at my article. I’m working on being patient while staying mobilized!