Grounding Techniques

Per the new posting schedule, every Thursday is a Resource and Recovery themed post. In this series, you’ll find coping skills, tips, and tricks for coping with a mental health struggle, whether crisis or day-to-day management. The Thursday posts won’t necessarily relate to the more personal Tell-All Tuesday posts every week, but when I can tie them in, I will! My Tuesday post this week was on what it’s like to be triggered and some thoughts on the “Trigger Warning” debate. For this Recovery Thursday post, I’d like to share some grounding techniques I find helpful when I am triggered.

I explained my personal favorite grounding technique in my post Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse) earlier this year. Click that link to read all about the 5-5-5 grounding tool. But in mental health recovery, what works well for one person may not be as effective for another. And, honestly, sometimes success in grounding is situational. So, I wanted to make this post about multiple ways to ground yourself when triggered, so that hopefully you can find one that works best for you or one to guide a loved one through a flashback or a panic attack.

What is grounding? Grounding is getting your mind to stay in the here and now even if you are panicking or having a flashback. Often times, this is best accomplished by using something physical and tangible to “bring yourself back.”

I find physical grounding to be the most effective for me. In addition to the 5-5-5 technique, there are several other approaches you can take to physically anchor yourself to the present. Most of us do things to get “back in our bodies” already, but some of those coping skills are maladaptive and unhealthy. I’m thinking specifically of self injury: cutting, burning, punching walls, etc. Yes, these actions can keep you “here,” but “here” isn’t so great when you’re hurting yourself.

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If your go-to coping skill is self harm, I’d like to give you some alternatives that may work as well and be better for your wellness in the long run.

ICE CUBES: I like to use ice cubes over everything else. I hold the ice cube in my palm and squeeze it. When that hand is numb, I switch it to the other hand and do the same thing. Sometimes, I put the ice cube on my arm or on my neck. The cold is usually a very helpful grounding technique. You may have heard of the ice cube trick before, but just because it’s floating around out there doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve tried it. You may have heard of the next one as well.

RUBBER BANDS: Keep a rubber band around your wrist and snap it against your skin when you need to ground. It will sting a little bit, but will not have the lasting impact of more drastic forms of self harm. The rubber band trick is only suggested to those actively struggling with self harm impulses. If you don’t currently engage in self harm, it’s not recommended as it could actually build the habit of hurting yourself when you’re overwhelmed, and that’s not a habit you want to start if you don’t have it already.

FROZEN ORANGES: This one is going to sound a little weird, probably. It definitely did when I first heard it. But, I keep a frozen orange in my freezer at all times. If I really need to ground, I take it out and put it against the back of my neck. Then, I start to peel it. Fun fact, it’s really hard to peel a frozen orange. And, if you’re focusing on that task, the combination of attention and fine motor skills needed to peel it and the strong citrus smell keeps you really grounded and often the panic or dissociation will pass before you are finished with the task. And being able to “dig” into the skin of the orange can help negate the need to hurt your own skin.

Now, let’s look at grounding techniques that are not necessarily substitutes for self harm. What can you do when you are starting to have a flashback?

Again, the answer is mostly physical. If you can prove to your body that you are here and not in the past, the flashback will pass much quicker.

GET ON YOUR FEET. Taking the term “grounding” quite literally, try to stand up, Feel your feet against the floor or the ground. Walk a little. Feel your legs moving. Stomp a few times. Ask yourself “where are my feet?” and answer “On the ground.” This may seem silly, but this is something I have used both in my personal and professional life to help keep myself or my clients grounded. And it tends to work very well.

FEEL YOUR ARMS. For me, when a flashback is happening or is about to happen, my arms are usually numb. Lifting them above my head (or having a friend raise them for me), wrapping myself in a heavy blanket and feeling where my body ends, or rubbing my arms to warm them helps immensely in grounding.

MINDFULNESS. Pick something up and really focus on what it feels like, walk around and focus on your feet and the floor, if you’re sitting, focus on where the floor or chair connects with your body.

OPEN YOUR EYES. If you’re eyes are closed, it’s usually game, set, match for the flashback. It’s got you. It’s really hard to stay present if you can’t see the present. Keep your eyes open and try to look around you mindfully. Focus on every small detail you can find. (the pattern of the floor, wood grain on cabinets, decorations on walls, leaves of grass, etc.) This really helps me stay “here” or, at the very least, get back faster than I otherwise would.

OK, so those are the “external things” you can do. What about internal? What can you say to yourself to help stay grounded?

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ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS. “Where am I? What year is it? What was I just doing? What time is it? How old am I? Where am I right now?” By thinking about and answering these questions, you will bring yourself back to the present.

HAVE A SCRIPT. “I’m having a panic attack right now. I am safe. I am not in any danger.” “I’m having a flashback right now. The worst is over. This happened in the past and is not happening now. I will come out the other side of this.”

THINK ABOUT DIFFERENT THINGS. Set your mind to a weird task. Count in 7’s, name ten different countries, think of your 5 favorite books and try to name the authors, name all of the characters in your favorite TV show, try to name 5 animals that start with the letter “M”, etc. If you can get your brain away from focusing on the trigger, you can show yourself that you are safe.

Remember that you are not powerless and at the mercy of your diagnosis. These are tangible coping skills you can implement immediately. Practice them, see which ones work best for you, and keep them fresh in your mind so that you can access them easily when you’re struggling.

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There you have it! I hope you find at least one of these coping skills helpful! As always, I’d love to hear what you think of the post! Drop a comment, Tweet me, and check out my FacebookTumblr, and Instagram! Also, be sure to check out the perks available to YOU on Patreon for becoming a Patron of this blog! (You’ll love ’em, I promise!)

And finally, ParallelDichotomy now has a Sarahah account! Drop in to leave comments, suggestions, questions, constructive criticism, etc!

Be sure to check in tomorrow for ParallelDichotomy’s first ever guest post! It’s part one of a first hand account of medication induced psychosis in someone who does not live with a mental health diagnosis. I feel it’s important to honor all mental health struggles, and through the guest post series, I hope to host the voices of people living a different experience than I am. If you’d like to be a contributor to this series, please get in touch via social media or email me at Paralleldichotomyblog@gmail.com.

Top 5 Ways to Get Through a Bad Situation (Without Making It Worse)

There’s a lot of information out there about preventative measures for relapse into a mental health crisis. There are also great resources on what to do in a crisis situation. But what do you do when you’re just having a really hard time? What if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed, but you’re not posing any threat of serious harm to yourself or others?

I’ve learned a lot in the past few months about distress tolerance skills. These tips and tricks have been immensely helpful for me in my recovery. Tonight, I’d like to share with you my Top Five skills for dealing with negative, overwhelming emotions.

NUMBER ONE

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If you’ve been following my story, you know that I live with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Included in the PTSD gift basket are things like dissociation, panic attacks, and flash backs. Each of these events are about as fun as getting your tooth drilled without Novocain (this happened to me once at the hands of a very incompetent dentist, so I feel justified in making the comparison). You may have heard of different variations on this particular grounding technique, but my favorite method is this: look around the room you’re in and pick a color. Now, find five different shades of that color, or, if you can’t find different shades, just find five different objects of that color. Once you’ve done this, find five things you can touch. If you can, physically reach out to objects around you. Are they hard or soft? Are they smooth or rough? Are they warmer or colder than your hand? Etc. If you cannot manage to reach out, consider things you can feel without moving. What does the fabric of your shirt feel like against your shoulders? If you’re sitting – what does the chair or couch or bench feel like against your thighs and back? If you’re standing, what does the floor feel like against the soles of your shoes? How does your hair feel against your ear or neck? And so on until you’ve hit five. Finally, what are five things you can hear? This one really helps bring me back to the present, because you have to really focus to find five unique sounds. It can be challenging, and it may take a few minutes of intense listening, but I have yet to be in a place that I could not, with concentration, find five different noises. If you are still not grounded after going through these steps, repeat. In my experience, this is nearly 100% effective when I need to get back to the present and back to my center ASAP.

NUMBER TWO

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Sometimes, you’re so overwhelmed by your emotions tolerating them feels impossible. Everything starts to close in and your anxiety or depression seems to be consuming your entire being. When I’m really overwhelmed with depression, it feels like there’s a gaping hole in the middle of my chest and everything “good” about me is seeping out. It physically hurts. When I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, it seems as though the entire world is folding in on me and it’s suffocating. How can you sit with such intense emotions? Often, the mere thought of being “in your body” anymore seems impossible. You almost wish you could just crack your rib cage open and shrug off your skin and muscles for a few minutes to get some relief. These intense feelings tempt many of us to revert to old, unhealthy, maladaptive coping techniques, such as: self injury, binge eating, or substance abuse. In these moments, sometimes the best thing you can do is remember that the discomfort is temporary and find some way to distract yourself until the intensity of the feelings decreases a bit. It’s important to note that there is a difference between distraction and avoidance. Avoidance is complete neglect of your feelings, unwillingness to get curious about the causes of your distress, and, in the long run, it is not conducive to mental wellness. Distraction, on the other hand, can provide a healthy, temporary reprieve from those feelings until the intensity has diminished enough for you to sit with them and consider what may have triggered you. I’ve found it very helpful to keep a list of easy-access distraction techniques on me at all times. I keep mine in my smartphone, but I have friends who carry theirs on actual pieces of paper in their wallets. Some people I know also have a list posted somewhere in their house. Whatever method you feel will work best for you is the one you should use. When you’re not in distress, compile a list of short distraction activities you can utilize. My list includes playing a few rounds of Galaga or Tetris on my phone (10-15 minutes maximum), doing dishes, playing the “Wikipedia game” (pick two completely unrelated topics, start at one, and click links in each article to see how few clicks you need to get from the first topic to the second), and going outside for 5 minutes of fresh air and a change of scenery. Your distraction list will be unique to you, but it’s important to choose activities that will take a short time to complete to decrease the intensity of what you’re feeling until you can face it and deal with it. Choose things that you enjoy; choose things that will help clear your head.

NUMBER THREE

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I’ve mentioned this one before, but I want to expand a little on it here, because it really is a wonderful tool! Whether you’re living with a mental health diagnosis or not, every single one of us gets overwhelmed from time to time. For some of us, it’s completing that big work project or research paper for school; for some of us, it’s getting out of bed or doing the laundry. Whatever the task at hand, if you’re feeling stuck, the 10 minute rule can help. It’s pretty self explanatory – you set a timer for ten minutes and work on whatever it is you need to work on until the timer goes off. If you’re seriously depressed and feel like you can’t get out of bed, set a timer for 10 minutes and walk around your apartment for that time. When the timer goes off, you can go back to bed if you feel so inclined. If you’re writing a paper for school, set the timer for ten minutes and write until it goes off. If you feel the need to, stop once the timer goes off. I say “if you feel the need to” because often times, I’ve found, action precedes motivation. Once you actually start moving around or start writing, you might find that you’ve gained some momentum to keep going. Or, you may be completely exhausted after the ten minutes. But either is fine! You’ve done something. In those ten minutes you are tolerating a task that you thought you absolutely could not do. And you can be proud of that!

NUMBER FOUR

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Mindfulness is invaluable. Truly. I don’t care what your diagnosis is, or if you even have one – in this rushed, consumer driven, plugged in, instant gratification culture of ours, mindfulness can save your life. Mindfulness takes many forms. You can mindfully eat an apple by focusing on the texture of the fruit on your teeth and lips and tongue, the flavor, the juice, the smell, and the crisp snap of each bite. You can mindfully take a walk by considering your feet against the ground, the feel of the air on your face and hands, the sounds of traffic or nature around you, and the way the sunlight reflects off your surroundings. Mindfulness is simply being present. Not considering the future or the past. Traditional mindfulness practice involves things like deep breathing and guided meditations, but practice is definitely not limited to these things. Some people prefer traditional mindfulness practice, and that’s fantastic! If you’re moving through a busy work day and need a few minutes of guided meditation on your lunch break, I’d recommend checking out the Headspace App, if you haven’t already. As a trauma survivor living with PTSD, though, I struggle with traditional mindfulness. Focusing on my body and breath tends to trigger a panic attack, and if I’m doing it with my eyes closed, I’m in for a full-blown flashback. So, I’ve needed to get creative in my mindfulness practice. Doing the 5-5-5 technique mentioned above when I am not triggered is great mindfulness practice, and, it keeps the method fresh in my mind for easy access when I really do need it! Choosing to walk away from my phone to engage with my daughter, focusing solely on whatever game she wants to play, the details, the characters, and the inevitable laughter, is mindfulness practice. Completely devoting my attention to learning to play a new song on my guitar is mindfulness practice. Photography is mindfulness practice, as you need to really take in your surroundings, consider the person or object you’re shooting, evaluate the lighting, and position yourself in relation to that person or object to best capture the message you wish to convey with the photo. Opportunities for moments of mindfulness are everywhere. And practicing mindfulness every day can really help you access those skills when you are feeling distressed.

NUMBER FIVE

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Self soothing is intrinsic in the fabric of our beings. Self soothing skills are some of the very first things we learn as tiny, brand new humans on this planet. When things are really bad, though, we have to remind ourselves to get back to the absolute basics. We need to feel warm, safe, secure, and comforted. My favorite self-soothing techniques are wrapping up in a heavy blanket or wearing a baggy hoodie that I can burrow into and away from whatever it is in my environment that is overwhelming me. I also like to light candles or burn incense with comforting scents. Sometimes, I will put on some music, either calming or songs that bring up good memories of time spent with friends and loved ones (I have a special playlist for these moments). Occasionally, I’ll take a very warm bath. I also like to snuggle my cats. Tactile. Real. Sense-based. Basic. These are the essence of self-soothing. These techniques are for the really bad moments. I use them most when I’ve just had a flashback and I’m grounded and present but need that extra level of feeling secure and comforted. I use them when I’ve just woken up from a terrible nightmare and I’m not ready to even attempt to go back to bed yet. I use them when that gaping hole of depression in my chest feels like it’s going to swallow me up entirely. I use them when anxiety is making the world collapse on me and I feel like I’m being crushed. Self-soothing is very literally about just holding on and riding the wave of intense emotion until it passes. No goal in mind afterward. Just getting through the moment as comfortably as you can.

 

There you have it! My personal Top Five distress tolerance skills. What do you do to get through a bad situation without making it worse? Do you have any favorite grounding techniques, healthy distraction methods, motivational tricks (like the ten minute rule), mindfulness techniques, or self-soothing activities or items you like to use? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comment section below, on Twitter (@paradichotomy), or on Facebook!

On the “Moments of Suck”

This post directly contradicts a rule with which I was raised – an implicit rule, a common rule, I think, in Irish American households (and maybe in other household, too.) “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” Well, I’m tossing that rule out the window tonight along with my “dirty laundry,” wheeling out the clothes line full of shirts and pants and underwear, stained and smelly, for all to see. I want to make a little note that if mentions of domestic violence trigger you, you may not want to read this.

I have had a lot of shitty moments in my life. The moment when I was a child and found out my father wasn’t in my life because he was struggling with heroin addiction and in and out of jail. The moment my mom divorced my first step father. The moment I decided not to go on the every-other-weekend visits with my first step father because I felt out of place knowing that my brother was his biological kid and I wasn’t. The moment right after my mom married my second stepfather and he went outside on the porch for a cigarette and I followed him out and said, “So, you’re married to my mom now. Do I call you dad? Or do we stick with Tom?” and he replied, “I think Tom is good.” The moment I first realized I needed to take care of my younger brothers. The moments (and there were many) that I saw my mother sobbing in the kitchen and tried to comfort her. The moment I had a friend spend the night and I spent time before we were picked up from school explaining that my parents fought sometimes (every weekend, really) and that sometimes it was really intense, and she replied “I get it, my parents fight too.” The moment the relief from hearing that vanished as we sat playing up in my room and they screamed downstairs and her face turned white and she couldn’t even look at me as she said, “My parents don’t fight like that.” The moments that I sneaked into the kitchen when my mom and Tom were fighting to grab the knife block to make sure he couldn’t stab her if he got too mad. The moment I watched Tom tackle my mother to a sidewalk and beat her while holding my toddler brother and trying to prevent him from seeing what was happening. The moments right after that happened when we went to our church. The moments and days following that. (That event is a whole separate post, probably, we’ll leave it there for now.) The moments I sat in my room listening to every crash of dishes and every word screamed to figure out whether or not the police needed to be called. The moments I gave my brothers headphones and videos so that they didn’t have to listen to those fights. The moments neighbors did call the police and I heard my mom and Tom both insist that everything was fine. The moment my pediatrician pulled a social worker into my physical to ask me if I ever felt afraid or threatened in my home or if I ever saw anyone else afraid or threatened, and the ensuing moment in which I made a conscious decision to lie because I didn’t want to be taken away. The moment my lie didn’t matter and DCF said Tom needed to leave the house or else we would be taken away. The moment I angrily paced my living room telling my mom “They can’t break up our family. I’m 16. They can’t take me anywhere. I won’t let them. I’ll get emancipated if I need to.” The moments in time where my mom would decide to leave Tom and it would be my job to help get things packed up and keep the secret until we moved out. The moments they would reconcile and I would finally feel like “everything is good, we have a stable family” and almost immediately, it would seem, a huge fight would erupt and a separation would ensue again. The moment I returned from a weekend long Ultimate tournament in my senior year of high school to find a broken clothes rack and  a few shattered plates and I asked my little brother what had happened and he said, “Dad got mad.” The moment I told my Ultimate coach that I had to quit the team because it was too much to do weekend tournaments with all my senior year homework load, when really, it was because I knew I couldn’t leave my brothers alone to deal with Tom each weekend if he got pissed off. The moment I went to my paternal grandfather’s funeral having just recently connected with my father and his side of the family and the cruelty of only getting to meet Papa Tom when he was already in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and MS . The moment I realized I had an older brother who had known me as his baby sister for 3 years until I just disappeared when he was eight. The moment I realized I had a younger brother who didn’t even know I existed until he was much older.  The moment my mom truly decided, once and for all, to end her marriage and was on the phone asking me to support my brothers through the divorce and telling me all her fears and concerns and how she thought he was stalking her while I was at college 2 hours away and completely helpless and, honestly, dealing with my own conflicting feelings on the topic. The moment my husband intentionally slammed frying pans off the kitchen counter because he knew it would trigger me and then stood over me, a sobbing blob on the floor, screaming at me for being a weak bitch. The moment my husband shoved me against a wall and then told me I was “too sensitive” because of the environment in which I grew up and I “didn’t know what abuse was” due to that “over-sensitivity.” The moment I found out my Nana and Papa died. The moment I learned it was a murder-suicide and that my Papa, the man I loved and admired more than anyone on this entire planet had put a gun to my Nana’s head while she was eating a muffin and killed her before sitting down and turning the gun on himself and leaving it to my Uncle to find the bodies the next morning. The day I told my husband to leave. The moment I admitted myself to Dartmouth. The moment I was diagnosed Bipolar. The moment I learned I couldn’t keep my job…

That’s a snap-shot. There are more events, but I think I’ve successfully established that I’ve had my fair share of “Moments of Suck.” That’s what I like to call them. I’m not sure how else to classify them. They suck. They all suck. Plain and simple. Why list them out like this? Because I have been taught implicitly, and occasionally told explicitly, my entire life, to keep them to myself, and because of that, I have felt immense shame. I’ve been ashamed of myself and of my family. I’ve felt, inherently, that I am broken and worthless. I convinced myself very early on that all of this was a part of God’s plan and that I had no right to question it or to be angry about it. I’d been taught in school and church that God either allows things to happen to teach us a lesson or as a punishment for sin, and therefore, as a child, naturally assumed that that meant I deserved each and every one of these moments and had absolutely no right to complain about any of them: fertile ground for shame to grow.

These “Moments of Suck” are where developmental trauma comes from, my friend. It’s not a singular event. It’s not a moment in time. It’s a compilation of moments. Some scarier than others, but all, decidedly, Moments of SUCK. What do you do with these Moments of Suck? I’ve tried to do quite a bit  with them – I’ve tried to ignore them, I’ve tried to minimize them (“lots of people have endured much worse”), I’ve tried to trivialize them (“hey, shit happens, right?”), I’ve tried to numb them with alcohol (many, many nights with many, many bottles), I’ve tried to say, “Hey! I can use this shit to help other people! And if I can help enough of them, then maybe I can be ‘good’ enough to warrant an end to my own suffering.” I’ve rationalized it. I’ve written shitty poems about it thinking maybe I’d be the next Bukowski. I’ve justified it – remember the Barenaked Ladies song “The Old Apartment” and that one line “Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the door?” That line was a lifesaver for me when I was a kid, because it normalized people getting angry and putting holes in the things and that made me feel a little less alone.

The only thing I haven’t truly done is felt it. In truth, I’ve spent my whole life pushing it all away, shoving it so deep down that any anger I feel is automatically labeled “bad” and “dangerous” because, in my experience, anger is dangerous. Hell, mild irritation is dangerous because it can lead to anger at the flip of a switch and anger and violence are synonyms in my fucked up brain. Any sadness I felt was automatically pathetic and unjustified – evidence of what a “weak bitch” I really was. I’ve overcompensated, taking a job in a difficult group home with clients prone to violent outbursts to prove to myself that I was not weak, to prove to everyone else that I could handle threats without breaking, and because it was familiar to me. I was feeding that inner child that needed to be around dangerous situations so that she could make them safe. Abuse is, and has been, my comfort zone. For as long as I can remember, managing a crisis has been my strength. Detach, be cool, do what needs to be done. That’s been my MO my entire life. But no more.

Now, I’m in a situation where I literally am incapable of detaching. I get hit with flashbacks and panic attacks almost daily. (This is improving slowly, but it’s still a fairly frequent issue.) I still have nightmares almost every night. My brain is screaming at me “We have to deal with this. You have to feel this. It’s eating you alive and we have to get ahead of it!” 

And that’s a huge part of what I’m working on now. What do you do with the Moments of Suck? You’ve got to dig in deep. Because they fester. They get infected. And that infection spreads and contaminates every aspect of your life. Until you cut away the rotten flesh and flush the wound and let the air hit it, it can’t even begin to heal. But I’ll tell you what, that surgery is a painful one. There’s no anesthetic; there’s no quick fix. And sometimes, it’s just you staring at the gauze trying to build up the courage to take the bandage off, and re-flush, and re-tape this gaping hole in your body. And you have to take careful steps not to get it infected again. This can mean pulling away from some people that you really care about, it can mean setting boundaries you’ve never set in your life, it can mean doing things that make you feel like a terrible human being. But it has to be done if you ever want to heal – no, really, if you want to survive. Because one way or another, that infection will kill you if you don’t get it take care of it.  But you can get it take care of it. You can heal. It’s work – it’s a lot of hard work. But it can happen. This is what I am learning, and slowly but surely, I am healing. If you’ve endured trauma, I hope that there is a little kernel of something resembling encouragement and hope in this post. I know that sometimes the Moments of Suck can seem to pile so high you can’t see past them, but there is something beyond them. I promise.

On Social Gatherings and Dissociation

I try to be a good mom. The kind that’s attentive and engages with her child on a regular basis. The kind of mother who laughs and jokes when things are silly and lighthearted and listens and processes when things are difficult. The kind of mother who is an active participant in the life of my child.

Today was a challenge. We were invited to a birthday party for one of my daughter’s friends. Not a small, low-key birthday party, either. I’m talking 16 or so kiddos running around a rented gymnasium with a bouncy house, play tunnels, face paint, music – the whole nine yards. Does such a setting have anything to do with my particular traumatic experiences? Not really. But sometimes with anxiety disorders, over stimulation can trigger panic attacks or dissociative episodes all on its own. (Because life would be far too simple if I could just avoid specific, clearly-related-to-my-trauma situations and be competent and confident in handling all the other life-things.)

When I had to duck out of this party or stand with my back firmly against a wall finding every single blue object I could possibly find in an attempt to ground myself, I felt like a pretty shitty mom. Dissociating is the exact opposite of being present for my daughter. I felt my hands and arms begin to tingle and my feet begin to get cold. My ability to focus on the party slowly decreased. My heart rate increased. I felt myself “drifting”. (These are the physical “red flags” that I am about to dissociate and potentially have a flashback.)

Thankfully, I was able to utilize the grounding techniques I’ve learned through cognitive and dialectic therapy to prevent a full blown dissociative episode from occurring, but it was a close call. And the last thing I wanted was another parent or worse, a child, noticing me staring blankly at nothing in a corner, shaking and hyperventilating. To be fair, it was sort of a setup. I was unable to take my anti-anxiety medication prior to going to the party, and I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, either. In hindsight, it may have been better to try and drop my daughter off at this party and pick her up when it was finished. Or to come in really prepared to ground myself. (Instead, I went in with a little bit of willful denial – you know the kind? “You got this, Sheila. You’re stronger than this. You can handle it.” All of this, of course, is true, but you can’t blow through a snowbank with a 2-door Ford Escort on willpower, you need the 4-wheel drive truck with a plow attached. You need know which tools you’ll need and have them readily accessible. By not preparing to need to ground, I made things much more difficult on myself.)

The point of this post is not the irrational faith I placed in sheer willpower or my lack of preparation for what I knew would be a difficult event. What I want to take a moment to explain to you what dissociation is like for me. I think there’s a lot of misinformation about flashbacks and dissociative symptoms. You see a lot of stuff in movies where the veteran grabs his gun and holds people hostage because he thinks he’s back at war or people act out, moment for moment and word for word, their traumatic memories. This may happen to some people. My therapist has told me flashbacks take many forms. But these depictions are not at all what happens to me. My friends tell me I am “catatonic” when I dissociate. When I have a full blown flashback, I am also “catatonic” though my muscles tense up and I tend to move my right leg a lot (for whatever reason). For me, at least, flashbacks are nothing like what you see in the movies. There’s no dramatic reenactment of a traumatic event, there’s almost never any pushing people away or yelling (it has happened a handful of times, but it’s certainly not my norm), and I don’t often script (repeat phrases or words I may have spoken during the actual trauma). For me, a flashback (or any dissociation) feels like I’m between worlds. Like I’m half here and half somewhere else. If you speak to me, I can hear you – though it is often difficult or impossible for me to respond. I feel disconnected on both a psychic and a physiological level. It’s like being half way to an out of body experience, but being kept mostly in my flesh by some sort of mysterious tendrils that still connect me to the here and now.

The photo which accompanies this blog is one I took while at the party. It is a perfect representation of what dissociation feels like for me – the party reflected in a window with a solid brick wall outside. I caught the reflection in the window while I was searching for blue objects to use to ground. Once I thought about taking pictures, my attempts at grounding improved. Grounding is all about mindfulness – being completely engaged with and focused on the present moment. Photography, for me, is a perfect way to practice mindfulness. It forces me to focus on my surroundings and really notice the details. What is the light doing? What angle makes this particular object look most interesting? Where do I need to be in relation to the subject of the photo to convey what I hope to convey?

Traditional mindfulness is a struggle for me. Photography is a fantastic alternative.

My daughter had a blast and was blissfully unaware of the difficulties I was facing during the first half of the party. Once I was grounded and I began just taking pictures of her and her friends, my ability to engage was back in full force. By the end of the day, I was present enough to play with her and some of her friends. I was able to be the mother I always strive to be. Sometimes PTSD robs me of the ability to do that. I am so happy to be able to use the coping skills I’ve learned to not only help myself, but also improve my ability to engage with my beautiful, creative, funny, amazing daughter. Right before the party ended, the two of us built a tower out of cardboard blocks that was taller than her! She loved it, and exclaimed, giggling, “Mama, it’s like Jenga!” I chuckled as I thought of the post I made last night. Don’t worry, though, we built a really solid base!