Grounding solutions

to my fellow abuse survivors, as always, please read with caution. I have put triggering material in italics to the best of my knowledge.

Bea is talking, but I can’t hear her. Things are too hazy, I’m too far gone to really pay attention to what she is saying. Nothing is okay.

“I have no idea what we have been talking about the last twenty minutes,” I finally manage to say.

Bea looks at me, kindly. She has nothing but compassion on her face and I can barely stand it. “I know. That’s why we need to find grounding techniques that work for you. To help you stay in the present. So it’s not so easy for you to fall into your trauma memories.”

By this point, we have had this conversation many times, in session and in email. I know exactly what happens when we start with the grounding techniques, but I don’t have the words to explain why. Just the idea of starting to “ground” myself at this point is enough to raise my anxiety level. I don’t want to talk about why, I don’t want to say the words.

“Can you tell me what you are thinking?” Bea asks me.

I shake my head no. I don’t want to go there. I can’t say the words. It’s embarrassing. It seems silly.

We sit in silence for a few minutes. She seems comfortable with it. I struggle, picking at my fingers, starting at the floor, scooting back into the corner of the couch as far as possible. Finally, I say, “Ok. I can try to explain…….explain why grounding is scary.”

Bea nods, but she doesn’t say anything. Feeling really stupid, I tell her I think I want to turn around. Bea, being Bea, shows no judgement and simply says, “okay.”

I turn around, and then I start telling one memory of my relationship with my abusive ex-boyfriend. I decided to start with telling the end of the memory, as Bea and I had talked about before I fell down the rabbit hole.

I threw up. I couldn’t help it. Luckily I’m close enough to the tile lining the fireplace in the living room that I manage to turn my head and miss most of the carpet. He’s nice again because he’s proved his point, and so he cleans up the vomit and settles me on the couch with a blanket. He says he going to go get me soup and I mumble something that sounds incoherent to my ears about taking a shower. I could have left then. But I didn’t. He’s being nice again and I’m really confused. And no one can know. So I go to the bathroom. Bea remarks on how extremely confusing that had to be. She seems to understand, even now, how I can’t get it straight in my head.
I take a shower. A long shower. It’s as hot as I can stand it but I think I could boil myself in bleach water and I would still feel dirty. I’m so surprised when, during one of my pauses in telling this story, Bea starts talking and she understands this need to shower, this feeling of never ever getting clean again. I believed no one would ever understand this ever. And she really gets it.I use my room mates soap and shampoo because I ran out earlier in the week. Cucumber melon body wash. Bioloage shampoo. Two smells that still can make me sick. The water gets cold and I sit down. I’m freezing now but I feel stuck, like I can’t move. I got out eventually. Got dressed, put myself to bed. But I don’t remember that.
The very end of the story is he brought me vegetable noodle soup and a movie. A walk to remember. And he was nice. So nice, taking care of me like I was really sick. And I’m more confused. It’s like he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Where’s the switch so next time I can flip it back to the nice guy sooner? I don’t remember the movie. I haven’t watched it since, and I spent the night really zoned out, I’m counting down the hours until chem class in the morning. Then I can get out of here for a while.

It takes me a few minutes to collect myself, but I’m surprisingly okay. Of course, I know now that I was pretty dissociated while telling the story, but at the time I didn’t realize that. I managed to share the beginning and the middle of the story with Bea that day, and my grounding struggles began to makes sense to her.

Now, dear reader, some things my therapist was already aware of at this point that you aren’t aware of: I was raised in a very Christian home. I believed in waiting for sex or sexual acts until marriage. I had struggled, off and on, with eating disorders, self harm, OCD, and other behaviors prior to leaving for college. I had been dating the boyfriend for a while, and had made a mistake one night and had slept with him. Okay, now you are mostly up to speed.

My room mate is out. She was always out, even on school nights. My parents were paying the majority of the rent on our apartment because Lindsey was supposed to watch me. But she is hardly around, and I’m glad because we aren’t really friends. She’s a family friend, but that’s it. He comes over, like he does most nights. It hasn’t been very long since that first time we had sex. I don’t have a good timeline in my head for back then, so I don’t know how long. A few days, I think. We’re supposed to go out. Tap room has underage night tonight, and that’s the only night I can go. But first I want to talk. I need to explain that I can’t have sex again. That it was a mistake. That I believe God forgave me, and that I’m going to wait for marriage. He kisses me hello, and we move to the couch. We’re kissing on the couch now and I’m thinking that I should be talking to him but it can wait. But when he moves his hands from my hair down to my chest, I move them, pull back. I start talking. Explaining. I don’t remember what I said. I know it was stupid of me to tell him then. You don’t start making out with your boyfriend and then tell him that you can’t have sex again, that it was a mistake.

He argued with me. He told me that he would marry me one day, so it was ok. He told me that once you do it, it doesn’t matter anymore, you can’t just take it back. I argued back. He smacks me. That’s the first time. Open hand. Across my left cheek and eye. Holy cow, does that hurt. It’s out of nowhere. Why did I think this was going to end up ok? He’s so calm. Not yelling, but mad. Or something. Scary. He’s telling me I liked having sex with him, no good Christian boy is going to want me, I’m a slut. And I still don’t know to keep my mouth shut. I tell him that I didn’t like it. The next I know I’m falling of the couch, my head is hitting my coffee table. And then the next thing I remember is I’m on the other side of the coffee table and my clothes are piled next to me. He’s touching me there. Between my legs. He kept saying he would show me how much I did like it. That he would make me….I can’t say it…type it, write it. I just can’t. I just remember feeling cold and stuck in my head. It was like there was no way this was really happening. I didn’t even think to say “no” or to try to get away. I just laid there. He kept telling me what my body was doing, insisting that I liked it. I felt sick. Nauseas and cold and horrified at what he was saying my body was doing. And then his mouth, tongue between my legs. And then… I can’t say it. I didn’t really know what was happening until he told me. So he was right. It’s like those words are burned into my mind. I can hear it, hear his voice like he’s right here, “see. You are a little slut who likes it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have…..” And I just remember thinking he was right about me. And then I rolled over and threw up.

I tell Bea, then, after that first time, he realized that it upset me. It’s like he got some……pleasure from that. So he would hold me down, and do things, and list out what my body was doing. So I have this list in my head, and it’s everything from how I was breathing to if I moved. So you try to get me to focus on my body and all I can hear is his voice and it’s like I’m back there, just right back there in my nightmare again all over.

Bea, of course, understands. She tells me that this makes perfect sense. She says, “no wonder you have disconnected from your body,” as though I am normal.

We come up with things I can do for grounding. I can chew gum, but I discover that mints work better. I find that naming things I can see help me stay in the present. I find that while smells can help put me back in the present, they can be tricky because of my migraines, so mints and naming what I see and hear are the best techniques I have found.

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Are you still here?

When Bea asked me “Are you still here?” during that first therapy session, I thought she was nuts. Then, she began to talk to me, little by little about dissociation. What is dissociation? The dictionary defines it as the disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected, and separation of normally related mental processes, resulting in one group functioning independently from the rest, leading in extreme cases to disorders such as multiple personality. Everyone dissociates. If you have ever driven home after a long day at work and not remembered the drive home, that is dissociation. That is the “normal” end of dissociation.

When people experience trauma, one reaction they can have is to dissociate. It is a defense mechanism. For me, dissociation feels like I “live” in my head, and am disconnected from my body. It’s as if there is a room in my head, with glass doors so that I can see and be aware of what is going on around me and function very well– but everything is a bit dulled down. I am almost always a bit dissociated, and this is my normal level of dissociation. There are sheer curtains, and heavy curtains on my glass doors, and a closet in the room in my head. I can close either set of curtains or go hide in that closet. Of course this was all mostly unconscious for most of my life, and it took me a while to accept that I dissociate. Once I accepted it, I was able to describe to myself and Bea how my system worked.

I first was willing to accept dissociation, when I told Bea the ending of my abusive relationship. I’m going to share the same details I shared with her, I will place anything that may be triggering to other survivors is italics.

I was in the shower. I was hiding from him, I thought I had locked the door. I don’t remember why I was hiding. He came in the bathroom, and he was mad. He was scary, he had that look on his face. I was frozen. He shoved me threw the shower door. My apartment at the time had a glass shower door, and when he shoved me into it, I went right through. Glass shattered everywhere, and I landed on my face. Bea asked me at this point if he was yelling, but I didn’t remember if he was yelling, in fact my memory is silent. The next thing I remember is being dragged into the hallway, and then my memory is blank until I am in my bed. I have some specific memories of being in my bed with him, but I’m not at a point where I can talk about, write about, or even really “look” at those memories. I do remember that there was blood on my brand new pink sheets and I was really ticked off about that. I told Bea that, and I said, “Isn’t that strange? I remember that stupid detail, but not the big stuff?” She told me that was normal. He eventually became bored with me, like he always did, and left. I laid in bed for a while, just frozen. Then I called a friend, and I left. I never went back.

It was with that memory that Bea was able to to explain dissociation to me. She was able to normalize the memory gaps and the small insignificant details I remembered. She explained it as a defense, as what happened was so traumatic my mind split the memory to make it “safer”. This is why I have no sound in this memory, this is why there are missing parts, this is why there are insignificant things I remember. It is a normal reaction to abnormal events.

It still took me a while to even begin to connect the dissociation with that particular memory to my everyday life. When I did, I was scared, worried, embarrassed, I wondered if I was going crazy. I also doubted that a person could dissociate that way. After all, wasn’t dissociation being completely not here, not functioning? I emailed Bea, asking if a person could be dissociated from their body all the time and still be functioning. She told me that yes, it was completely possible for a person to dissociate in the way I was describing. And that was when I began to admit to myself that I dissociate. Now, I have a way to describe it, and I’m not so embarrassed. I will easily tell Bea when I’m “not here” or when our last session is hazy because I was not really present. I’m also learning grounding techniques. That’s just a fancy way of saying things you can do to help you stay in the present. But that is a whole different blog post.