04 October 2013

The Next Step: self-care

At my counselling session earlier this week, we talked about Scared Girl and Selfish Girl and Mean Girl and the rest of the crew. I realized that Scared Girl’s been in charge for a long time: we’ve been in our own little “war on terror”, and the one best suited to the Generalship in a war like that would, of course, be Scared Girl, who is always on watch, always on guard, always ready to call up Mean Girl to bully the recalcitrant (whether self or other) into doing what is necessary to keep us safe.

And, since it wasn’t safe to express my own needs, Selfish Girl was shoved under the bed and told to hide. “Don’t you dare poke your head out from under there”, said Scared Girl, “or he will get mad and hurt us more. Just stay there and be very, very quiet.” And Mean Girl was put in charge of shoving Scared Girl back under that bed any time she made a move. “Needing things is bad,” Mean Girl would say. “You are being self-centered and rude. Suck it up, Sunshine.”

And so Selfish Girl hid under the bed and stayed very, very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that it became impossible to ever know what I might actually need – because saying “I need this” is Selfish Girl’s job … and she was in hiding. So I couldn’t hear my body saying “I need to rest”, I couldn’t hear my spirit saying “I am lonely and I need someone to care about me”, I couldn’t hear my heart saying “I am broken and hurting and I need to be comforted”. We’re not talking about the hissy fit, whining, overwrought, selfish sort of fussing, but true, honest, real needs. Couldn’t hear them. Didn’t know I needed anything. Didn’t take steps to meet those needs. And thus I got flattened when eventually, from her little spot under the bed, Selfish Girl silently grabbed the rug and yanked so I’d fall on my butt and have no choice but to start listening.

I still have a hard time hearing those needs. It’s hard for me to recognize “tired” – I always think it’s “laziness”. It’s sometimes hard for me to recognize hunger – it’s easier to skip meals and just not pay attention to what my body is saying. Taking the time to make good food for myself seems … overindulgent. Wasteful. Shameful, somehow.

A lot of people dealing with trauma learn to be kind to themselves early on in the healing process. I did a little bit – at the beginning I was so knocked out that I had to rest more, I simply couldn’t do anything else. Then I did the hard work of remembering my story, working through the memories and processing the narrative through the writing of Just Keep Knitting. But once that was done, I shoved Selfish Girl back under the bed and returned to my old bad habits, abandoning therapy for a whole year and trying to pretend I was “all better”. Yeah, it didn’t work.

I’ve been working hard in therapy again, and the next order of business is not so much work as rest. My body is still reeling from the effects of long-term overdoses of stress hormones: I was walking on wounds that never seemed to slow me down* for oh, about sixteen years … but all that time, I was flooding my body with adrenaline and all the associated chemicals that are necessary in an emergency – and toxic in chronic doses.

The way to detoxify involves taking care of myself. And this is the last, the absolute last thing, I want to do.

I know. It sounds stupid. It sounds like I am being an over-dramatic martyr queen or something. But the truth is, I am really bad at looking after myself. I don’t like doing it. It scares the crap out of me, and so I resist it with all I’ve got. I can feel myself pushing away from the idea, saying “no, no, that’s not good, that’s dangerous, we’ll get in trouble!”

Scared Girl still wants to be in charge, you see. She’s the General of my little army and we are *at war*, dammit. Well, she thinks so. When the memo arrived that told her the war was over, she shredded it and said “NO! It will NEVER be safe! There is no peace!” She’s been offered an honourable discharge, full pension, benefits, heck, she can even stay on as a contractor … she just doesn’t need to be in the office full-time anymore. Really. On-call is more than sufficient (it’s not like her response time is ever going to be very long – she’s honed her skills over a good chunk of my adult life, and they aren’t going to get rusty, much as she fears they will.) Scared Girl is not happy about her forced retirement. She keeps trying to sneak in and give orders like she always has.

But it’s time for Selfish Girl to come out from under the bed and have her say – we really do require her input after all these years of silence. She’s poked her nose out a little ways, but she’s not very comfortable with this whole idea yet, because, well, she’s been under that bed for a long time. And Scared Girl keeps saying she really ought to stay under there, because it isn’t safe to come out, and Mean Girl reinforces this by repeating the old mantra about how “everyone else’s needs must always come before our own, or else we are sinful, self-centered, greedy, nasty people who deserve punishment.”

My task, according to my counsellor, is to coax Selfish Girl out from under the bed, remind Mean Girl that Jesus said we are to treat others as kindly as we treat ourselves and thus we need to treat ourselves just as kindly as we treat others, and oh yes, keep Scared Girl from coming back to run the show.

And how do I do this?

I have to be good to myself. I have been ordered to be kind to myself.

This is not going to be easy, but I am sick of being sick – I’m terrified of doing this, but I have to try.

I am now following a regimen of kindness and rest, based on the treatments for adrenal fatigue. Admittedly this is not a diagnosis that most GPs are comfortable with, but the general idea is fairly sound and the treatment protocol is reasonable whether you agree with the underlying hypothesis or not. Peer reviewed scientific studies have shown that the hypothalamic-pituitary axis is mucked up in people with PTSD – some have too much cortisol, some too little, but basically, it gets out of whack, and when it’s out of whack, a bunch of physical symptoms happen … and to fix it, you have to make life easier for the stress response in the body. That’s what the treatment for adrenal fatigue is all about.

The short version of the treatment strategy for someone as far down the path as I am looks like this:

  • eat every 2 hours: high protein, low sugar, no caffeine, no junk / processed food
    low blood sugar stresses the body: keeping blood sugar levels stable says “the environment is safe”
  • exercise 1-3 times per week, just 5-20 minutes of gentle exercise, nothing strenuous
    exercise is good for you, but only when it does not exhaust you: at this stage of the game, strenuous exercise would be interpreted by my body as ‘danger’, so only gentle exercise is allowed
  • sleep at least 8 hours per night
    using herbal sleep aids as needed
  • take two 10-15 minute rest breaks during the day
    this is not as hard for me, as I am not holding down a full time job, but I do have to remember to stop and rest
  • take appropriate supplements to encourage the body to reset
    for me, this is a stress-formula multivitamin, as well as hops and St John’s Wort
  • drink tea, all day, every day
    green tea is especially healthy
  • practice deep breathing
    shallow breaths say “worry!”, deep breaths say “safety”
  • eliminate environmental toxins
    a stressed body cannot cope with extra burdens – we don’t have many to eliminate, but there are a few things to clear out
  • make recovery a priority, do not overbook
    learn to say “this is all I can do today” and stick with that

So, that’s the new strategy. It’s hard work. Stopping to eat (mindfully, purposefully) every two hours, resting, purposefully balancing my chores with my energy … it’s hard for me.

But I’m trying. Because as terrifying as this is, things have to change.

Gotta go, it’s time to eat again.


  1. I have tears coming down my face....you have poked at long closed doors and given me so much insight about myself.

    I don't know if I can coax Selfish Girl out from under my bed, she has been hidden under there for so long I didn't even know she existed. And snarky girl is telling me that it would be so wrong of me to let her out and have me want/need anything. I guess snarky girl (and boy, can she be snarky) is really scared girl.

    I have a lot to digest...I have learned so much from this one blog post. Now to remember it. Thanks Lonna.

  2. You can do it, Kath. Whisper quietly to the Selfish Girl under the bed and ask her what she'd say if it was safe. Hold back the Snarky Girl for a bit, and listen closely.
    We can learn new ways, it just takes time and patience and support. :) you can do this!

  3. I have been trying and trying and trying to get to this point for soooo very long. Hypervigilance is the only way my sisters and I survived our childhood. Our brother slid into alcoholism and...well, he's still alive, but it was a close call for a while there.

    Self-care. Since I have *no* emotional back-up in my marriage, this is a tough one. I limit (and, unfortunately, must limit) it to diet, sleep, and activities. I also have my companion animals to help me.

    One nice, indulgent, and healthful snack/little meal I "found" is a hard-boiled (or cooked however you like it) egg, a very nice seasonal fruit--either a whole apple or pear or a slice of a larger fruit, and a glass of really fresh water. It feels luxurious, somehow, to take the time to respect this as a meal, but it's soooo good. :-)


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