November 18 – 24, 2018
On Wednesday evening, I used the entire hour break from 4 – 5pm to sit out on the porch sketching. Consuming myself in art is like no other therapy.
Someone told me that my aftercare coordinator, the art therapist, would be leading the 5:00 group. I pulled open the glass door and walked inside the building, so excited to show her my steady hands and tell her about the calmness and peace. I walked down the hall with Sarah who was coming down the stairs. We talked about our day.
Sarah would be stepping down to PHP this Friday, which made me sad. She was pursuing PHP with Renfrew so I’d still see her from 8am – 4pm every day, but she would sleep at her grandparent’s house with her parents and their dog. Sarah being at home at night would mean I have no roommate next week. The bed next to me would be empty. It was nice always having her there. Another person who just gets it. A little bit of safety in my room at night when I couldn’t sleep. Who I can give a look and she just know what I’m thinking. We were sitting out on the porch earlier on Wednesday when her therapist came out to talk to her. Her therapist handed her a T-Stage packet. Transformation Stage, the final stage of treatment, involved placing yourself in real world situations that could make you anxious or uncomfortable. You work through the situations without using maladaptive behaviors, you tolerate the situations, you take away their power over you little by little. Going out to restaurants, going grocery shopping, trying on new clothes, wearing tight clothing, eating something you’ve avoided or always binged on are a few examples of T-Stage exposures.
We were both ecstatic that she was going to move to T-Stage on Monday. I had received my T-Stage packet Tuesday after team rounds and this would mean that we would have each other in each T group and each exposure. This comforted me knowing that I wouldn’t be doing it alone.
We told her therapist that it’s good that we are both going to T Stage at the same time because we are co-dependent. We have moved through every stage together, the same dining structures at the same time, and we were roommates. We were basically always together and constantly joked that we were codependent. We both hid our distress with sarcasm and constantly saying, “Everything is fine. We are fine. I’m fine.” We couldn’t do something without the company of the other. We were basically the same person. Our struggles always seemed to be parallel, yet unique and personal in their own way.
Her therapist told us that there’s a word they have for that, “enmeshed.” According to Google – “Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions.” This was us.
One day, Sarah was going to have lunch with her parents outside. This lunch would be followed by family therapy. Usually we would sit by ourselves or with a couple of others at the table in the middle of the room. So this was a very anxiety-provoking situation for her. She was very stressed. It was palpable. The entire morning I tried to comfort her. She was shaky and panicked. I can remember sitting outside the dining hall with her, a look of fear in her eyes. Her parents arrived and we all got in line to go inside.
“Oh no.” I said the second I walked into the small room where all of the food choices were. As soon as I entered, I felt panic. For Sarah. There were chocolate chip cookies up on the top shelf. We LOVED Sylvia, the cook, and her chocolate chip cookies. Any time she made them, Sarah and I would ask her to save some in the back for us so we wouldn’t have to eat any other desserts on the days desserts were required. We would always save them until the end of our meal. We would dump our tray and wait patiently so we could dip them into our coffee. The biggest, most important fact that I learned in residential treatment is that a cookie tastes better dipped in coffee. I cannot believe I’ve gone 23 years without knowing this. I can finally live a full life.
But I knew Sarah would not be happy to see them today. We loved Sylvia’s cookies but there was so much guilt that accompanied them. They were so rich and baked to perfection, but we shouldn’t have them. They’re too good. We shouldn’t have something this indulgent, this good. We don’t deserve that. So sugary, so unnecessary, so unhealthy, so many calories. We have to work to be good and this cookie would ruin that.
All of this would be amplified with her parents next to her. The internal war she feels every time she sees one of Sylvia’s cookies would be more intense, much louder today while she has so much anxiety built up for this lunch and this therapy session. This cookie was big, we wanted to be smaller.
I felt so panicked for her. I popped my head out to see where she was. She was in the very back of the line with her parents. I contemplated warning her, but thought it would only increase her anxiety. I also didn’t want to say anything in front of her parents, who might not understand a fervent, panicked warning about cookies. I didn’t want her panic to get worse.
My first instinct was to take all of the cookies on my tray so she wouldn’t see them. Or to tell everyone to hurry and take a cookie so Sarah wouldn’t have to look at them. I literally wanted to protect her from chocolate chip cookies. Maybe we were a little enmeshed. I felt all of her feelings right there in that moment before she even felt them. And I worried about her.
I had to do something, no matter how little, to maybe make this easier for her. So I put a cookie on my tray so she’d have one less to look at. That is the only solution I could come up with on the spot. I didn’t think twice, I just acted. I thought about her the entire lunch, anxious for her eating with her parents and the session that would follow. It was also the first meal we hadn’t had together since she admitted. I didn’t realize how much calmer she made things.
Sarah lived through the lunch and the family therapy session. She faced discomfort and fear. I lived through a lunch listening to new conversations without my codependent, enmeshed friend and ate a cookie on a day that I am not required to have a desert at lunch. Dipped in coffee. What a time to be alive.
That evening we were walking to group, excited that our art therapist was leading it. We walked in together, talking, and sat down in the middle of the floor with a huge puzzle in front of us. It felt like any other group. Sarah and I began to conspicuously work on the puzzle as group started. Occasionally finding a piece and placing it where it needed to be while trying to multitask and participate in group.
During this group, art therapy Kelsey introduced a few new patients. One appeared as male with facial hair, male clothing, and a deep voice. She informed us that she identifies as female.
After group and after dinner, I wrote and wrote. I recapped the entire two hours. I binge wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I couldn’t any more. I contemplated whether or not I should share this writing on my blog. I didn’t want to be judged for its contents. I don’t want to offend anyone or say something wrong. It’s basically a live stream of consciousness, a detailed account of me getting triggered and having a panic attack. It is all genuine, vulnerable, and confused me.
I read this writing tonight, for the first time since I wrote it on November 21st. When I was discharging from Renfrew, Liz asked me if I wanted my writings and meltdowns I had recorded for her. I told her no, not wanting to think about them, not wanting to remember them, to pretend they never happened. But all of these meltdowns and binge writings were part of my process. All of them were me finding a way to survive without maladaptive behaviors. These writings helped me survive. They helped me let go. These writings housed my thoughts, my feelings, and my physical sensations in some of the toughest times. So I emailed her a couple weeks ago, telling her that I changed my mind, asking her to send them to me.
Reading it now, I can identify three different voices in my writing.
The first voice I hear is a girl who is obviously panicked. She is terrified. She is traumatized. Her brain has generalized all of those who appear to be male as dangerous. She sees this dangerous person in her safe space, an intimate and personal place where she shares and where she sleeps. Where she loves and where she is vulnerable. A place where she is supposed to be safe from harm, safe from herself and everyone else. This voice didn’t expect this situation, she’s caught off guard. She is confused and doesn’t know what to do. Her brain is sending physical and mental messages that she is not safe, she is in danger, she needs protection. This voice is flight, this voice is freeze. This voice is biological. This voice has formed out of experiences and out of trauma. It has been learned. Though it seems irrational, this voice is valid. But this voice is not the true Olivia. This voice is my PTSD, my panic, my anxiety, my fears, my worst experiences. This voice is screaming in this moment, it is shaking my entire body. It is overwhelming my entire being.
The second is a secondary reaction, a judgmental and demeaning voice. This girl is rational, she can see that the first voice is not how she wants to react. She knows this voice isn’t Olivia. This voice looks at the panicked reaction of fear with rationality and logic and says, “You should not be feelings this. You’re wrong. You’re a bad person.” The first and second voice argue, back and forth.
“I am ridiculous,” this voice yells, “I am awful and so judgmental and insensitive.”
“But I’m panicked!” screams the first voice.
“Well you shouldn’t be, you are ridiculous.” the second voice replies.
This voice is not the true Olivia either. This voice is guilt, shame, perfectionism. This voice has a need to control. This voice has an image to uphold. This voice is cruel. This voice is mean and harsh and quick to reprimand. She is built from childhood thinking, reinforced core beliefs. She has no empathy, no compassion, no patience. She’s here to tell me that I’m wrong. Just snap out of it. Change how you feel. You should be calm. You should be happy. Should should should should. She makes things even worse.
The third, quiet voice is almost completely missed. I read it twice through before she popped out to me. This is the true Olivia. She’s stuck between two screaming voices. A small, quiet little girl who has values and beliefs. She loves unconditionally, she feels empathy, she places herself in others’ shoes. She doesn’t judge, she accepts all. She sees people. She is kind. Two voices are overwhelming her, drowning out her kindness in screams, and she can barely get a word in. But she’s there.”He’s a human and if he needs to be here then he deserves treatment,” she says, “probably a really nice person, probably super uncomfortable.” She sees this being and knows that they are human. They deserve everything they need and more.”She. She. She,” she reminds the other two voices when they get it wrong. This voice can see the new patient, a girl with struggles who needs help. She says that this new patients needs love and acceptance. “Everyone deserves to go to christian group,” she says.
I see you, true Olivia. You’re in there. In situations like these, you can get buried so deep. But you will continue to grow stronger, grow louder. I am working so hard so every other voice and thought doesn’t drown you out any more. The more that I put myself in situations that bring an uproar of the first two voices, the more I let them come and I let them pass, the more I’ll be able to hear you.
The first voice isn’t going away any time soon. I hear her daily.
The second voice is familiar and frequent. I try to silent her as much as I can.
But true, kind, compassionate, empathetic Olivia, I will continue to make room for you. I want to hear you yell, hear you scream. I want you to take up space, to be present. I want you to call the shots, make the decisions. I want you to eventually overpower every other voice. I want you to overflow from my words and my actions and spread like wildfire.
This situation and my reaction were so overwhelming, so confusing to me. Multiple voices battling in my mind. It was hard to function. I couldn’t bare to be touched, I didn’t want to be seen. My brain was shut down just trying to make sense of it all. The simple act of existing in this space was all that I could do. I just wanted solace from the echoes of stress, anxiety, guilt, cruelty, fear, and panic banging around inside of my body.
I ate my dinner. I tolerated every thought, every emotion. I sat in group and wrote it all out. I took care of myself the best way I could in that moment. Do I wish that I could have welcomed this new patient in with open arms and encouragement? Yes. Do I wish that I would have calmly talked everything out with a friend or staff member? Yes. But I am forgiving myself for reacting otherwise. I forgive myself, I validate my reaction, I have empathy with every word and every voice in my overwhelmed mind. I can see this now, today in recovery.
But I could not see this for the next two weeks.