Restorative Yoga, Yay or nay?

This weekend I took part in Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Day Of Dance. I chose not to take any of the dance workshops due to being low on spoons and triggered from a week of flashbacks. Instead, I chose a drumming workshop and a restorative Yoga Session.

Yoga is generally acknowledged as helpful in recovering from trauma. There are many types of Yoga, meaning that you can try a class you’re suited to. I think a bikram steam class would be panic attack city for me but I like the sound of Yoga in the park. The beauty of a discipline like Yoga is that there are lots of ways to tailor it to your needs. Yoga classes are available in most areas at cheap prices. The principles of Yoga; breathing, awareness, engaging your muscles to stretch your body and calm your nerves are all ones that appear to apply to trauma recovery.

That said, I can well see why ‘try a Yoga class!’ may not be the helpful advice people intend it to be. Yoga has a lot of spiritual connotations that can form a challenge for survivors of ritual abuse. Typically, ritual abuse is seen as to do with Satanic cults but it can include any kind of faith based rituals used to accompany/mask abuse. Eastern philosophies and guru devotee relationships have been exploited by abusers. So it’s not necessarily true that a survivor of sexual abuse would feel safe in a Yoga class. I myself have difficulties with guided meditation which my abuser liked to use to make me compliant and confused.

As much as physical movement has a role in releasing somatic symptoms, taking an exercise class when I am a PTSD flare up hurts. I feel very vulnerable going in to a class in form fitting clothing and being in close proximity to strangers. Loving ones body is a popular concept in Yoga but there are days when hearing the advice to be kind to my body is incredibly painful to hear, let alone attempt to do. I find being in my body means having to face up to muscular pain, body memories, tight chestedness and my own feelings. The movements that exert someone who is tired or anxious feel like a marathon when I am in a state of PTSD exhaustion. Yes, moving around helps in the medium term. But in the short term, I suffer. So for a Yoga class to feel worth it, I need to feel safe.

Thus I arrived at the Restorative Yoga class feeling apprehensive. Luckily my Mum joined me, which made me feel committed enough to give the class a chance. The class was billed as:

‘ slow paced including some short flow to start and then moving into longer held forward folds, deep hip openers and twists to really help you stretch out the body, unwind your mind from your day’s activities & revitalise you without over stimulating. A great tonic for a restful sleep. This practice will be accessible for all levels of practitioners – a great opportunity to practice a gentle yoga practice and a perfect counter balance to dynamic yoga, a busy day of moving, been sitting static for long periods or been caught up in the chaos of general day to day life!’

The teacher was a calm gentle woman who gave us students ample time to find a space we felt ok about, so I had enough personal space to feel calm. I could pick a spot near the door. She explained clearly what Restorative Yoga is, how it works and what the point of the class was – to try out a few poses (called Asanas) to get a feel for relaxing. Restorative Yoga doesn’t rely on getting into poses via muscular strength. Instead the teacher taught us how to arrange props (cushions, blocks, blankets,  straps) so that we could get into a pose and lie there, the props taking our weight. Each pose lasted a good five minutes. The idea was that I could just ‘be’ and notice what my body was feeling vs trying to hold a pose.

I enjoyed this different approach. It was a lot less physically tiring and had I been struggling with injuries – I often have them from dissociation while working out – I could still have participated. None of the poses put any stress on my chest that might have induced panic. Traditional yoga tends to freak me out because I find some bending movements too scary but I didn’t have to do those. The teacher stuck to images of relaxation like letting gravity hold the body, which helped me. The pace of the class gave me time to adjust my body if I found I was uncomfortable. I managed to do an hour and a half without feeling overwhelmed.

After class, I noticed feeling looser and more rested. The poses were simple enough that I’d consider doing a few at home, particularly when I use a self compassion meditation exercise.

If you want to know more about Restorative Yoga, this is a link to the yoga journals articles on it:

http://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/restorative-types-of-yoga

In the library: book review of ‘The Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the transformation of trauma.’ Bessel van der Kolk.

Libraries are one of safe places when I am in public. As a kid, I felt a rare sense of home in my local library and I still feel it among the shelves in my town library. Libraries are places where anyone can seek sanctuary. This is my virtual library, where I can natter with you about books. We can natter as loudly as we like. There is no virtual librarian here..

So, the Body Keeps Score. What does that mean?  I arrived in therapy with several low level physical ailments that I was ignoring (acid reflux, severe neck pain, injuries from accidents I had whilst dissociated) and these weird sensations. It turns out, they were painful or weird sensations that turned up when my PTSD was triggered, along with memories and flashbacks came migraines, vomiting, muscle pains, my body was keeping score. The premise of van der Kolk book holds true and I wanted to see what he suggested as a remedy.

This book is written by a psychiatric doctor whose practice has led him to seek treatments beyond medication and talk therapy to treat his traumatised patients. There’s an interesting tension in modern medicine about whether people should be treated primarily with meds/talk therapy and how to prescribe complementary therapies. The Body Keeps Score discusses the scientific evidence of how trauma affects us physiologically and then talks about treatments like:

Yoga

Sport

Drama

EMDR

Meditation.

Van der Kolk looks at each treatment and shares his experience of trials where it has succeeded or failed. He includes case examples of people with various kinds of trauma, which I found useful. It’s hard to make judgment calls on whether to try a treatment like EMDR or meditation and van der Kolk is honest about what types of people benefit the most. The distinction he draws between PTSD and complex PTSD – and the challenges of recovering – really helped me see what might work for me.

I learned about a few new approaches that may work for me. The book was well written, it included a lot of passion and personal experiences from the author about his own life. I find it easy to read along without getting muddled which I can do if a book becomes too clinical or detailed. It made me consider whether I would find some relief in yoga/dance and how I could better look after my body as it recovers.

It’s worth mentioning that the case examples of patients include a few harrowing accounts of war and abuse. Each one is relevant to the treatment discussed but if you are effected by reading others accounts, that’s worth knowing.

The ‘Reset’ weekend and self care; is it really that easy?

This weekend, I took a few days at home to rest. There is my default sort of resting, where I ‘rest’ by keeping busy and dissociated so I don’t have to think. And then there are reset weekends where I focus on self care. I tend toward a ‘reset’ weekend when I realise that I’ve gone beyond triggered and into not coping with the mundane stuff in life that usually doesn’t bother me. At that point, it takes me a few days of focused time out to deal with my PTSD symptoms.

The trigger? I am not sure what it was. The warning sign? A printer error made me cry – that was my first clue that something was up.

Self care seems to have been accepted into mental health culture as a coping technique, which I’m grateful for. I first encountered self care during a group Dialectical Behavioural Therapy module a decade ago. I think there was a list of fifty very American sounding tasks you could do to soothe distress (go to the beach! Get your nails done! Eat a sundae!) And at the time, I was skeptical. The great thing DBT did for me was to make room for my skepticism and still get me to fill out a weekly homework sheet where I marked down the self soothing skill I had practicing. I then had time in group to admit that cuddling up with my cat to watch stand up comedy *did* help. A bit. Ok, a lot. (My DBT therapist had the patience of a saint. Big love to you, Debs, wherever you are.)

Nowadays, self care is a concept most people around me understand even if some of that stigma about it remains; as though self care is indulgent or childish. My hesitancy in being kind to myself when my PTSD flares up is a lot about not wanting to face my pain but also about being harsh with any parts of my psyche that seem vulnerable and childlike. So I acknowledge that a reset weekend of self care is not an easy thing for me to choose.

A reset weekend looks like this:

  • I decide to pick a few days and then I ask for help. I loathe asking for help but I’ve found that doing self care stuff in secret like it’s a shameful thing backfires. I need to tell my partner that I need his help.
  • He and I clear a few days on the calender. We look at what has to be done – cooking, basic cleaning etc – and make sure that I don’t emerge from my self soothing weekend to be swamped by stuff I should’ve done and will now feel really guilty about. Part of the ‘not wanting help’ thing is also a ‘I am awful if I don’t do everything for everyone all the time’ thing.
  • I plan in a few nice things that I know will make me feel relaxed. I try to avoid experimenting with movies/books that might have disturbing plots, reset weekends are not for binge watching the gritty crime series on my Netflix list. I potter about, I make little crafty things,  I read, I nap. If I want to go out, I do. The aim is to keep things short and simple.
  • I have a back up plan. When I started having reset weekends, I had sky high expectations of how much better a weekend of cat snuggling and knitting would make me feel. I thought that if I experienced bad thoughts or painful emotions, it was confirmation that I was weak, self care wasn’t working and that I was beyond help. These days, I expect pain to show up because I have made space for it. I keep a meditation for breathing through painful feelings on my Spotify list. I also have a journal to hand. My partner knows that I might be to go lie down and be alone without having to explain why.
  • I have a reset weekend ending ritual. Did you ever have that Sunday night dread that overshadowed your Sunday because you were already imagining how awful Monday would be? Rather than dwell on my impending fears about returning to Normal People Routines and jumping back into my life, I have little ritual. I get clean pajamas, spray my pillow with essential oils, lay out tomorrow’s clothes and journal before bed. I underestimated how effective this until I went to a spa day and half an hour before the day was over, the therapists gave me a ‘goodbye ritual’ that included spray essential oils and soft music, it made me feel prepared for getting out of the fluffy spa bath robe and back to my fully dressed life.

I feel better for a weekend of rest. It was hard to feel like I deserved my kindness. If I am honest there is a panicky bit of me that feels like I should have pushed through the printer related panic weeping. That part of me is a protective but misguided aspect. By taking time out, I could be honest and make space for my pain. It’s not indulgent or childish to want to rest, to tend to your needs. If you are finding the idea of self care (for an hour or a weekend) difficult, perhaps there are ways to make it easier? Perhaps you could allow yourself a bit of experimentation? How would it feel to be skeptical or sad and still do something kind for yourself?

 

 

My path. Part 1.

I was asked this week if I would like to tell my story, and it made me think about how to explain how I got through childhood sexual abuse and what recovery might look like.

In the 1990s, a grief counsellor wrote a book that coined the 5 popular phases of grieving, you might be familiar with them. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross later said that grief didn’t follow the stages in a neat way people assumed. Shock, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance were as unique as the person who was grieving. Her theory was that people have those feelings in common but they can cycle back and forth through them.

Our culture understands trauma as it does any other pain, that we need to ‘get over it.’ I definitely got stuck in trying to get over it. For years, I believed that if my memories of abuse were not clear and in order, they must be wrong, and that I need to purge them to just ‘get over it.’ I was looking for something like the stages of grief. I was looking for someone to help me get over it, by telling me how to do this. When none of this happened, I took the anger and fear out on myself.

This morning I sat down and drew what my story looks like. This story is deliberately split into two parts because when I thought about it, all my life experiences took me toward healing. It’s tempting to focus on the bit where the pain lessened but the life I had before I remembered the abuse matters as much. Wherever you are, it is likely that you are making those brave efforts to keep on going, you are surviving. If you are alive and reading this, then you’re still on the path to healing.

This is not a story of glory and strength (don’t you hate getting that compliment of ‘you’re so strong? I’ll come back to that one in another entry.) It’s not a story where I got over it and skipped off into the sunset. I had some help from some very compassionate mental health professionals along the way, but I did the gruelling work of grinding through the tough times.

2017-04-09 08.07.38

My story begins when I was a small child, a toddler really. I’ve written ‘Abuse’ like it’s a self explanatory thing, but I include in that a mixture of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, not just directed at me but abuse I witnessed at other members of my own family. I was too young to put this into words, in fact I had speech problems and I suspect that the age I was shaped how my memories returned. I’m told that young children often hold onto memories as pain or panicky sensations in their bodies and those memories can be really confusing as an adult.

The abuse that happened to me was horrific, but it was my ‘normal’. My childhood was spent in this environment and I had to get by because I had no power. The years that I spent trying to coexist with my abuser (who was a parent) were as traumatizing as the abuse. I knew that telling on him would lead to consequences that I couldn’t risk so I kept silent. The issue of telling and concealing abuse and the emotions that go with that are again, something I’ll return to it’s own blog post.

In my late teens, I escaped, I went off to University. Although I was away from the abuser, the first flood of pain and confusing experiences (which I now recognize were memories) made me so unwell that I was diagnosed with psychosis and hospitalized. This catapulted me right back to living at home with my abuser. It made me vulnerable to his attempts to present himself as a loving parent to the professionals who treated me. When I entered therapy, he began to sabotage this, actively encouraging me to quit and refusing to support me.

I left home, my first episode of homelessness, which luckily led to me living with a family I knew vs being on the streets. It took several years to get mentally well enough to find a home and become secure enough to cut contact with my abuser. Going ‘no contact’ was a huge boundary for me, it was triggered by my abusers admission that he was financially abusing a family member and my anger propelled me to report that and cut contact. This experience brought up a lot of pain that I wasn’t able to cope with and it increased my abusers attempts to reel me back in. I wasn’t safe and I think that is why I didn’t gain any clear memories of the abuse.

A few more years past, I found a home and family of my own. I began working, life seemed to have settled down. My abuser violated the non contact to send me a vicious and symbolic gift, that opened up the floodgates of my memories. I was plagued by flashbacks, nightmares, physical pain, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self harm. It was if all the mental illness had returned, only now there were no weird aspects that felt crazy or unreal. The awfulness was that I knew what had happened, I could remember it in detail and I couldn’t stop remembering. I was filled with anger, why had this happened when I had started to feel like a normal person again?

I told my partner first. It was the point at which the awfulness stopped being something that kept me alone. Finally I had someone to be with me in that pain. I decided to get help, I told my psychiatrist – who had never brought up the issue of sexual abuse but was not surprised, he said that I was one of several patients to have the experience of remembering. I trusted him enough to refer me to psychological therapies and there I began to get the courage up to heal.

This was the hardest, loneliest part of my journey. I start here because even though this covers the 29 years I kept things secret and didn’t have the full knowledge of what had happened to me, I survived. I made some really tough calls that kept me alive and got to safety. Those years were as much a part of where I am now then the part everyone assumes is recovery, going to therapy and getting better.

I also wanted to share some of the themes that I’ll be writing about here, like:

What child sexual abuse is. There is a real taboo and a lot of myths about child sexual abuse in families and what sexual abuse/exploitation is. That’s really damaging to people who are trying to make sense of what happened to them. One of the saddest things I encounter is people who share their stories and then insist that what happened doesn’t count and isn’t worthy of compassion.

How abusers operate, why the responsibility for their actions and the shame they inflict on children belongs to them, not us.

How do traumatic memories get made? Why is remembering such a scary and confusing process? How do we know that we can trust our memories?

The issue of disclosing abuse. Why do we not tell and what makes it safe to tell?

How getting help was the beginning of my journey and what that meant.

In Part 2, I’ll share what the healing stages looked like for me and how the last few years of my life have been. I wanted to end this entry on a hopeful note. There are people in my life who unknowingly gave me the kindness I needed to carry on. I can think of teachers, friends, lovers, things that were said or done that helped me move toward being able to get help. I feel like that’s important to say because while my story is a sad one, it had a lot of ordinary heroes along the way.

I hope that you are surrounded by those ordinary heroes, that you can reach out to them and get companionship even if you are not safe enough to tell yet. I’m glad you are reading along. Take some time this week to be your own hero, to be gentle with your pain.

‘“Pain is subtle. He has cold grey fingers. His voice is hoarse from crying & screaming… When people try to avoid him, he follows them silently & turns up as the bartender, or the bus driver… Pain has an elaborate filing system for keeping track of everyone… Pain respects people who are willing to take risks. If you… face him directly, he will give you a special ointment so your wounds don’t fester.”
~ J. Ruth Gendler.