One Tree At A Time

choclate cake

For the past year and seven months since I’ve begun having regular flashbacks, I have been hell-bent on being heard, asking questions, and demanding answers. I went into therapy with “A” for the specific purpose of diving headlong into my past, willing myself to come through on the other side as a survivor. A continued to ask me to slow down, but listened and allowed me to process my past at the pace I deemed necessary, and the more I processed, the more trauma-focused I became. I couldn’t purge it fast enough; it was nice to be heard and validated. It was nice to feel safe.

A year later, I came through on the other side, and had quit seeing A for a month or two. Through a series of events over the past few months, not only did my PTSD symptoms return, they seemed to double in force. I returned to A, who stated my symptoms were beyond her expertise, and she recommended I be evaluated for some sort of intensive outpatient program. I jumped around to several therapists until I found a therapist who specializes in trauma, and who is a Christian.

I do not know exactly why my symptoms have slowed drastically since this change in therapists, and it is probably for several reasons. However, her technique is vastly different that even I have been trained in (including her asking so many questions I do not have the ability to think long enough to shut down in session). I have been seeing her weekly for over a month, and we have not delved into my past at all. She uses metaphors with me. The first one was of me running a marathon, and that me falling prey to my symptoms was like me veering off-course. She said her goal is to help me process the trauma while I stay on course, without me spiraling into what I had before. She also likened this process as me walking into the woods; if I look ahead at all the woods, I’d be terrified and overwhelmed. Our goal is to process one tree at a time, and though it is hard to walk into the woods, she would give me the tools to conquer just one tree at at time.

Finally, last session she told me I was ready to begin the slow process of approaching a tree. She recommended several books, including the two I chose, “On The Threshold of Hope” by Diane Langberg, and Not Marked by Mary DeMuth (I chose this one because Mary is writing from the perspective of a survivor and her husband is writing from the perspective of husband of survivor; I want my husband to be able to come alongside as best he can). “C” told me to read in very small increments, and if I started to feel any anxiety at all, I was to close the books immediately and distract myself. Not only would this build my tolerance and strengthen my ability to control symptoms, it would give me a sense of choice and control that I had lost in my trauma.

I am trying to take one page at a time, just as I am trying to take one day at a time. I have been fairly level, but extremely sensitive to triggers. However, if I can remove and isolate myself immediately, usually I can calm down again and will be fine the rest of the day. This is nearly impossible with a husband who is basically home this summer and two young kids. I am having more good days than bad, and my bad moments are not always lasting a day. I am feeling things that I have not felt in a while, like light anxiety (versus panic attack anxiety) and light sadness (versus the level of shame that drives my self-harm).

Slowly but surely, I am moving forward. When I have a full bad day, I am discouraged because I tasted freedom and it tasted like the best chocolate cake I have ever had. I would like to eat this chocolate cake every single day, and enjoy every taste in my mouth. After having chocolate cake, a bad day tastes like spoiled food that has been dumped into the trash. Even a bite of trash after chocolate cake drives me to self-harm more quickly than usual. My goal is to learn to sit with the trash in my mouth until the bad taste passes. I heard once that instead of self-harm, sit in a chair and grip it as hard as you can and force yourself to just sit. But that doesn’t work for me. Running helps immensely. Running hurts much worse than any self-harm I inflict, and it is healthy and shuts off my racing thoughts. My goal is to stop self-harming, but my first memory of self-harm was when I was about 4 years old. That is 24 years of bad coping to deal with. And slowly but surely, as I conquer one tree at a time, my desire to self-harm will diminish. When I make it through to the end of the forest, I know the shame and desire to harm myself will fade because the roots will be gone.

One tree at a time.

Photo Credit: http://picslava.com/chocolate-cake/

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Alternatives to Self-Harm

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Common coping skills offered for self-harm often include a less intrusive form of self-harm, including snapping a rubber band on your wrist; squeezing an ice cube; digging fingernails into your skin; scratching; or taking a freezing cold shower. All of these provide a minor level of pain and the brain still releases the ever-satisfying (and potentially addicting) endorphins. I have also heard of people drawing hash marks in place of using a blade, sometimes using red ink. I have encouraged these as alternatives when people believe they truly need to feel pain. However, I believe all perpetuate the self-harm cycle… just to a lesser degree than a blade (squeezing an ice cube has also been shown to cause nerve damage). It’s one step down, but it’s not where you necessarily want to be.

Some healthy coping skills I might encourage are: drawing a picture of something sweet (like a butterfly) where you would self-harm; write an encouraging quote (a Bible verse?) where you would self-harm; drinking juice or eating a healthy meal (if you have not eaten recently, your hypoglycemia may be perpetuating your cycle); or healthy exercise.

However, I have found art therapy to be the most effective coping skill in managing self-harm. It’s cathartic, it tires your arm if you scribble hard enough, and if you use bright colors it will improve your mood (whereas the dark colors- especially red- may perpetuate the cycle). This drawing is beautiful because it was used as an alternative. And it worked. I encourage you to try it too.