I sometimes think my Partner missed his life’s calling as a therapist, but whenever I mention this to him he reminds me that the only “people” he wants to be observant of and “people” with on a regular basis are me (and maybe the cat, who is unofficially a “people,” too!)
As I’ve said before, my Partner was instrumental in helping me to identify that my “personal flaws” were really indications of ADHD, in obtaining my formal ADHD diagnosis (functioning as my “family” interview in lieu of my family of origin, who should never be trusted to speak on my behalf, ever) and also helping me come to terms with the idea that having ADHD, which is sometimes classified as a “learning disability,” doesn’t invalidate my elite school undergraduate degree or the grueling work I did to complete my thesis. In fact, we largely worked out that ADHD was even something to consider because he read an Atlantic article about an Ivy League-graduate female writing about her experiences, handed it to me, and went, “That’s you, and before you freak out, note the ADHD didn’t mean she didn’t graduate from a top tier university and work for a competitive magazine. So, it doesn’t mean you are stupid at all.”
He has never really stopped knowing me better than I know myself since that first insight. He worked out a lot of my personal trauma history from context clues before I ever felt comfortable sharing it (or even acknowledging to myself that those experiences “qualified” as trauma.) He also originally came up with many of my core grounding techniques. He’s the one who worked out, for instance, that stating the date and time isn’t as effective as one might think during a dissociative episode for someone who also has ADHD, as even when I am completely “in the present” I am often still completely obvious to the date and day! He’s the one who suggested instead simply saying, “You are here. This is now.” And – when I asked him in 2018 what the point was of reminding myself that it was the “here” and “now” (date non-specific because I wouldn’t have said any date in childhood, so if I’m saying anything at all, it’s already not childhood) when 2018 was so damn close to those other childhood and previous 9th Circle of Hell adult trauma memories that it felt indistinguishable – he is the one who calmly replied, “This year is shit. It’s 90% the same shit as the shit you’ve been through in the past. But, that makes it even more important that you remember that it is, at the same time, still 10% different shit. If you must live through current trauma, don’t torture yourself further by also reliving your past similar trauma all at once.” ADHD all-or-none non-linear conceptions of time do me no favors on that front.
He’s the one who came up with the idea of wearing beaded bracelets, keeping a reality journal, and recording my own “guided meditations” in safe, happy places to remind myself that happiness is possible when in the depths of Hell. I still fill out my reality journal daily. I still wear beaded bracelets and remind myself that, “You are here” and “This is now.” And, I still struggle with feeling triggered – without necessarily confusing whether I am actively safe for the moment – because traumaversaries are a thing.
Standard therapy for trigger management, dealing with emotional flashbacks and grounding bugs me for multiple reasons. The biggest reason tends to be it always starts from the assumption that a person is safe in their present. That was not the case for me in 2018, and it is not the case today for many others who are suffering from complex PTSD and/or dissociation while simultaneously living in poverty, chronically ill, of color in an intolerant neighborhood, disabled and/or still too young to live independently to escape their childhood abusers. It is entirely possible to have PTSD while still also being actively (re)traumatized.
Another thing that bugs me is that grounding techniques tend to be very one-size-fits-all. The same techniques are recommended whether a person is currently experiencing an active mental health crisis, engaging in day-to-day mental-health management, or “just” feeling a bit more triggered than normal because of a traumaversary. I don’t understand why therapists assume that engaging in the same things that grounded me in 2018 – the big guns of my mental health management – couldn’t actually re-trigger me back to those unpleasant memories of why I needed those big guns if I used them again in 2019 – especially if I’m trying to use them to stop thinking about 2018 to begin with.
Yes, my beaded bracelets were “new” in 2018 compared to prior crises, so they were helpful for grounding last year. And, yes, I’ve gotten used to wearing them, and they remain a useful societally acceptable wearable fidget in 2019. But – since I was wearing beaded bracelets on my worst days in 2018 as well as my best – they no longer quite distinguish between the 2018 “then” and “now.” I said, “You are here; this is now” in 2018 as well as in 2019. So, that too, can only remind me that (at least) I am no longer a child and that I have adult options – but it can’t distinguish this year from last year. My reality journal is great for identifying why I feel triggered in 2019 seemingly out of the blue, and it is great for day-to-day maintenance. But, it also isn’t enough by itself for a traumaversary. None of my daily maintenance tools by themselves are enough.
Yet, I simultaneously wouldn’t want to haul out my biggest guns – such as my personalized guided meditations – for anything other than a true crisis. I don’t need to be reminded that a place outside of Hell exists and that happiness exists in 2019 the way I did last year. I’m present enough, even when feeling floaty lately, to still know that I’m generally happy and that it’s weird that I’m feeling something in my body that doesn’t match my mind or my external circumstances. I just need a little boost because my nervous system sometimes decides to hijack that happy brain for a bit.
Most grounding techniques don’t seem to consider the different tiers of grounding-type interventions that might be required for different circumstances – or different years or times of years – at all. And – despite the years of therapy and all the many books on complex trauma, dissociation and social justice that I have read – in the end it still ended up being my Partner who realized that tiered interventions might be required in self-care, just like tiered interventions are common in acute care.
I have, at least, worked out some “crisis-tier” techniques and some “maintenance-tier” techniques. What I realized this month is that I could also use some “mid-tier” options. And, of course, given that my Partner continues to know me better than I know myself, he ended up being instrumental in figuring out how to make a few more generic DBT-style techniques (that feel a bit too naïve and neurotypical for me on their own) work for me in practice.
In response to my struggles with emotional flashbacks this month, he remembered – and taught me – a trick he used in childhood to deal with his own intrusive/depressive thoughts. My Partner grew up in a family that loved him, but he still grew up in a Southern Conservative family that did not – and does not – believe that things like neurodiversity, depression or the long-term impacts of trauma are real or impactful. He grew up in a family that was not “safe” to talk with about his own struggles with mental health, even though they never engaged in the kinds of behaviors that would make it onto an official list of Adverse Childhood Experiences. He grew up in a family that never taught him to recognize his own flavor of neurodiversity (or manage it and its associated mental health challenges), but at least tolerated and accommodated them as just “his quirks” enough that he escaped most lingering toxic shame and the belief that those quirks were inherent personal flaws. He grew up learning there were some things he just shouldn’t talk about, but he somehow simultaneously escaped the belief that he should hide or ignore those things in his own mind as a result. Even he isn’t sure exactly how he managed to maintain that balance, but maybe his bimodal childhood beliefs that he both was agentive and worthy enough to be able to address his own mental health challenges while simultaneously recognizing that it would not be a good idea to seek out anyone else’s help as he did so is part of why he is an intuitive “therapist” as an adult…
He found ways of coping on his own. One of those – that he remembered and shared with me recently – was to envision cleansing flames scouring his brain of any dark thoughts in the same way flames scoured the Earth at the end of Chrono Trigger (when the player died and got the “bad ending.”) Did I ever mention my Partner was a geek from little on, while I only discovered geekdom existed in college? Given he was also raised with Southern sensibilities towards what were safe activities for young children to engage in (e.g. riding in the backs of trucks), he was also allowed to build fires and manage them. He thus incorporated a bit of responsible pyromania in the real world as an aid into his mental imagery.
He bought me candles and encouraged me to create my own version of a burning barrier between the “then” and “now” memories in my head as another type of choose-your-own-adventure meditation. And – when that initially felt too complicated – he encouraged me to just stare intently at the candle and run my hands close to (but not onto) the flame, note its smell, note its dancing shadows and all those other typical “sensory awareness” things that are part of standard DBT.
I was initially kind of freaked out by having open flames in our house because my own anxiety brain assumed that I would forget I had a left a candle burning, knock it over when I tripped, burn myself or our house down (just like I once almost burned my work down.) But – fortunately or unfortunately depending upon how you look at it – my Partner knew to respond to those anxieties by simply handing me the complicated child-safe Bic lighter he had bought to go with the candle (one that had to be pressed in two places simultaneously with equivalent force to light at all) and reply, “If you can actually light the candle when I’m not here, then I’ll agree there’s reason to be worried.” Thanks to weak Ehlers-Danlos grip strength, I’m pretty much limited to looking at candles when he’s home to light them. After a few days, I was able to convince my anxiety brain that – while I would be perfectly capable of forgetting a scented burning candle three feet in front of me on my own – my Partner was responsible enough that I could sit back and relax with my own controlled pyromania.
Absolved from the potential for toxic shame from being “too stupid to be safe around a candle” via my Partner’s gentle guidance, I have since found candlelight to be very grounding. There is something mesmerizing about a dancing candle flame that is particularly helpful when I intellectually know that I am currently safe, but I still feel that keyed-up “driven-by-a-motor” free-floating anxiety and restlessness that is the hallmark of ADHD and/or that confusing sense of “I don’t know what I’m feeling but things are scary and broken and wrong” feeling that is the hallmark of an emotional flashback.
I’ve also found a few guided meditations that I don’t hate (which is a rarity for me) on the Insight Timer app that basically guide me through watching different parts of the candle and breathing in time with its flickering. There are no mentions of “you are safe” or shame-inducing “positivity” mantras during these meditations, just “stare at a candle and breathe,” so they haven’t annoyed me (yet.) I think I may even have come up with my own geeky version of my Partner’s childhood “burn the bad thoughts with fire” mental visualization exercise. The imagery that seems to work for me has been of something akin to the 5e Light Cleric’s spell Dawn. A roving ball of firelight that rolls around my brain at about 60 feet per turn (And can be moved as a bonus action. What can I say, I may have been a late-blooming geek, but I am a geek!)
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend only a real candle to the brain fogged. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d be incredibly anxious about burning the house down if not for the fact I can literally only use my candle when my Partner is there to light it in the first place. But, I suspect that lava lamps, lighted desk waterfall displays, or even LED equivalents of real candles would serve the same purpose for those who struggle with visualizing safe places without a tangible aid. I might eventually buy some of them if/when I am next apart from my Partner long enough to want something I can use without “adult supervision.”
But, if any of my readers try my candle trick – or any of my other grounding tricks – try also tiering them as you use them. Choose some techniques to engage in daily for preventative self-care, save some techniques to pull out when you feel unsettled – but have not relapsed into a full-on mental health crisis – and keep some “big guns” in reserve for the true crises. The DBT guides and all the rest never directly mention tiered grounding, but it helps me, at least, when trying to manage triggers not to have to rely on those same self-care techniques that in and of themselves can be re-triggering because they remind me of the crisis circumstances under which I most often used them.
As my Partner says, 90% of a crisis (mental health or otherwise) may feel like – or be – the same shit as the last time. But, keeping track of the 10% that differs aids in avoiding falling too deeply and in eventually pulling out again. Part of self-care for me, it turns out, is switching up my self-care aids when they start to become too associated with specific memories and matching them to the severity of my situation such that my self-care helps to differentiate that 10% (or more!) that is different between my current “now” (good and bad) from the emotional flashbacks that intrude into my daily life, rather than relying only upon the same techniques that have inadvertently become part of the 90% overlap with an ill-defined “then.”
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms.