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.