Content warning: mentions of past abuse and medical crises. Mentions of the 9th Circle of Hell.
Zeitgeist means “spirit of the times.” It is the idea that you have to judge the past by the understanding of those of its day, not necessarily by modern conceptions. Scheissegeist…well let’s just say that is a term for how I judge 2018 by its time and leave it at that…
The following things happened (with a bit of obscurity thrown in to preserve anonymity) on March 7, 2018:
- My boss stated that he thought my branch office deserved to be closed and everyone in it fired. He stated at our staff meeting that “this is one of those days that I wish I didn’t have to work with any of you idiots, but, since I do, read this book for next week and reflect on why you all are so impossible to work with.”
- We had our meeting with X client.
- I practiced my statement about the abuse allegations we plan to file in the 9th Circle of Hell with my therapist because I was worried I was going to dissociate while giving it if I didn’t prep first.
- It was raining hard when I got back from therapy and I had forgotten my umbrella and wasn’t wearing my waterproof coat. I got thoroughly soaked on the way home.
- I read the management book my boss had assigned at the staff meeting that he thought would “fix” the problems with our office. (2019 post-script: the book itself was ok, but I don’t think my boss ever took any of its advice himself!)
How do I know for certain that this all happened on March 7th, 2018? Especially given that I don’t remember as much of the previous two months – including the night of a medical emergency that turned out to have been caused by the abuse I was practicing my statement for on March 7th – as a non-traumatized person would? I know because my lack of memory of the past two months was starting to seriously freak me out. How, exactly, was I supposed to file an abuse case over something so serious as medical neglect and use of medications for coercive control when I couldn’t remember large chunks of the night that my family member went into crisis as a result of that abuse? You’d think that given how close that night veered towards disaster – we were incredibly lucky we caught things when we did or I still can’t fully process what would have happened – the details would be forever seared into my brain. But, the human brain has many ways to respond to trauma. Some brains do etch every detail into their memory to the point that they can never forget any of them. Other brains, however, don’t.
Other brains survive by doing exactly the opposite. When trauma recurs, my dissociative brain falls back on the childhood survival strategy it knows best: blocking it all out because it’s too painful to remember and still function in day-to-day life.
I promised last week to share how I stayed sane without regular access to therapy in the 9th Circle of Hell during an entire year of fighting against abuse that ultimately went much deeper than even that first statement I was practicing for on March 7th, 2018. The above is my single biggest resource. On March 7th, 2018, I started what I now call my “reality journal.” I’ve experienced enough gaslighting and abuse in my life – not to mention pesky time loss from dissociation – that I have come to fear my brain’s ability to give abusers what they most want by pushing its own delete button. The fact that my boss was already making comments like those above routinely during staff meetings was further blurring the lines between the 9th Circle of Hell and my daily life last March in ways that I also recognized weren’t good. It’s hard to hold on to critical details during dissociation. I knew I had to, though, to fight back against the 9th Circle of Hell. My own dissociative memory has always been one of my secret Achilles’ heels in fighting that place. It’s hard to speak to what my brain wants so hard to never remember. My Partner figured out the reality journal workaround that is the best way I have found to date to help with grounding. On March 6th, 2018, he bought me a simple three-subject lined notebook from the nearest CVS and suggested I literally write down what happened to me each day 1) simply 2) linearly and 3) devoid of emotionally triggering language.
Writing simply, linearly and neutrally is much harder than it seems.
ADHD is known for a very non-linear conception of time. We can perceive “now” and “not now” – and pretty much all other emotionally salient times we have ever experienced get lumped into one or the other dichotomously. Whatever emotion is activated in the “now” concurrently activates all the other similar emotional times we have ever experienced all at once. If the emotion is the same, it’s in the “now.” And, anything emotionally different might as well have never existed. It’s in the “not now” that might as well be “never was and never will be.” That sort of sucks when the emotion currently activated is trauma, as it means I don’t just activate current trauma, I effectively relive every single similar experience as though it is all happening at once. I have had a lot of traumatic experiences.
I’m also rather verbose. Left to my own devices, my reality journal would contain all the minutia of the day to the point where I exhausted myself too much to keep up with it regularly. When I did manage to keep it up, it would inevitably be too detailed to actually pick out the important bits from the rest of the mess.
The point of my reality journal is to have it available to rely on when either my own brain tries to push the big red self-destruct button on my memories or when some asshole abuser tries to spin reality to protect themselves from retribution for what they have done. It helps, then, to write my cheat sheet without any language that could possibly trigger me enough to further encourage my brain to zone out when it is supposed to be keeping me grounded. Thus, the final guideline of non-emotional language. Despite my very best attempts at keeping my language neutral, many of those entries still make me cry to read. Some of them I even had to fill out with my Partner’s help because my brain had managed to push the delete button before the day even afforded me enough downtime to write my notes. But, every day is in there.
I have filled my reality journal out every single day since March 7th, 2018. It is now February 3rd, 2019. That means for almost 11 months – through Hell and occasional rain water – I have written down what has happened to me in that same no-nonsense way. And, because I’m paranoid and have been in an apartment fire or two, I’ve backed that journal up every month to my trusty Evernote account. One of these days I will spill coffee on the thing, but I have a plan for it.
And, as horrible as 2018 was, there are some good things in that simple linear record. The good things are rare, but they are there. If I am to believe my own reality journal, the majority of the good things that happened to me in 2018 involved my Partner cooking for me! I wrote a lot about the various meals he made, including one time when he perfected Chick-fil-A knockoff sandwiches with homemade Chick-fil-A sauce. (Their sandwiches are pretty great, but their corporate morals are icky. They deserve to be plagiarized.) Left to my own devices, I’d probably only remember the bad news we got while eating those sandwiches, but, thanks to my reality journal, I also remember that he did make them and they were good. (I can also remember to pester him to make them again.) My ADHD brain may have overwritten the positive emotions from that dinner date with the terror from a later phone call, but at least I have written evidence that I felt them at one point.
I also suck at self-care, but there is something about seeing a “ledger” that is so far into the trauma red that it makes me want to at least try and add back in a rare good thing to fight back in black. Which brings me to the second important thing that kept me sane in the 9th Circle of Hell last year: I brought with me proof that I have a life outside of it.
The reality journal technique is something a person can start at any time. February 3rd, 2019 is as good a day as March 7th, 2018. (It might even be better. If I had it to do over again, I’d have started my journal on January 1st, 2018, when I was still in Iceland!) My second technique took quite a bit of advance planning, but when I finally pulled it off, it helped me enough to be worth recommending to even my brain fogged, ADHD or otherwise forgetful readers.
There are a lot of benefits to mindfulness meditation for mental health. However, as I have mentioned before, standard meditations don’t work for me. I don’t do “aspirational” or “gratitude.” I’m not awesome at emptying my mind, and I want to throttle most guided meditation leaders and mantra chanters. The only guru I apparently trust is myself. So, I made my own guided meditations.
I wrote out a play on a mountain meditation/envisioning a generic “peaceful happy” place meditation. Then I rewrote it to incorporate my usual mental snark. And, I took it a step further by making it actually visual instead of just “guided imagery.” The closest thing I have to a truly “safe place” is on the opposite coast. But, it is a place my Partner and I only ever return to once a year for a special event. I had to plan pretty far ahead to record my guided meditation there in 2018. Yet, it was worth it, because going there in 2018 might be the only time I can truly say I was “happy” – not just “not sad” or “relieved” – that year after the night of that first fateful medical near-disaster. (Iceland was pretty great, but that was pre-Crisis!)
I recorded myself in my “happy” place reading my own version of a guided meditation to myself. In the grey void of depression – especially with my non-linear ADHD brain – it can be pretty hard to believe I have ever felt any emotion other than mute horror. It helped to have the visual and auditory proof of myself sounding happy in the one place that is the most decidedly different from the 9th Circle of Hell that I can think of. It also helps that I recorded a “safe space” meditation for myself in a place that also isn’t quite the everyday world I live in, either. I like the East Coast. I like my life here on those days when I’m not talking to my bully-of-a-boss or anyone from the 9th Circle of Hell. But, the same townhouse in which we have made homemade Chick-fil-A in and watched dumb action movies with a bottle of wine is also the same townhouse where the phone has rung in the middle of the night and where I regularly speak to that bully-of-a-boss via webcam. There are many emotions permeating the air of my every day, where the place I recorded as my “safe” place is just…happy. It isn’t a trauma place, and it isn’t a complex “real world” place either. It’s a place where there was one dominant emotion, and that emotion wasn’t trauma.
If you have experienced trauma or depression for long enough, I will admit “happy” might feel too hard to come by to aim to record on a personalized guided meditation. I also acknowledge that traveling to the opposite coast is a bit pricy for a safe place. But, if you do happen to have a day or a place or a time when you feel any happiness – or even if you just walk through a new park that has no negative emotions associated directly with it and looks pretty – I recommend you pull out your phone and push the record button on your camera and record yourself telling yourself that things don’t suck right at that moment. The best evidence I have found that the past isn’t forever and that there is a world outside of the 9th Circle of Hell is my own voice telling myself that in a place that isn’t it. If “happy” seems a bit much to hope to capture on film – and, well, if I didn’t have years of memories associated with that one “safe place” I probably couldn’t have pulled off “happy” last year post-Crisis even there – “relieved” or “vaguely interested” would probably do in a pinch. The main trick is to record yourself in a moment when you sound and feel something other than emotionally numb. Those moments can be few and far between, so it takes pre-planning to capture them. But, once you have them, you have them for the next period of numbness.
I know the inherent nature of the 9th Circle of Hell and trauma itself means that I probably will return to numb as my baseline, but my reality journal and my guided meditations have at least helped me remember that there is a world outside of my own personal Hell. I fully intend to keep on filling out my reality journal ad infinitum and to record additional personalized guided meditations whenever I travel, go to an amazing new restaurant, or just have a moment when I am sitting somewhere visually interesting and realize “hey, life doesn’t suck right now.”
It helps to hear my own prior self reminding me to consider the full Zeitgeist of a Hell year like 2018, with all its complexity, instead of just its Scheissegeist and the various even older ghosts of my past that came before it in the 9th Circle of Hell.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.