Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

What’s Underneath the Pain?

I’ve been working with my therapist a lot over the last few months, trying to get underneath my major complaint: overwhelming sadness and regret. Sure I am sad and anxious. Those are real feelings. But where is the anger? I have no access to my anger. And this is a problem for me. I avoid anger. I’m scared of anger. But anger is your friend.

I learned at an early age the destructive power of anger. My dad, the alcoholic, had rages that scared the crap out of everyone in my family. I was 5. I learned from then on that anger was not safe. And like my father during his sober times, I learned that anger and disappointment were best kept inside and never exposed to others. I learned dysfunction. I learned to hide my feelings. And most of all I learned to avoid conflict at all cost. I learned to lie to diffuse tense situations. Even if the lie was not in my best interest.

This plays out in my relationships like this. A girlfriend says something really mean to me. A little time later she says, “I hope that didn’t hurt you. I was just telling you how I feel.” “No,” I would lie, “It didn’t hurt me.” But in that lie I was discounting my real feelings, I was not standing up for myself, and I was accepting unacceptable behavior towards me from someone I loved.

It’s no wonder that anger is hard for me to find inside myself. I’d rather avoid anger, conflict, disagreements. But anger is also energizing. And it’s that energy I was missing in my efforts to recover from my lingering depression. And I don’t think my therapist had the tools or experience to handle what I was going through. Sure, he tried to get me to express anger towards him for failing me in my treatment. But he was also my lifeline. He was the only one I was telling most of my fears to. And flipping to anger towards him, no matter how I felt about him, was too hard. So we struggled together. But I’m afraid I could’ve used a less passive engagement. So I’m seeking new counsel.

This pain that is underneath the sadness and loneliness is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Some people try to deal with it head on, with therapy, 12-step groups, or journaling. Some people choose to avoid or cover it up with alcohol or drugs. The first group is trying to get through the struggle. The second group is trying to mute it, escape it, forget about it. But the second group is doomed to more of the same feelings they are trying to cover up. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s not a sleeping med. It’s not a way to relax. It’s a way to forget.

In conscious healing, an individual uses all the resources available to deal with what’s going on in their lives. In my case, the cognitive therapy was unable to counteract the bad chemistry in my brain. No amount of counseling, no amount of journaling, was going to pull me out of my depression. And as the meds continued to fail, I went through long periods of hopelessness. Even in the midst of a privileged life I was thinking about killing myself. Even with two great kids and several family members who were close and close by, I was cowering in my beautiful house trying to figure out how to painlessly off myself. But it was the bad chemistry speaking. And I knew enough to laugh at my suicidal thoughts. Sure I thought about it, that’s called ideation, but I NEVER made a plan.

If you ever find yourself making a plan, call 911. Your brain is trying to kill you.

I have a lot of pain underneath my current sadness. And I have a long way to go to get more comfortable with conflict and releasing my anger in a healthy way. For now, I’m still stuffing some of my feelings, and I’m still scared about some other things that feel out of control. In fact, most of life is out of control. All we can do, all we can focus on is ourselves and our program of recovery. We cannot wait for the other person to change. We cannot cajole them into recovery. We have to let them go, to find their own way, to seek their own higher power.

Look underneath what’s bugging you. Is there anger there? More sadness? Then get some help. Write about it. Reason things out with someone else. Because until you begin to uncover what’s going on inside your head and heart, you will continuously be driven by things that don’t serve you.

Yes, I have lost everything for the second time in my life. But I still have so much to live for. And, for now, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m still digging into and talking about my anger resistance. But everything seems to be moving in the right direction in my life. I’m putting in the work on myself. I’m striving for success rather than just survival. Oh yeah, the meds kicked in a few weeks ago and it was like I was a different person. I came out of some sleepy depressive fog, and I could tell my old jovial, engaged self was back.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad clown, creative commons usage

 

Know What Your Problem Is? Mom and Dad.

Family of origin events and habits form a good part of what makes us who we are as adults. For example my dad never expressed his anger until he literally exploded and scared the crap out of all of us. I have that same repressed anger, except I never get to the explosion part. Of course, for my dad it took a drink or two to loosen his vitriolic tongue. And my mom taught me how to suffer in silence and worry, worry, worry about everything. She also showed me my first example of depression, after her divorce when I was 7.

Those several facts have given me a blueprint of my emotional DNA.

  1. I have trouble expressing anger.
  2. I have trouble with people who drink too much.
  3. I’m scared to death of someone raging at me.
  4. I worry a lot about things that never happen, wrecking a good bit of my here-and-now present moment.
  5. I have a depression symptom that looks a lot like simply giving up.

And all of these factors weigh into my adulthood personality and personality disorders. I am conflict adverse. I’d rather lie to you than fight you, about anything. (Kinda wimpy, right?) Well, these parts of me also caused me to lose the three primary relationships in my life in some form or fashion.

In both my marriage and my recent relationship my depression was really the crushing factor that caused the other person to opt-out. And I get it. I don’t blame either of them for their instincts towards their own personal preservation. I was a wreck. And I had no idea when or how I was going to get out of it. I was hopeless and it made them hopeless too. And two hopeless people can only be together so long before something breaks. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. And both times I was asked to leave. I get it. I honor both of them for taking care of themselves. That’s all we can do in life, take care of ourselves. Even if it means ending a loving relationship.

This same DNA will form the future of my relationships as well. And the clearer I get on the issues and the solutions, the easier it will be to keep a relationship. It’s not 100% up to me. But my actions will determine my own course of action, even if that means getting fired and losing my shit and falling into depression. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I know the depression will rear its ugly head again in the next 50 years. It’s not if, it’s when. And the rest is up to me and my care team. Gross. It’s a disability that is part of loving me. And it’s one I have a hard time loving about myself. But I get over it.

And the drugs, in my case, do work when they work. They also poop out and leaving me a shivering fearful wreck. And really, we know that pharmapsychiatry is a dark art. They have no idea what they’re doing. The simply rotate the same handful of drugs until they find one that seems to make things better. serotonin, Dopamine, norepinephrine, the chemicals in my head, are simply concepts about what’s really going on. But most of the time even my psychiatrist is scratching his head, discussing with me options when things aren’t working. He doesn’t know anything. And all we have is my 10 year history together, and a lot of trust.

Depression aside, the most powerful work we can do on ourselves is to get straight with our family of origin. It may take a lifetime, and you may not be able to fully rid yourself of the unhealthy influence, but you’ve got to keep trying. So ask yourself, “What did mom give me?” and “What did I learn from dad?” And listen to what comes back. You might need someone else to talk to in order to gain some objective feedback.

If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  unhappy family, creative commons usage allowed

Facing My Personal Dragon: Depression

It’s a bit risky, all this talk about depression. By writing about my struggles I might, for example, give anyone googling my name access to my personal medical history. I might be limiting the future of my career. I might be scaring away potential employers, lovers, friends. But I can’t stay in my darkness alone. Depression is a disease of isolation and fear. I have courageously embarrassed my illness, though I’m not ready to admit to the actual diagnosis that is now part of most job applications. I have a disability. Hard to swallow sometimes, but real.

In my teens I experienced this major depression for the first time in my life. Sure, I’d been a moody kid, but a lot of that mood had been creatively fueled optimism. But when I moved away from home to attend a prep school, my foundations crumbled under the intellectual rigor of the school and swept me into a hopeless and airless place. I could no longer think straight. I was failing Spanish for the second time. And I was depressed and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Not a good period of my life.

Since that first breakdown I have struggled 4 or 5 times with utter and complete darkness. A darkness so dense that is wrecked every project, job, relationship in my life. And I know I will be depressed again. It’s a crippling diagnosis when you hear your therapist or psychiatrist say, “You will probably deal with varying stages of this your entire life.” How would you to share that with a potential girlfriend or employer? Hard to stay positive in most circumstance.

While the discussion about mental illness has come a long way, the real darkness and power of depression is not well depicted in our popular culture. Sure TV shows have “manic” or “depressed” characters, but seeing actual depression is nothing like the worst show’s scenes and conflicts. Quite simply, when a person is depressed, even if they “want” to write about it, purge it, let is come out creatively, it’s as if a power switch has been turned off in your creative brain.

Going into my last depression that was triggered by the loss of a new job, I knew I was headed into a depression, but I was powerless to stop my slide into despair. I could see it was coming. I asked my talky  doctor and my meds doctor for help. I pleaded for help. I committed to writing it out, and staying present with my sad ass self. It simply was not possible. Stringing a few sentences together while in full-blown depression is… well… nearly impossible.

So, headlong I went, tumbling, into despair. I was fulling conscious of what was taking place as my creative and emotional faculties diminished. I was front and center as my 2.5 year relationship crumbled under the weight of my illness. And ultimately I was left to face my dragon alone. Utterly alone, homeless again, and defeated. And yet, not defeated. Somehow, I kept going. I kept walking 5 – 7 miles a day. I kept eating and sleeping well. I kept making and keeping appointments with my care team. I kept going in spite of feeling like ending it.

There is no time to slay the dragon. The dragon is your friend. — Reshad Feild

Somehow, I have been forced to accepting my fatal flaw. I cannot escape my own demons, I have to live with them. I cannot fight with the dragon when the dragon is a part of my DNA. As crushing as it is, I have to befrind my own depression, learn to accept my limits, and continue to work on forgiving myself for succumbing to the madness that is depressive illness.

Let me describe for a minute the experience I had three weeks ago, as a new medication came on-line and vanquished my depression. From the pits of isolation and self-pity, I kept working my program. I kept taking the meds and demanded of my psychiatrist that we try something new. I was not satisfied with survival. I was going to thrive again. And while I wasn’t confident in my plan, or in my doctor’s ability to offer me a fresh torch inside my deep cavern of shame and sadness, even in the absence of confidence, I had to walk on.

And then an amazing thing happened. It always happens. I always come out of it. But this time it was so dramatic, this switching back on of all my facilities, this return of hope and confidence, that everyone around me noticed the change. My inner power source was lit again. I began blogging immediately, even though I was dealing with a major breakup AND depression. This new drug, somehow, lifted the sleep-like fog that had suffocated me and my loved ones for the last 6 months. Like night and day, I was writing, contemplating new songs for my band to rehearse, I was imagining myself back in a relationship, with a good job and plans for the future. I was reborn.

And that type of swing is scary as shit. It’s horrifying for the people arround you to see the lights go out and their happy friend vanish into some abyss of sadness. In depression my thoughts become so heavy, my very existence becomes so tentative, that I simply STFU (shut the fuck up). I can’t tell you how I’m feeling, so don’t ask. If I told you it would freak both of us out. I can’t express my utter rage and disappointment with my life or my illness that seems to routinely rip all the joy and hope in my life. So I get real quiet. And for someone who writes, and someone who loves to talk and laugh, this transition becomes obvious and dramatic for everyone around me.

Okay, so I have this illness. I have this diagnosis that isn’t ever going to change. I might have long periods of stability and progress, but in the shadows is ALWAYS this prospect of losing it all in a wash of bad chemicals in my brain. It’s no joking matter. My family and a very select group of friends knows or have seen my loss. For everyone else around me, I just seem to disappear. Sure I”m still ON Facebook but I’m not posting anymore, I’m lurking and feeling sorry for myself that so many of you are going on with your normal, amazing, everyday lives. I’m stuck in the asylum of my mind, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to stay out of bed in the afternoon, and struggling with the simple tasks like shaving and dressing in normal clothes every day.

And, once again, I’m hopeful. Once again I have confidence to look for a high-powered marketing job. Once, again, I’m open to looking for a new relationship, even though my last one was crushed under the weight of my sadness.

That’s the part that I’m more in touch with than ever. Okay, doc, so I’m going to go through cycles of this the rest of my life? I’m not sure how to plan for that, or tell prospective mates that they might lose me at any moment, but I’m willing to take the steps to keep moving forward. The dragon, my depression, is with me. He’s not going anywhere. And to fight him is to fight and destroy myself. So instead, I’m going to love and befriend this dragon of mine. And while the beast has the fire power to destroy my life again, I have hope, I have confidence, and I press on with the believe that understanding will make the cycles less potent., the depression less debilitating. Still I’ve got to talk to any prospective mate about this dragon before we begin making future plans. And while I’m not ready to check the box on job applications that says I have a disability, inside I know I do. Inside I know the fall is just a slight tweak of my brain chemistry in the wrong direction.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  my temporary tattoo, creative commons usage allowed

The WholeParent Mission: Positive Single Parenting Year Four

Here’s the starting mission statement written back in Sept. 2013.

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

I thought I would give pause and reflect, update, muse, on what’s been going on here and in my single-parenting life.

One way I’ve wavered from the original missions, is the 100% positive part. I realised that not letting any of the anger, conflict, and struggles out was not painting a very accurate picture of being a single dad. So, while I try to keep the focus on myself and not others, I am sure I have let a zinger or two fly here. I think it’s more important to be real.

I do believe that my kids come first. The marriage is over, but my parenting never ends. If I can stay focused on their wellbeing I can get over any frustrations I have with their mom. I am committed to being the best dad I can be, in spite of troubles, depression, anger, flights of fancy.

And the final mission, “honest feelings” is the glue that makes this entire adventure work. I think that’s what keeps this blog going even when I’m not contributing to it. I went on a year or more hiatus from writing here and the blog was still getting 100 – 200 reads per day. That’s pretty exciting. So, it seems like my voice is resonating with some folks. I’ll do my best to continue, even in the hard times, even in the blissful times when I don’t feel like writing. Most of all I will continue to be the best single dad I can be. And if I can give you a glimpse of what my life is like, struggles and all, then I have done my best for you as well.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image:  recent pic of me, creative commons usage allowed